Wednesday December 26, 2012

Limit the damage of overreaction

As we consider how to respond to the tragedy in Newtown, it's useful to remember the attacks on 9/11/2001 and how we reacted then. 9/11 proved that when Americans are scared, our capacity to overact is large and "American values" are merely nice-to-haves. Fear drove us to warrant-less wiretapping and torture after 9/11. What will shock and grief drive us to after Newtown? Look for our leaders to react strongly and ineffectively, with sincere but misguided overreaction divided into three main categories:

1), Cover your a__ quickly. When something this bad happens, elected officials know that they have to do something. What they do is not so important as doing anything now, while people are still paying attention, and quantity is more important than quality. "After Newtown, I sponsored four pieces of legislation...." That will cover your a__. Whether or not those four pieces of legislation addressed the problem will always be murky but if someone asks what you've done and you don't have a list, you're in trouble.

2). Inconvenience as the illusion of security. Providing real security is hard but making people jump through hoops that seem like security is easy. Remember airports after 9/11. "Take 3 steps and show your ID - again," because getting a fake ID is really hard. Early on they banned plastic food service knives in the airport food court. Tearing a sandwich in half with a spork is inconvenient, therefore it must be accomplishing something, right?

3). "Remember the Maginot!" The Maginot (MAJ in oh) Line was a line of fortifications built by the French after WWI to thwart invasion from Germany. It was expensive and ineffective; the Germans drove around it and attacked through Belgium. The term is now synonymous with fighting the last war instead of the next one. Look for lots of that kind of thing after Newtown. We'll put bars on school windows because Adam Lanza broke a window to get into Sandy Hook Elementary. But the next attacker will do something different. He'll attack at the playground or the bus or the mall. The NRA's response to this tragedy, SWAT teams in schools, is a classic "Remember the Maginot!" response.

We will react to Newtown. Our reaction will 1). shield politicians from criticism, 2). provide only the appearance of security and 3). fail to prevent the next mass shooting. And, our reaction will cost. Because Newtown happened at a school, our reaction will take money from education. Bars on windows and armed guards at school will mean we will have to put off spending on education technology, teacher training and crumbling buildings.

We know we have a problem with gun violence in America. According to the CDC there were 11,493 gun murders in 2007; that's 31/day. Newtown was 26. We will react to Newtown but not to the 31 gun murders that will happen every day after. Thirty-one gun murders a day obviously means we have too many guns. We're not going to do anything about that. We might actually address mass shootings by limiting assault weapons, closing background check loopholes and providing access to mental health care, but not likely. I just hope we can limit the damage of overreaction at the local level. Schools are always struggling just to provide a decent education for our children. Turning schools into fortresses will have costs that will take away from education and, for the most part, only make us feel safer.

TIM SCOGGINS

North Bennington