Closing Schools Over Terrorist Threats Creates New Problems

Stop the fear: Children are more likely to die in a car crash.


Credit: woodleywonderworks / flickr

What if the Los Angeles public schools get another email promising a terrorist attack on Monday? And Tuesday? And Wednesday? If you close the schools the first time, what do you do the next time? 

If I were a lazy terrorist with no guns, bombs or desire for martyrdom, I'd be keeping up a steady stream of bloodcurdling forecasts to the school authorities in Los Angeles—and every other major city in America. 

Well, maybe not New York. The people in charge there, after getting the same threat, read it, deleted it and proceeded with the business of educating kids. 

Los Angeles, however, decided to take no chances, forcing 640,000 kids to stay home. It was an understandable choice. "I was not going to let something happen on my watch," said Superintendent Ramon Cortines the next day. "My priority yesterday was our children, our staff and our property." 

New York City police commissioner William Bratton took a different view. "I think it was a significant overreaction," he said, and Mayor Bill de Blasio dismissed the email as "outlandish." They were willing to act on their best judgment and put their careers on the line rather than surrender to efforts to create mass panic and disruption. 

Parents generally seem to have supported the Los Angeles closure despite the inconvenience. One father also told The New York Times that henceforth, he will drive his 10-year-old daughter to school. "The bus, it's a soft target," he said. "There's no safety on the bus." 

True. But there's no safety in his car, either. A couple of fanatics who could attack a school bus with bombs and guns could do the same with other vehicles pulling up to drop off kids. They could do the same thing on the playground, in the cafeteria or in classrooms. 

About 99 percent of the world is soft targets. Very few places are beyond the reach of those plotting bloody mayhem. Short of stationing the National Guard on every campus, schools are vulnerable, just like shopping malls, supermarkets, restaurants and soccer fields. 

But nearly every place also happens to be amazingly safe. Since 9/11, the think tank New America reports, 45 people have died in jihadi attacks on U.S. soil—about as many as were killed by dogs last year alone. The ladder in your garage is more to be feared than the Islamic State. 

In their new book, Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism, scholars John Mueller and Mark Stewart calculate the average American's chance of dying at the hands of terrorists in a given year at 1 in 4 million. Your chance of dying in a car wreck is more than 100 times greater. That guy driving his daughter to school is ignoring the bigger hazard. 

Since 9/11, we have spent more than $1 trillion on domestic homeland security, note Mueller and Stewart, but the share of people who expect "another terrorist attack causing large numbers of Americans to be lost" has remained around 70 percent since 9/11. 

This sum doesn't count all the money we've spent in Iraq acting on George W. Bush's theory: "We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America." The Islamic State didn't take that offer. The Iraq War spawned new enemies, so in reality maybe we are justified in feeling no safer now than 14 years ago. Even so, the danger is much less than commonly assumed. 

Critics lament the obsession with terrorism in Tuesday's Republican debate. But politicians wouldn't pander to popular distress if it weren't already there. Gnawing anxiety has become part of our collective psyche. Any new act of terrorism confirms our worries and makes us yearn for invulnerability. 

But succumbing to fear is exactly what our enemies want us to do. The Islamic State legions have only faint hopes of carrying out attacks on American children. But if malefactors can shut schools down by merely sending messages, they don't need to. They can impose a heavy burden on us at little expense or risk to themselves. 

Officials in Los Angeles may have figured out by now that they can't be so quick to keep students at home. Otherwise, there will be no end to the threats. Authorities elsewhere have already taken heed. San Francisco schools opened Thursday despite a threat received Wednesday evening. 

When two Dallas schools got an ominous email, Mayor Mike Rawlings said, "Someone is trying to scare Dallas. And that's not going to work." Somewhere a terrorist wannabe was disappointed. The children of Dallas were fine.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Softest target of all: the crowds waiting to get through “security” checkpoints.

  2. When the LA school board received the letter the buses had already gone out to pick up kids but had not arrived at the school. They didn’t have time to evaluate the threat. They made the right call and played it safe. Stop giving them heat over it.

    Also, my chances of getting struck by lightning become somewhat elevated if I stand on a golf course and hold my umbrella up high during a thunder storm. Deciding to cancel my golf game when the weatherman predicts a thunder storm is not an overreaction.

    1. Good example. Part of the reason terrorism kills so few in the US is because of the precautions we take. There’s a fine line between pissing your pants over every implausible threat and being so cavalier that people get killed.

      1. The reason terrorism kills so few in the US is not because of nonsensical overreactions like these, but because the threat of terrorism is so small in the US.

        There’s a fine line between pissing your pants over every implausible threat and being so cavalier that people get killed.

        Ignorant fools are doing the former, as this case demonstrated. You’re apparently cheering them on.

