Life During Wartime

Last weekend in Dallas, the George W. Bush Library went into lockdown after a man with a toy gun was mistaken for a man with a real gun. Stephen Harrigan was in the building when the false alarm happened, and he wrote about the experience for the Texas Monthly. It's a lucid look at how a certain sort of fear feels:

Now even our parties and discos are unsafe.No one spoke. There were people praying, and people crying. But nobody really asked what was going on. That was maybe the oddest thing to me: we all knew what was going on. This was less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombings. It would turn out to be the day before gunmen opened fire on a Mother's Day parade in New Orleans. This was the attack we had been waiting for, preparing ourselves for, since 9/11. For me, at least, there was no sense of surprise, no sense of unfairness. The Bush presidential museum seemed a natural enough place for somebody to target, and I felt negligent for dropping my guard and blithely bringing my family here without imagining beforehand everything that could go wrong and forming some kind of escape plan.

"I knew this was going to happen," Charlotte said. She was whimpering in fear but she said this not as an existential complaint but just as a lucidly-stated fact. She’s 29 and has lived for half her life with terrorism as an ominous background threat. I told her nothing was going to happen, but I couldn’t get the right inflection into my voice to keep my reassurances from sounding anything but rhetorical....

But of course there was no threat. Nothing was happening. And after perhaps five minutes that fact became clear without anybody saying anything. There was no more coherent reason for it to be over than for it to have begun. In short order the moment of terror passed, the praying and crying tapered off, the ticket sellers reappeared at their booths.

"They're attacking our imagination!"Statistically speaking, neither bombings nor mass shootings are on the rise. But our subjective worlds are not made of statistics -- or at least, our stats don't shape our worlds as much as media narratives and personal anxieties and big, unusual events do. "I felt negligent for dropping my guard and blithely bringing my family here without imagining beforehand everything that could go wrong and forming some kind of escape plan." In retropect that's kind of crazy, and I'm pretty sure Harrigan knows it's kind of crazy, but he also knows that most of his readers will understand why such a thought would cross his mind. That in the moment, such a thought might have crossed their minds too.

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  • ||

    I've said it before, but humans' lack of a real intuitive comprehension of statistics and risk will be our undoing.

  • Hugh Akston||

    I've said it before, but humans' reliance on statistics as representative and explanatory of reality will be our undoing.

  • ||

    It's sad that both of these things can be true.

  • BakedPenguin||

    There's a reason lotteries are public monopolies.

  • ||

    Especially in an environment where real risk, driving a car, having a physically dangerous job, etc, has been minimized to such a great extent.

    Like how polio was increasing the more people tried to anesthetize their children's environments.

  • anarch||

    Children's environments should be esthecized, whence museums.

  • creech||

    If there were even a small number of home-grown or imported terrorists around, how would we ever cope with the disruption and chaos of such people using throw-away phones to call in dozens of bomb threats against high profile targets? We'd all be cowering in our homes afraid to go to the movies or a ball game or a restaurant.
    So you've got to live your life and ignore the infinitesimal chance that you will end up in an actual terrorist event.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    In retropect that's kind of crazy, and I'm pretty sure Harrigan knows it's kind of crazy...

    I don't think it's crazy. I sit facing the entrances of restaurants, etc. I look for exits located away from the main entrances. I look for emergency exits. I guess that makes me crazy, but that's fine.

  • Virginian||

    Yeah I guess I'm crazy too.

    There's a difference between the statistical chance of a terrorist attack happening at Time X and PLace Y, and the statistical chance that at some point in your life, you will need to take swift and decisive action in an emergency situation.

    I mean, going by statistics, there's no need to learn how to swim, or do CPR, or identify poisonous snakes, because the odds are that none of that will ever befall you.

    Except the people who drown are, for the most part, the ones who can't swim as well as they need to in the situation they found themselves in. Or who don't know that what kills you in a river is getting your foot caught in the rocks and getting dragged under. The ones who get snakebit are the ones who never learned not to stick their hands under logs or rocks without checking first.

    Ignorance is the real killer when it comes to accidental death. From people who shoot themselves, to people who touch high tension wires, to people who crash cars, the common thread is that they locked the knowledge and skills to make it through.

  • kinnath||

    "I felt negligent for dropping my guard and blithely bringing my family here without imagining beforehand everything that could go wrong and forming some kind of escape plan." In retropect that's kind of crazy, and I'm pretty sure Harrigan knows it's kind of crazy,

    It's not crazy. It's basic risk management, and everyone should do it. But everyone should also be able to figure out quickly that the odds of being killed in a car accident on the way the library are 4 or 5 magnitudes of order greater than getting killed in a terrorist attack at the libary.

    As I said a week or so ago, many (if not most) people worry incessantly about extremely unlikely events while blithely ignoring things that kill some non-zero number of average, ordinary people every day.

  • Jesse Walker||

    You think it's basic risk management to "imagin[e] beforehand everything that could go wrong" and form an escape plan when taking your family to a museum?

  • anarch||

    Isn't that why exits must be clearly marked?

  • anarch||

    Yikes - your comment changed while I was answering, or else I overlooked your

    "imagin[e] beforehand everything that could go wrong" and,

    .

    To wit: It's basic risk-management to note exits, but I try to be frugal about catastrophizing in any detail.

  • anarch||

    But this is from someone who doesn't always use the Preview function.

    Nevertheless, "The Fates favor the prudent." ~ Euripedes

  • Invisible Finger||

    What good is noting the exits if the library is on lockdown, forcing you to NOT exit?

  • kinnath||

    You've never taken a dozen boy scouts to Disneyland have you?

