Do We Really?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I often catch a spot of news over lunch, and yesterday, I saw on a local channel that a whole section of a mall near where my wife had worked this winter had been closed off. As I tuned in, a SWAT team was preparing to enter. People were leaving the mall, some holding each other. There were helicopters overhead. My guess, fortunately wrong, was that, a few hours later, I'd be reading about yet another massacre by someone who should have been diagnosed and sent for treatment to a mental hospital for a serious psychiatric illness long ago.

[A]bout 40 officers responded to the scene from his department, surrounding departments, the State Police, and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This massive police response was caused by: a man carrying an umbrella. Fortunately, I was wrong. More accurately, this was fortunate in one respect, but unfortunate in another.

Granted, after looking at the pictures in the Boston Globe, I can see how someone might, from a distance, mistake the umbrella for a rifle. And the man, not professionally attired (and carrying a backpack), probably didn't exactly look like a pillar of the community, either.
"It was interpreted to be a gun by five different people," said Burlington Police Chief Michael Kent. "We are always telling people to be vigilant. This is what we want."
Sure. In the sense that you want people to report what they deem to be actual emergencies, I agree. But in the sense that it is becoming increasingly common to view any stranger with great suspicion, this is exactly the opposite of what we want, in terms of the kind of society we live in. I considered this point at length some years ago, after reading the following excerpt from Oliver Sacks's Uncle Tungsten:
Just think of the differences today. A young person gets interested in chemistry and is given a chemical set. But it doesn't contain potassium cyanide. It doesn't even contain copper sulfate or anything else interesting because all the interesting chemicals are considered dangerous substances. Therefore, these budding young chemists don't have a chance to do anything engrossing with their chemistry sets. As I look back, I think it is pretty remarkable that Mr. Ziegler, this friend of the family, would have so easily turned over one-third of an ounce of potassium cyanide to me, an eleven-year-old boy. (86)
What has changed in the decades between then and now? Why is it that we could once trust older children with dangerous chemicals, but now panic at the sight of an adult carrying an umbrella? I hold that we are failing, culturally, to transmit civilized behavioral norms; and politically, to properly protect individuals from harm by those who can not or will not refrain from committing violent acts against others.

What good is shutting down a mall any time a suspicious character is spotted there going to do in the long term if mental hospitals and jails have revolving doors, and if state sponsors of terrorism aren't laid to waste? And, if we don't raise most people to act responsibly from a very early age, can we really expect the police to protect us from everyone else anyway?

-- CAV

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