It’s a bright day in early August, and the semester hasn’t yet started. There are twelve of us altogether—new hires at the university—and we’ve been summoned to a classroom on the sixth floor of the Humanities Building for yet another seminar in professional development. For the last week, we’ve been subjected to a dull march of policies and protocols, reviewing instructor manuals clotted with indemnifying legalese. So far the gist of orientation can be summarized with two brainless provisos: Don’t sleep with your students and Don’t buy them beer.
This session is an Active Shooter training. In the designated classroom, twelve rows of desks face a projection screen up front, and the ceiling’s ancient fluorescents give off a wan, spectral glare. I find a seat among my colleagues, and though we have come to this university from places as varied as Togo, Korea, and New York, we are all in our late twenties or early thirties, and thus share a common history. At cocktail parties and departmental mixers throughout the week, we bond over the usual adolescent touchstones, regaling each other with stories about where we were on 9/11 and marveling at the fact that, even though we were children, our parents still let us watch the O.J. Simpson trial on TV. As people who came of age during this epoch of hysteria, all of us are naturally a bit jittery about the seminar. After all, we have no trouble recalling a time when newspapers were glutted with articles about razor blades in aspirin bottles and people in matching Nikes quaffing mugs of arsenic-laced Kool-Aid. What was the name of that cult again? No one can remember. Then someone brandishes a smartphone and tells us it was Heaven’s Gate.
The seminar is conducted by two plainclothes officers, both of whom have guns holstered to their hips. Pacing at the front of the classroom with a grim, prosecutorial air, one of the cops clears his throat and says, “Before we dive in here, let me ask you all a question. Where are you right now?” What follows is a long beat of claustrophobic silence. As academics, we resent the use of cute pedagogical tactics. “You mean where we are, like, existentially?” one colleague quips, but the cop remains wholly unfazed. Finally, another colleague responds in a dutiful tone that we’re on the sixth floor of the Humanities Building. “Good,” the cop says, pointing at her. “But better yet, does anyone know what room we’re in?” There are a few mumbled guesses, but the exact location eludes us. This causes the cop to shake his head, as if our ignorance were a matter of great personal umbrage. “Why do I ask you this? Why do I make such a fuss? Here’s why: because when it comes down to it, in the heat of an emergency, you’re going to need to tell us where you are and what’s going on, so we can respond swiftly and effectively to the particulars of your situation. And please excuse my language here, but as instructors, when the shit hits the fan, it’ll be your responsibility to keep those kids safe.”
The silence is chastened, and we straighten up in our chairs. Our sheepish expressions seem to reflect the solemnity of this charge—or perhaps simply the absurdity of the premise: that we have been entrusted with something so tenuous and elusive as the maintenance of anyone’s safety.
When I was young, the specter of violence was always loitering around the corner or visiting neighbors up the street. In third grade a close friend of mine slipped and fell while scrabbling up a tree in his backyard, and his neck got snagged on a lattice of rope that had been tangled in the tree’s lower branches. At his funeral, which was an open casket, all of his friends wore starch-coarsened Boy Scout uniforms, and while sitting in the drafty pews of that gothic church, I overheard another parent tell my mom that it had been the boy’s grandmother who found him and who apparently fell to her knees at the sight of him swaying. Then there was the dour-eyed girl I knew from middle-school choir, a girl with a welter of brown curls and a wardrobe of Nirvana t-shirts. She shot herself with her father’s gun on the pink carpet of her childhood bedroom, her mother fixing supper only two rooms away.
In the weeks after each of these tragedies, it was not uncommon for certain kinds of thoughts to colonize my head. It could happen anywhere. After school, while trundling up the driveway, I would imagine the garage door scrolling back to reveal my family hanging from the rafters, strung up with orange extension cords and arranged in order of diminishing height—dad, mom, brother, sister—each of their heads cocked brokenly to the right. Or whenever I went for evening jogs, I would trot beside a pond hemmed with cottontails and think, This is where I will be abducted. In those shallows is where I’ll be found.
