Faster on the Draw

After the Sandy Hook tragedy, there’s been a lot of speculation about what to do to prevent these situations.  Ideas have included maintaining an armed guard in schools and arming teachers.  I wonder if the voices advocating these views have ever been in a school or even live in the real world.

I think about the fact that if there is an armed guard in the school and he is, say, in the science wing which is about half-way across the school but not at the far end, at the time when an armed attacker entered my classroom.

As schools, we try to maintain the security of our facilities, but they aren’t prisons, and depending on the school itself there are usually multiple modes of entrance.  Where I teach now, most of the campus is secured with 8 foot or iron fencing.  It isn’t, as I said, a prison, and there isn’t razor wire at the top of the fencing.  You can climb the chain link if you really want to.

Where I taught last year, the campus had no fencing whatsoever.  If you wanted to enter that campus, all you had to do is walk.  I imagine it could have been made more secure, but the school is located within a very safe community with a small-town feel.  I don’t think anyone would be wild about significantly altering the look and feel of the campus in preparation for a shooting everyone hopes won’t happen.  Some schools are like that.

So, to sum, where I teach now, it is perfectly possible with some effort to climb the chain link.  A good place to do it is not so far from my classroom.  There are campus aides who keep an eye on the campus, but they can’t see everything all the time and mainly patrol areas where students are likely to be.  If you look like a student, you’d most likely be home-free once you entered.

Now, let’s return to the idea that an armed guard could be half-way across the school when a shooter entered my classroom by climbing the chain link fence.  The guard might know a shooting was about to transpire if I were able to get to my phone before the shooter entered the room and call the office, who could then contact him by radio.  This seems unlikely.  So, the guard would most likely know there was a shooting in process because someone heard shots.

I also know that it takes me about 5 minutes to walk from the science wing to my classroom.  I walk very quickly, but running could probably shave off a minute.  Let’s say two minutes and be generous.  So, three minutes after the massacre began, an armed guard would arrive at my classroom, ready to take on a shooter who has at least one automatic weapon.  That’s faster than the sheriffs would arrive.  I imagine it could save lives, but would it save enough that the public would be willing to fund a position that’s unlikely to ever be used?

Let’s also consider the idea of arming me.  And this is where reality enters in more strongly.  Where would I keep my gun?  I could carry it.  What would my students think about having a teacher who is packing heat? What if I taught kindergarten?  Would a child find that threatening or intimidating?  I don’t know.  Unlike a detective, it’s not practical for me to wear a jacket every day to conceal it.  The HVAC isn’t even always even working.  I could use an ankle holster.  How much longer would it take me to reach that when I’m competing with an automatic weapon that shooter is already firing?  Would I reach it in time?  I doubt it.

There’s another concern.  Members of other professions have gone off the rails and shot innocent victims at their workplace.  What if I was one of them?  I’m packing heat already.  No one would stop me from bringing it into the classroom.  No one would know my intentions until they heard the shots.  Teaching is a very high-stress profession.  There is no psychological screening process.  If we arm teachers, what are the odds that one of these days that will happen?

If I didn’t carry the weapon, where else would I keep it?  It should be locked in a gun safe, out of the hands of curious children.  How long would that take me to open?  Too long.

If I didn’t, if I kept it in my desk, bear in mind I rarely sit at my desk during class.  I am up and walking around the room.  The gun would be closer to students than to me.  There are felons among my students, students with emotional disturbances, students who are habitually defiant and don’t do what I tell them.  Would you want them to have access to a gun at school?  I wouldn’t.  And if you imagine classes of younger students, well, children are curious.  They get into things when they shouldn’t.  Sometimes very quickly.

But what I really think about is being quick on the draw.  What would I be, someone holding a pencil perhaps and a gun within reach but not even in my hands against an attacker with a gun already drawn and ready to fire, an automatic weapon with faster action than what I would have with me?  Would I ever be able to reach mu gun  before I was shot?  I doubt it.  Even with the gun in my hand, but the safety on and not ready to fire, I couldn’t outshoot him.  A shooter comes to a school campus to kill.  A teacher comes to teach.  The shooter is ready to kill.  A teacher isn’t.

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Madness in our Midst

In 1986, James Huberty told his wife he was “hunting humans,” took his 3 guns, and went to McDonalds—not for a Happy Meal, but to do exactly what he had said he would do.  After 77 minutes, a SWAT team sniper finally ended the massacre that left 21 dead and 19 wounded in San Ysidro, California.

