At 8:55 a.m. on Friday, February 16th 2018 my daughter, a high school junior in the Running Start Program, going to a college campus in Des Moines near our home, sent our family’s ongoing group chat called Froggy Johnson the screenshot of school alert she received on her phone.
“We have reports of gunfire on campus. Please lockdown all offices and classrooms until further notice. This message was approved for delivery to all students by the office of the Vice President for Administration under the Highline Student Email Policy.”
A barrage of messages (nine on my phone in nine seconds) piled up as my wife and daughter talked about where she was, what was going on, what my daughter was hearing. I looked down at my phone as it began to ping ten, fifteen messages. At first, I thought my daughter who is a pretty new driver had gotten into a fender bender or was having engine trouble. Instead, it was the report of an active shooter on her college campus.
As I caught up and read that she was in her room, that the doors to the room were locked, and that the police were coming, my first thought was she is probably safe. And let me wait and see before I invest any emotional urgency in this event that is beyond my daughter’s control much less anyone in her classroom’s control.
This is not the first lockdown my daughter has experienced. Every year since she was in grade school, her school has had lockdown events. There have been people on the campus with weapons. lockdown. There have been threats that someone was going to come to school and shoot people. lockdown. There was a massive riot between rival groups at the school. lockdown. The lockdowns are so routine that the fear of armed killers is a persistent part of the environment, like global warming, like a nuclear holocaust, like mass plagues, like ambient drug trafficking violence, like an e-Coli outbreak.
Life is not that dangerous, unless it is.
I began to follow #HighlineCollege on Twitter because it seemed to be the only aggregate source of immediate information about the event. Mostly, it was kids rightly scared out of their minds tweeting existential shout-outs to the void.
Updates kept rolling as the police began to respond. My wife heard the roar of a fleet of police cars and firetrucks racing up Pacific Highway South. SWAT Teams arrived. A woman with asthma had an attack. She and another person were taken to the hospital.
As the SWAT teams evacuated kids, they took them across the street to the Midway Lowe’s, and then let them go.
A traffic jam snarled the streets hours after the lockdown started. Traumatized kids left school. The college canceled classes for the rest of the day.
Despite someone tweeting an image of a white guy with a shotgun, it was unclear in the aftermath what had prompted the lockdown. It may have been fireworks. Chinese New Year is coming up, and so some people have fireworks. No one really knows what happened. But at the same time, no one is saying “Never Cry, Wolf.” We are saying about this event, cry wolf often and loud because there are people with guns, typically young white men with AR-15s, and the lockdown is part of this ritual.
Charles Mudede at The Stranger wondered why our society continues to allow our children to be murdered in our schools in his post, Mass Shootings Reveal America Is a Civilization That’s Reverted to Ritual Sacrifice. This is the same question the kids hunkered down in class were asking. “Why do I have to put up with this threat to my life just because I want to go to school? Why are my parents allowing us to be killed?”
The kids at Highline weren’t killed on February 16th.
After the danger had passed, my daughter came home and did her homework and played her video games. I ruminated on the news at work, reminding myself that there was nothing I could do about it. Even writing about it, like this, will do nothing.
After the danger had passed, I kept working. I work as a technical writer. I had a meeting with a man who didn’t want to talk me. He was confused about why I wanted to talk to him. I was not articulate enough to help him understand why I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to talk to him about something I was writing, and how this thing I was writing wasn’t making sense to me. I was told he could make sense of it.
He paced back and forth and said about this document I was working on, “I can’t tell you because there is too much wrong with it.”
I’m a writer. There is an idea that writers are supposed to somehow get at the truth of things. Journalists have their methods. Fiction writers have their methods. Technical writers have their methods. But the act of looking for the truth seems increasingly like Schrödinger’s cat.
It helps to know that the cat is dead. It helps to know if an assertion is false. From there you can proceed toward the truth. Even saying what is wrong with something is a movement toward the truth.
I believe our society knows this. We know there are false things and there are true things. Rituals are designed to make the untrue, true. Charles Mudede calls our society a civilization. Maybe our society is a civilization. Or maybe it is a post-civilization. I believe civilizations are based on conventions, just as the dictionary says — “an advanced state of social development, e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations.” But in the mode of a post-civilization, people would think that my relying on a dictionary was as naive as relying on the will of a society to protect the truth or its children.
We know one fact about weapons in our country. What we are currently doing is killing people.