As isolated and parochial as this thinking may have been, it was no doubt exacerbated by the many public traumas of that era, those that were couriered into our homes in the alarmed cadences of newscasters: the aerial-shot mayhem at Columbine or the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing in flames. I found a strange comfort in these images, a sense of vindication, if only because they seemed to confirm my burgeoning suspicion that horror was commonplace, perhaps even inevitable. It would be naive to think there were more large-scale catastrophes in the late 1990s and early 2000s than at any other moment in history, but the steady faucet of twenty-four-hour news and the grainy intimacy of cellphone cameras ensured that this violence became the psychic backdrop for my Little League games and family trips to the beach.
When incidents of such grievous violence intrude upon the happy kingdom of your childhood, you fall prey rather quickly to two countervailing ideas. The first takes the form of wholesale generalization. Humanity, at its roots, is wicked and depraved. No matter what the optimists say, you hold fast to the notion that the history of our species is nothing more than a colonnade of disaster, punctuated by spells of butchery and ruin. The second idea is whimsical and untrue. The child who is burdened with heightened sensitivities nevertheless believes that he can insulate himself from the world’s misfortunes. That he can erect a fortress impenetrable to the schemes of would-be assailants. That he can protect himself and his loved ones. That he can be safe.
After a rundown of the standard evacuation procedures—what route to take in the event of a fire, where to find shelter if there’s a tornado—the cops begin reviewing the Active Shooter protocol. For the next fifteen minutes we are made to endure a slideshow of various scenarios, which we’re supposed to identify as either “suspicious” or “not suspicious.” The first image depicts a swarthy man with diabolical eyebrows who dawdles beside a file cabinet and furtively snaps photos of a folder marked “Confidential.” Educated in public schools, all of us know to respond in unison, and for some reason we transform the word into a cheerful multi-toned song. Sus-pi-cious, we sing. The next photo presents a bedraggled homeless man using a Styrofoam cup to mooch for spare change. Almost uniformly democrats, we uphold our good liberal bona fides and intone, again musically: Not sus-pi-cious.
Finally, we are confronted with an image of a North Face backpack sitting desolately at the end of a dormitory hallway, against a carpet that is the color of industrial exhaust. I know I’m supposed to regard this rucksack as some murderous instrument, but for some reason I am given to entertain alternate possibilities. Perhaps the bag contains a bunch of dildos and was left here by some puckish undergrad bent on scandalizing his Christian roommate. Or maybe the backpack was chucked by an overachieving millennial exasperated because he got a B? I suppose it strikes me as a deficit of imagination to assume that an object out of context necessarily warrants a dose of suspicion.
One would think we’d have greater respect for the element of surprise. How many times have we heard the neighbors of serial killers describe the person in question as “unassuming” or “approachable”? Such offbeat descriptions only underscore the extent to which these tragedies are unpredictable, full of red herrings and false alarms. But in the cops’ view of the world, danger is obvious and readily identifiable—the only thing that would cause someone to overlook it is a dearth of vigilance, or lack of proper training.
A year before Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stormed into Columbine High School and gunned down their classmates, they were arrested for breaking into a minivan. Though they filched several hundred dollars’ worth of the owner’s belongings, the boys’ parents, as well as the local authorities who arrested them, ultimately saw the act as nothing more than a blip of childish malfeasance, hardly a precursor to bloodshed. When the boys stood trial for these burglaries, the presiding judge was struck by their unswerving deference in the courtroom. They peppered their statements with honorifics; their eyes glistened with regret. That such actions could so effectively conceal the bellwethers of psychosis probably says more about the credulity of the judge than it does the guile of the two boys, but perhaps that is a cruel opinion, one that can only be leveled in hindsight. It’s possible the boys’ guilt did seem genuine at the time.
As part of their sentence, the boys were asked to write a letter of apology to the van’s owner. But what they ended up producing was more like an opera of remorse. At its climax, Eric Harris spoke in plaintive tones about the degree of violation the owner must have felt, suggesting that if the van had been his, he would have trouble even driving it again, so fearful would he be of another invasion.