    So yes, when the kids were very little we started teaching them what to do when the got separated from us or what to do if there was an emergency.

    But I think you missed the greater point that I don't spend much more than a thought or two on stuff that just isn't very likely to happen.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I don't spend much more than a thought or two on stuff that just isn't very likely to happen.

    No, I got that. I just don't think you can think of everything that could conceivably happen. Nor should you.

    When my toddler enters a room I automatically scan it for things she might swallow or cut herself with or fall off of or break. But I can't think of any circumstances -- certainly none that I'd bring her to -- where I'd feel the need to think in advance about what to do if a gunman shows up.

  • kinnath||

    Crime happens everywhere. Probability may be location dependent, but it still happens everywhere.

    I don't try to think of a thousand different ways that something bad could happen. It's enough to think about broad groups of risks: crime, weather, illness, accidents, etc.

    If Harrigan has never considered the possibility of being caught in a public location when a gunman starts shooting, then he's an idiot.

  • Jesse Walker||

    If Harrigan has never considered the possibility of being caught in a public location when a gunman starts shooting

    That's not what he said. He said that he felt like he should have realized that the "Bush presidential museum seemed a natural enough place for somebody to target" and planned for the contingency in advance.

  • kinnath||

    He said that he felt like he should have realized that the "Bush presidential museum seemed a natural enough place for somebody to target" and planned for the contingency in advance.

    He is right. The Bush museum is a more inviting target than the farmer's market here in bum-fuck Iowa. But his contingency plan to should have been no more complicated than making sure everyone had a full charge on their cell phones and paying attention to the emergency exits.

    Harrigan had an oh-shit moment and is now over reacting.

  • ||

    Why wasn't he packin? If you're packin, you always have a contingency plan.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    So he thought about the issue more narrowly than he probably should have.

    I think the lesson isn't that he should be more prepared in places he should suspect more, it's that he should be more prepared, period.

  • Virginian||

    Exactly. The whole "zombie preparedness" thing is not due to people being disconnected from reality, it's just a nice simple shorthand/thought experiment. If you'r ready for a zombie uprising, you're ready for anything.

  • kinnath||

    Yes. 1) shit happens 2) be prepared.

  • anarch||

    When my toddler enters a room I automatically scan it for things she might swallow

    Like MSM?

    what to do if a gunman shows up

    Say "Officer, am I being detained or am I free to go?"

  • Seamus||

    +1

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    You can't "imagine beforehand everything" but why in the hell wouldn't you form an escape plan? Hell, it might not be terrorism but it could be something as mundane as a fire. It seems like basic risk management to me.

  • kinnath||

    When my daughter was in kindergarten, we had lunch at a Carl's Jr in Phoenix. The counter staff had given us a bunch of ketchup packages, and we had more than we needed. My daughter offered to walk them back up to the counter, and I told her we couldn't. She thought for a moment, then said "they can't take them because someone might have poisoned them, right?"

    Little kids understand grown-up shit a lot better than most people will give them credit for.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    This was the attack we had been waiting for, preparing ourselves for, since 9/11.

    Oh, for fuck's sake.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    She’s 29 and has lived for half her life with terrorism as an ominous background threat.

    Who the fuck are these people?

  • kinnath||

    She's 29 and has never had to cower under a desk at school during nuclear attack drills. These youngsters have it so easy.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Or hide in a bunker as 107mm, 122mm or 240mm rockets come down on you.

    /Kids these days

    GET OFF MY LAWN!

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    My younger daughter was three months old on 9/11. She has no conception of a pre-9/11 world. When we were talking about the Boston ordeal and how scared people are, she asked, "But what are the odds?"

    We've all talked numerous times about how you're more likely to die in a car wreck on the way to Place X than be a victim of terrorism at Place X. I think it's sinking in.

  • Seamus||

    Just think how many lives were saved in Boston because the police weren't allowing people to drive their cars anywhere.

  • ||

    Excellent question. Especially because I'm 29, and IIRC, 9/11 happened when I was 17, so even if I were one of "these people," I would only have spent around 2/5 of my life with terrorism as an ominous background threat. But math is almost as scary as terrorism.

  • Jesse Walker||

    He may be counting from 1995.

  • ||

    Then it's 2/3 post-terrorism. I realize I'm being picky, but sigh. Was there a notable terrorism event in 1999 that would have been so game-changing? In any case, nothing before 2001 changed the publicly visible security apparatus to anything like that extent.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Columbine!

    (No, I don't think he means Columbine. But I don't really mind him saying "half" if he means "more than half.")

  • anarch||

    Imagination can also work to your benefit (you can start at the third paragraph): "An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

  • The Late P Brooks||

    You think it's basic risk management to "imagin[e] beforehand everything that could go wrong" and form an escape plan when taking your family to a museum?

    One of those dinosaurs could come to life and gobble your entire family up before you could say, "BOO!"

    Use your head, Jesse.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    "The Fates favor the prudent." ~ Euripedes

    "The race is not always to the swift, nor victory to the strong, but that's how you bet." -Damon Runyon

  • ||

    America's leader (Bush) cowered for days after 911 thus the sheep who follow him cowered.

    Bush had the opportunity to do more for liberty in a couple of days than other presidents ever get. He failed miserably.

    What he should have done was go on teh teeeveee and proclaim that we will not be cowed by recent events. Airlines will fly tomorrow, government agencies, the stock market, trains... will be OPEN FOR BUSINESS! You explain to the sheep that the odds of being killed by a terrorist is like getting struck by lightning twice in the same day. You call on Americans to display their bravery...

    Instead he hid in a bunker for a week.

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