The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion. © James R. Conner.


18 December 2012

Over-reacting to the Sandy Hook murders

School massacres, of which shootings are a subset, are rare events that are difficult if not impossible to predict. Over-reaction to a school massacre is an all too common event that can be predicted easily. Here are a few so far:

Extra police in and near schools in response not to credible threats but because it makes some people feel better and some police feel more important. It’s a misallocation of resources that probably does little harm, but also little good.

Proposals to arm teachers. On Meet the Press, Sunday, Bill Bennett called for pistol packin’ teachers. Texas governor Rick Perry, who never saw a firearm he didn’t like, echoed his call. The Tennessee legislature will take up the issue. Expect an arm the faculty measure to be introduced in Montana’s legislature. And expect a school shooter with an assault rifle to kill an armed teacher before the teacher even unholsters his revolver.

Crackdowns on student speech. We already have one in Kalispell, reports the Daily Interlake:

Kalispell Police said some students were disciplined on Monday for comments they posted on Facebook this weekend regarding shootings rumored to take place at Glacier and Flathead high schools.

“I can’t mention specifics, but those students are in violation of school policy and have been disciplined accordingly,” School Resource Officer Jason Parce said about the comments that were reported to police early Sunday morning.

The rumors and comments appear to be without merit and were prompted by the tragedy in Connecticut and unwarranted “end-of-the-world” sensationalism about Dec. 21, 2012, according to Kalispell Police.

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Parce said Kalispell Police will have a “felt presence” this week at local schools. Police and school officials also will continue to monitor student activity and look for inappropriate comments on social networking services such as Facebook.

Patrolling Facebook in search of comments by students goes too far. A credible threat is one thing, but a student’s sounding off or making a bad joke or writing like a jerk is not a criminal offense. Because students are minors, the police and school may get away with this. But recognize this for what it is: the thought police at work.

All of this contributes to making people more fearful than they need to be, and less equipped to make rational risk assessments. It’s what happened after the Al Qaeda attacks on 11 September 2001. America, and American aviation, were much safer on 12 September 2001 than on the day before (the hijackers were dead, and passengers on hijacked jets would no longer be passive hostages), but the shock of the incident produced the Patriot Act, indefinite detention on the President’s secret order, and — because there were too many Richard Cheneys and not enough Russ Feingolds — a general sense of fear that has left us more afraid and therefore less free.

After 9/11, The Atlantic’s James Fallows urged us not to go through life wringing our hands about dangers we know exist but are not immediate threats:

There will always be a threat that someone will blow up an airplane or a building or a container ship. Technology has changed the balance of power; it is easier for even a handful of people to threaten a community than it is for the community to defend itself. But while we have to live in danger, we don’t have to live in fear. Attacks are designed to frighten us even more than to kill us. So let’s refuse to magnify the damage they do. We’ll talk about the risk only when that leads to specific ways we can make ourselves safer. Otherwise we’ll just stop talking about it, as we do about the many other risks and tragedies inevitable in life. We will show that we are a free, brave people by controlling our fears. We admired Britain during the Blitz because people went about their lives rather than fretting at every minute that they might die. Let us be admirable in the same way.

That’s still good advice.