But shortly after delivering the letter, Harris was clacking away at his keyboard and spewing venom on his website:
Isnt America supposed to be the land of the free? how come if im free, I cant deprive a stupid fucking dumbshit from his possessions. If he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his fucking van out in plain sight and in the middle of fucking nowhere on a Frifucking day night. NATURAL SELECTION. Fucker should be shot.
A year later, in the wake of the bloody rampage, the judge who tried the boys for burglary was not insensible to his mistake. “What’s mind-boggling is the amount of deception,” he said. “The ease of their deception. The coolness of their deception.” What was mind-boggling, in other words, was the degree to which the boys could appear, simultaneously, as ordinary kids engaging in run-of-the-mill hijinks and unremorseful psychopaths gearing up for slaughter—the holographic way their actions appeared harmless from one angle and, from another, full of murderous intent.
“Take a minute to look around you,” the cop instructs us now. “I want you to think about what objects in the room could be used as weapons in the unlikely event of an attack.” My colleagues begin scanning the area, and although I expect smirks and weary glances, I find the opposite. In a voice of utmost seriousness, one colleague suggests knuckling your car keys and jabbing the assailant’s head. “Good!” the cop says. “What else?” Perhaps another person’s water bottle could be repurposed as a bludgeon? “Absolutely. With enough force, you could do some serious damage with this thing.” As I watch my colleagues scour the classroom, their eyes alighting on each object with palpable alarm, I can tell that for many of them it is unnerving to filter this immediate reality through the lens of its violent potential. But for me these dark torsions of mind are familiar—the type of precautionary thinking that mollifies me whenever I’m at airports or shopping malls, or even when I’m teaching my classes. I raise my hand. “What about the heating ducts in the ceiling? Couldn’t you remove the metal vent and use its corner as a blunt edge?” I’m hoping for an atta-boy commendation, but the cop crumples his face and shoots a meaningful glance in my boss’s direction. “OK,” he says. “Not sure I would’ve thought of that, but sure.”
I’ll admit my mind has a conspiratorial bend, but it seems hard not to notice that I’ve raised the cop’s suspicions, that my name has probably been added to the annals of some mental watch list. Things get worse when the cop asks if anyone can remember when Columbine happened, and I supply not only the year of the massacre, but also its month and calendar date. At this point, hoping to uncork some of the accumulating tension, the cop swivels around to face my boss and says, with cartoonish insistence, “You guys run background checks for these fellowships, right?”
Everyone is laughing. Even I am laughing. But there’s no point in trying to explain why this knowledge is wedded indelibly to the events of my own life. If I have excelled at these exercises, it is because I’ve spent a lifetime in thrall to vigilance, running down the same kinds of facile checklists this training is meant to inculcate. Yet the irony is not lost on me: filtered through the dumb binaries of today’s lesson, it is my own behavior that has been classified as sketchy, suspicious.
One morning, when I was in the seventh grade, a hit list was discovered on the mirror of the boys’ bathroom. In total there were eleven names, each scrawled in livid red marker. For a little while, at least until the school administrators took action, my fellow students regarded the list as an object of general hilarity, something your classmates exhorted you to check out during those interstitial moments between classes. To their pubescent minds it was another gag, no more serious than the caricature of fellatio rendered in Sharpie above the toilet.
That my name was included among the targets came as something of a shock. My interactions with the list’s author were few and far between, and the two of us probably traded as many glances as we did words. It was true we shared a math class, and a history class, but I don’t think we ever engaged in a real conversation.
To stand at a mirror with the bulletin of your own murder superimposed across your face was a heady experience for a twelve-year-old. But the gravity of the situation was swiftly dispelled by a few of my close friends, who told me not to worry, that it was all a bunch of bullshit. Their names were also on the list, and so, for the time being, I let myself be persuaded by their outlook of raffish calm.