    2. So what were the signs and instruments used in order to forecast a terrorist attack other than a badly written email from a hoaxer in Europe?

      There was no scientific analysis done that concluded that the likelihood of an attack was great enough to close down schools. There was even a reasonable suspicion that the threat was true. The only consideration was “not on my watch.”

      1. You might think differently if you were the one on watch.

        1. You might think differently if you were in a different situation than you are now, so your arguments are completely incorrect. At worse, that’s just a non sequitur, if that is how you meant it. At best, it was completely irrelevant to the conversation, since you could say that about anyone and any position. You might think that 1 + 1 = 3 if you were in situation X. Who cares? The mere fact that your position might be different if you were in a different situation than you are now does not affect the validity of your arguments.

          The reality is that those who are on watch just want to cover their own asses, no matter the costs to society. That’s certainly not a good thing.

      2. No, the only consideration wasn’t “not on my watch”.
        There was also the thought that, “if a bomb does go off and it becomes known we had a warning, the School District will be sued into bankruptcy.”
        Blame all the lawyers, out there, who go to court at the drop of a hat with the concept that “someone has to pay
        (and I get my fee)”

        1. They have lawyers in New York too.

    3. Suppose people were to agree not to initiate the use of force, wouldn’t that put a crimp in terrorism? Of course we’d have to get rid of the Democratic and Republican parties, and disband a bunch of televangelists and islamists. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, mind you… just worth it.

    4. Tell me: Does the mere fact that a threat was issued significantly increase the chances of an actual attack to the point where it’s actually probable? It seems to me that competent attackers wouldn’t want to alert everyone if they wanted to actually do something.

      If the answer to the question is “yes”, then I’ve yet to see evidence of that.

      If the answer to the question is “no”, then you are being irrational by cheering this on, because you have made it clear that you think that no threat is ever too small to ignore. The thing is, even if a threat was *not* issued, the chance of an attack is always there. Therefore, schools should be closed 24/7, because there is always a non-zero chance of an attack.

      And by reacting in cowardly ways like this, you simply give Bad Guys a method of making the Good Guys react to empty threats in a way that is extremely harmful to society. It’s trivial to issue threats over the Internet, even ones that sound credible. Good job.

      But of course, it’s the children who are in danger, so any overreaction or irrational nonsense is fine!

    5. As for your golf course example, that is an individual decision that you make yourself that only affects you. This irrational decision affected thousands of people. There is no comparison here. And you didn’t even show that the threat was significant.

  3. Why to these clowns jump right to “fear” when most of us are simply expressing “concern”? I guess they have to fill the space, but it’s really amateur hours.

  4. Politicians are the true “terrorists”. Every “controlling institution” in the world uses fear. Fear is the only emotion that can make citizens “toe the line”. Religion uses the fear of “eternal damnation”. Republicans use the fear of losing our guns against the Democrats. The Dems warn that Repubs are going take away Social Security, and your grandmother will starve. Whether you believe the American government commissioned “The Report From Iron Mountain” (which I do), or you believe it is a work of fiction akin to “1984” or “Animal Farm”, it contains invaluable information about how to “control a society”. The main take away from the report is to give the citizens a common enemy (ISIS, al Qaeda) else they will find their own common enemy; their government.

    1. Didn’t HL Mencken have something to say about politicians and hobgoblins?

  5. Does this make emails “weapons of mass destruction”?

  6. I wonder if there aren’t links from this climate of fear (with us since the late 1940’s*) to the war on childhood (danger is everywhere) and the current idiocy on campus (everything is dangerous)?

    *I clearly remember ‘duck and cover’ drills in grammar school

  7. Why would a terrorist plant a bomb and then warn the intended victims? It defeats the purpose.

  8. Deer Santa,
    Mz Ghasly gave me a D- in rismitik n i got in truble fr it an wana get evin. Pleez fly yr raindeer n slay in her ofis windo on de 3d flor (wis the yelo curtins), but do it aftr yu leev my salt rifl undr tha tree.
    Sincerely yours,
    Henry Smith

    1. First grade leet speak. What a concept!

  9. Nuh uh. Not with home schooling!

  10. What Chapman, and all the other “experts” that say this, or that, is more of a risk than terrorism, fail to take into account is the concept of intent.
    “The ladder in your garage” isn’t looking to kill you in as spectacular way as possible.
    To fail to see the difference between inanimate objects that might harm, through accident, or, even misuse, and people intent on killing you shows a sophistry equal in scale to their condemnation of the “fear mongers”.

  11. If educating kids really were a business, it would be a lot more effective at it.

  12. When I was a kid, a closed school usually meant a ‘snow day’. Now it’s a ‘jihadist day’.

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