This was not the first large-scale shooting incident.  In 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman killed 14 and wounded 31 in Austin, Texas.  It was the first, however, for me, and it was also geographically the closest.  Like 9/11 has become for many people, the San Ysidro tragedy provided the backdrop against which I understand other events of large-scale violence.

A motiveless, senseless crime, San Ysidro left me unsurprised at other senseless crimes—not understanding providing its own form of understanding.  In contrast, grasping for motive and cause is usually our first reaction.

After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed a teacher and 13 of their classmates—and wounded countless others—stories of how they were rejected and bullied at school began to surface.  These stories later turned out to be false, or at least extremely exaggerated.  For Harris and Klebold, the final analysis revealed that they were emphatically not ordinary young men pushed to the edge by cruelty, but psychologically unsound and temperamentally inclined towards hatefulness.

Relieved?  I think we should be.  Violence exists along a continuum.  Hitler with a machine gun in a crowd is frightening.  Hitler with an army, storm-troopers, and a nation of citizens willing to target their neighbors—or at least willing to look the other way while it happens—is terrifying beyond words.

Behind questions about the sanity of Wade Michael Page (the suspect in August sixth’s gurudwara shooting), is a question about if and how far the madness has spread.  While we were sleeping, or updating our Facebook statuses, or just plugging along at our jobs, has the country become one in which the most important of the ten commandments no longer applies?  Is it one person, or 10, or everyone that has slipped across the line of conscience into madness and violence?

Scale, in a word, matters—not just because it is reflected in the extent of the suffering that follows, but because it indicates the scope of the problem.  The more perpetrators and the more “average” the perpetrators are psychologically, the more likely it is that the thinking behind the violence has also become “average,” and the more likely the violence is to continue and expand.

Adolf Eichmann is the quintessential example of this: As the man responsible for planning and executing the Final Solution, he directly or indirectly caused the death of millions of people.  After being examined by several psychologists, he was found to be perfectly sane and without indication of personality disorder.  He was sane.  His culture and society were not.

What can be confusing about this are the contradictions within our understanding of what constitutes madness.  As a criminal defense, insanity means the defendants were unable to grasp that what they were doing was wrong.  In a psychiatric sense, insanity is usually synonymous with psychosis—a mental state marked by hallucinations and delusions.  Mass murderers are only rarely either insane or psychotic, and we are consequently flummoxed.

In everyday usage, “crazy” means something rather different.  “Crazy” people are functional enough to hold down jobs at least some of the time, make to-do lists and, as it turns out, plan and execute mass murder—but their thinking is often substantially disordered, has large logical gaps or errors and seems to be based on firm beliefs that are demonstrably incorrect.

In that sense, a lot of mass killers probably are crazy.  They have delusions of God-like importance, or a firm belief that they are being persecuted or have in some way been grossly victimized and are entitled to redress.  They believe the rules of society do not apply to them, or that they have some special knowledge of what is happening in the world that obligates them to act because they are the only ones in a position to do so.  Some of them really do lack conscience and others have  created elaborate justifications riddled with flawed logic and based on false facts.

If that is the case, then our main concerns are primarily mechanical and oriented toward policy and procedure–comparatively simple stuff.  The good news is that, with a few notable exceptions, local agencies have improved immensely in their ability to respond to mass shootings.  While it took police in San Ysidro more than an hour to subdue James Huberty, officers were able to surround the theater in Aurora within five minutes of the start of the shooting and had the suspect in custody after seven minutes.  If they had not, the tragedy in Aurora might have been much worse.

Unfortunately, between shootings, the general public seems to forget that violence like this occurs at all.  We forget that people like Huberty and Holmes are among us, that they have access to incredibly efficient to weapons, and that they periodically surface to use them.  Amnesia is a bad habit with us, and the consequences of it are extremely high.  Until we begin to remember, all we can ever do is react after the shooting has started.

Works consulted:

(This was not intended to be an academic paper, but I did read some things.  Also, if you are a responsible reader, you will want to check my facts.  I have attempted to make this easier by listing where I got them from below.)

Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil.  New York: Penguin.