That night, my parents and I watched the evening news, and the screen flashed with a live-shot of my school, where a female anchor feigned consternation. Apparently, investigators were still trying to determine the seriousness of the boy’s intentions, and local parents were already attempting to explain the dark swerve in his behavior. In their haste they trotted out a roster of ludicrous abettors: everything from the desensitization of videogames, to the moral corrosion of MTV, to Bill Clinton’s dalliances in the West Wing. In retrospect, it’s difficult not to feel the desperation of these sweeping narratives. Scarcely could we imagine what lowdown thoughts or grim circumstances would lead a boy to such lethal urges. But against the threat of our own culpability and a needling sense of fear, we labored to control the story, grasping at hypotheses, drawing makeshift lines between cause and effect.
In the end, I don’t remember what happened to the author of the list. His being shipped off to juvenile detention seems as likely as the prospect that he reappeared in school at some point that semester, tempered by lithium and professional therapy. The only thing I can recall with any reliable measure of certainty is that, shortly after this incident, I started behaving in ways that caused my parents no small degree of distress. Before bed each night, I began checking the locks on the doors dozens, if not hundreds, of times. And on many occasions, in the wee hours before dawn, my parents woke to find me standing at the brink of their bed, hovering over their faces, trying to verify whether their hearts had stopped beating in the night.
One little-discussed anecdote from the horrors of 9/11 is that, in the weeks after the attack, dozens of teenaged girls arrived at various Manhattan hospitals with a set of common symptoms. Each had trouble swallowing and every utterance was an exertion. Though they arrived separately, the girls nonetheless came to the same conclusion about their ailment. During the chaos of that morning, while sprinting through clouds of rubble and dust, the girls probably inhaled chunks of debris, which must have gotten lodged in the pith of their throats. But two of the girls entertained other, more unsettling explanations. Perhaps the obstruction was a human limb—a dismembered finger, a dollop of bone.
Very quickly the incident was interpreted as a metaphor for our national crisis. “[These girls] expressed hysterically what many of us feel,” one commentator wrote, “that the information is too difficult to swallow.” Others consulted Freud and suggested the condition was a form of visceral displacement, an incarnation of the ways in which we were unable express ourselves in the wake of horrendous trauma. 9/11, in other words, was “a story in search of a voice.”
In her book The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi finds such metaphors woefully insufficient. She contends that, in the fevered days after 9/11, our media outlets simulated the construction of a meaningful narrative, prattling on endlessly about “the death of irony” and “the end of post-modernism,” but never once offering a true account of our situation. “The cacophony of chanted verities,” Faludi writes, “induced a kind of cultural hypnosis.” It is easy to recall the palliative bromides from that era: Never forget. Axis of Evil. Everything has changed. Such catchphrases were often paired with footage from the disaster, which served unwittingly as a kind of twisted mnemonic device. How could anyone worry about forgetting the minutiae of the attacks when one was constantly bombarded with pixelated reenactments, with clips of the South Tower engulfed in flames, or images of people coated in ash trudging zombie-like through the ruins? Such reruns, Faludi notes, did little “to plumb what the trauma meant for our national psyche.” We ran our hands over the scars but could not fathom the depth of our injuries.
Sixteen years later, it seems we are no closer to comprehending our losses. In lieu of meditation or genuine comprehension, we still observe the easy rituals of bereavement, uttering solemnities whenever someone mentions the events of that morning, as though recurrence were a conduit to understanding. But like the ash that blanketed Manhattan, the ash inhaled by legions of New Yorkers, the aftereffects of the horror still loiter in the body, still infect the inner spaces, a contagion that expresses itself in oblique and myriad ways. It can be seen in the scores of Trump supporters who address their fellow countrymen with vile slurs and naked bigotry. And it can be found in the precautions of Williamsburg mothers who micromanage their toddlers’ diets and disinfect the playpen with clockwork regularity. What joins these individuals, what still unites the states of our republic, is the vantage of total fear.
For those of us who came of age in the eighties and nineties, merely mentioning places like Columbine and Virginia Tech can evoke as much splintering pathos as once did battlefields like Normandy or Hanoi. Now, however, when our wars are carried out with the impersonality of unmanned drones, when our enemies make no meaningful distinction between civilians and soldiers, the new theaters of that more intimate historical violence are our shopping malls, our movie theaters, our classrooms. Which is to say: the landscape of violence is coterminous with the landscape of youth.
Here the average American confronts the prospect of horror once imaginable only to a soldier of a foreign war. In the blink of an eye, a food court or museum can transmogrify into the acreage of a warzone, which is why, in such venues, I have begun to approximate the uneasy vigilance of combat: darting glances at the doors, inspecting the faces of passersby for some telltale hint of malevolent objectives. Whenever I’m at the cinema and someone leaves to use the restroom or visit concessions, invariably I will monitor the length of that person’s absence, wondering if they’ve gone to their car to retrieve a stockpile of weapons, or if in a few minutes they’ll come bursting through the doors to begin firing at will. With my feet adhered to the soda-confected floors, I make plans and develop contingencies. I make myself aware of the exits.
A college campus is, empirically speaking, one of the safest places on the continent. On this fastidiously groomed, well-lit estate, the greatest threat I face is also the most unlikely one. I cannot help thinking that violence in a place like this would catch us completely off guard, interrupting a game of Frisbee or a lecture on Plato’s cave. These visions of carnage seem always to visit me on days when the sky is clearest and the quad lawn is tenanted by students lounging on blankets, insouciantly engrossed in their textbooks, their frozen yogurts, their phones.
Which is not to say the students are exempt from these anxieties. Whenever there’s an unscheduled fire drill or a disturbance in the hallway, they revert to autopilot, brandishing their cellphones by reflex and casting stricken glances in my direction. It seems we have primed them for every taxonomy of disaster. I suppose it is in such moments that I glimpse the frontier of trigger warnings and safe spaces, for as much as we might try to protect them from needless disruption and preserve their serenity of mind, I suspect that, deep down, the students know as much as I do: that no space can ever truly be safe, that there’s no end to the chute of trauma through which ordinary objects can become the correlatives of our worst disasters.
A few days after the safety seminar, my colleagues and I return to campus for a catered lunch, and while we poke at our salads, the director of our program solicits our opinions. Notwithstanding the huffy machismo of the trainers, was the seminar worthwhile? Anything to recommend it?
A gust of silence enters the room, and I glance at the far wall, where a window overlooks a sunless lake. Over the gun-metal water, a mob of starlings has begun to unfurl, widening and then contracting in pursuit of unseen prey.
“I guess you could say I found it triggering,” one of the poets says, “for lack of a better word.”
Several colleagues hum in agreement.
“That’s what I told my therapist,” a fiction writer says. “I told her, We’ve got a whole new batch of issues to talk about.”
For those tenured faculty who did not attend the seminar, our advisor rattles off a few morbid highlights: the suspicious/not suspicious game, the discussion on makeshift weapons, the memorization of the safety motto—RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.
“My feeling is there’s nothing I can do,” one of the fiction writers says. She is in her sixties, with a pelt of hair that is gray and hatchling-soft. “If they’re coming for me, they’re coming for me,” she says. “At my age, it’s not like running is gonna help.”
A few colleagues chuckle experimentally, as if trying to gauge her tone, and for a moment the table seems to crackle with tension.
“I mean it,” she says. “Better to just line us up in the corner and get it over with. Guy comes into the classroom with a gun, and without hesitation I’ll say, Just tell me where to stand, kind sir.”
Now almost everyone is laughing—a monstrous, cathartic laugh. It is the sound of grief corroding, a knot of fear slowly coming undone. How free we feel in the wake of this vulgar confession. It is a fantasy of deferred obligations, in which we will not be held responsible for anyone’s safety; in which our mettle, shallow and unpredictable, will not be tested. Here, at this moment, we could lie down and die, and no one would blame us. To live under the tyranny of constant vigilance is, after all, its own kind of violence, and in the clutches of this wearisome existence, it has become easy to mistake fatalism for relief.