Gresco, J.  (2004, July 18).  20 years later, San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre remembered.  North County Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/years-later-san-ysidro-mcdonald-s-massacre-remembered/article_2ba4343e-7009-54ce-98df-   79a23ff8d0d7.html

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Timeline: Colorado Theater Shooting.  CNN.  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2012/07/us/aurora.shooting/index.html

Toppo, G.  (2009, April 14).  10 years later, the real story behind Columbine.  USA Today.  Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm

Towards a Unified Theory of Evil

Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.

August 6th, a lone gunman toting two semi-automatic weapons killed seven people and wounded a number of others at a crowded Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A few weeks before, a man opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 12 and wounded 58 others. The first instance is classified as a hate crime. The second appears to be entirely random—murder for the sake of it.

These are difficult and frightening times we live in.  Much of the Middle East has become destabilized, with civil war raging in Syria and smoldering in Egypt. Terrorist attacks and sectarian violence have become so commonplace in Afghanistan and Iraq it no longer seems to be news. Bombs planted in war-torn Chechnya, where violence has erupted sporadically since the start of the First Chechen War in 1994, reportedly killed four individuals on the same day as the gurudwara shooting. Meanwhile, the Indian Mujahideen struck in Pune on August 1st, when serial explosions rocked Jangli Maharaj Road. The world has become a terrifying place.

Or has it? Is this really anything new?

cr_mega_675_german-bakery
The aftermath of the 2010 German Bakery bombing in Pune.

What about the 500,000-100,000 murdered in Rwanda in 1994? The 200,000 killed in Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” between 1992 and 1995? The 2 million executed, starved, or worked to death in Cambodia starting in 1975? The .5 million hacked to death or burned alive during Partition? Or, for heaven’s sake, the 11 million who died during the Holocaust under Nazi rule? And going back to perhaps one of the first genocides of the 20th century, the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish beginning in 1915? What about them?

Targets change, weapons improve, but ordinary people are now and always have been quite capable of torture and mass murder. Evil, it seems, is part of the human heart.

In saying this, I am not arguing that we are all just sinners, hopelessly seduced by that devil. Evil, at least in my mind, is a complicated matter. It is worth making an effort to understand  These are my questions:

Why do some people carry out evil acts?

Why do some engage in more extreme acts of evil than others?

Why do these events occur more at some times than others?

How is it that some people—and not others—take a stand against evil, often at great personal risk to themselves?

This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.
This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.

Since I was about 13 years old, I have been deeply and abidingly interested in these questions. While an adolescent Stephen Hawking may have started searching for a unified theory of physics at that age, I started looking for a unified theory of evil. We need to understand the worlds we live in, and mine was for many years almost unrelentingly evil.

It might help to tell a little of my story. My dad molested me from the time I can remember. When I was two, he raped me with a pair of scissors. Like many sociopaths, he killed animals from time to time—usually in front of me—and at least once insisted I kill as well. His aim was not only to frighten, but to corrupt.

Before I was school-aged, my mother assaulted me multiple times—a few times by strangling, once with a pair of kitchen knives, once with a kitchen chair. I have incoherent memories of being dunked head-first in water—the tub or the toilet. I think she did that. But I don’t know.

To discipline me, one or both of them shut me up in a freezer until I lost consciousness. Alternatively, they chained me blindfolded to a wall in the garage, at times without any clothes on. In the garage, I was fed spoiled food, crawling with bugs, or no food at all and refused access to a toilet.

At the same time, my father was also my pimp. For 11 years, I serviced the perverted desires of pedophiles, mainly in a variety of cheap hotels, but also at home or in the homes of his friends. In addition, I performed sporadically in child pornography—both still and filmed.

I grew up in hell and the devil lived there.

Except these were people. People did these things, and in some cases, a lot of people. Unlike my mother, who acted impulsively and alone, my father was intelligent, organized, and apparently well-connected. For the most part, he abused me in the context of organizations that were systematically abusing other children and employed a variety of people—as actors and film crew, hotel managers, maintenance and janitorial workers, and human traffickers.

This was not simply the product of a single, unbalanced mind going over the edge, nor was it the result of a few people getting greedy and slipping into amoral behavior. There were too many of them—both consumers and producers—for these to be adequately understood as isolated incidents or as the work of the 1% of the population who simply lack conscience. Some of this is about ordinary people committing unbelievably, horrifyingly evil acts..

This blog is not so much the place where I am telling my story, as the place where I work to understand those stories. And also where I try to heal the scars.

Thanks for being here with me.