Thoughts, Prayers, Sound, and Fury

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

 

As a teacher, hearing the news of last week’s massacre in Florida hit me hard. All school shootings affect me in a similar manner. Even lockdown drills create a crippling feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I huddle with my students against the wall in the dark, contemplating oblivion, I wonder how we have fallen so far as a society.

I wrote a blog post almost two years ago under my semi-anonymous pseudonym, the one I use mainly for political commentary. I discussed how much better life has become in the 21st century, despite the uptick in domestic terrorist attacks. I offered some practical solutions, and called for civility in policy discussions.

I had a semblance of optimism then. After another two years of pain, vitriol, and random terror, I don’t have that optimism anymore. As dozens more cities and schools have become hashtags, and more dates on the calendar have been stained black, stoic fatalism has replaced that hopeful naivety.

There are practical measures we can institute to reduce the casualty count. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to stop the violence completely. In American society, these events will continue to take place. When I sit with my kids in the dark during lockdowns, I pray that our number never comes up.

That helpless feeling haunts me.

My despair is not assuaged by policy statements from the right or left. Well-meaning people who haven’t set foot in a school have put forward ideas, imagining them to be panaceas. As someone who has studied education policy for six years earning a doctorate, and spent a decade in classrooms, it’s annoying to see people claiming to solve our nation’s problem of school shootings with a Facebook meme. Let’s break down these basic arguments, moving right to left on the political spectrum.

A.) Arm the Teachers

Argument: Gun free zones invite lunatics armed with guns. If these lunatics knew their teachers had guns, they wouldn’t try to shoot up their schools. Allow teachers with concealed carry licenses to carry in schools. Or offer teachers a stipend to carry a pistol. Throw that gun-free zone sign into the trash, because recycling’s for pansies. Counter force with force. You bring a gun to school, and your calculus teacher will end your life.

Breakdown: Do me a favor. Imagine your 11th grade math teacher. Now imagine your school librarian. Now imagine your 9th grade English teacher.

Imagine a hallway filled with screaming kids, running from a lunatic with an assault rifle. Is old Mr. Fuddlesticks going to step into that hallway and win that firefight with his .38 special? How about Laura the Librarian with her 1911?

Unlikely. This is a bad idea. In the firefight described above, CSI would have the gruesome task of figuring out which holes in the bodies came from the AR-15, and which came from Mr. Fuddlesticks’s  .38. Additionally, a nervous teacher would kill an unarmed kid before one would heroically prevent a massacre.

Arming teachers would increase the body count without preventing a single tragedy.

Well, what if we just arm teachers with military experience? They’re trained!

Great. If we limited the arming option to veterans, they’d be much less likely to draw and fire on an unarmed student. But would they win the firefight described above? No. They’d have the discipline to duck back into their classroom and realize they didn’t have a shot. Or, on a vast open campus like Douglas High School, they might be in a different building 3 acres away from the site of the carnage.

This option assumes that the only place a lunatic would fire is in the classroom with a clear line of sight for the teacher to draw that .38 and end the threat. But that’s not where these massacres usually take place. It’s in the hallway before school starts. It’s in crowded cafeterias and libraries. It’s outside the school after the fire alarm has been pulled.

ANALYSIS: This is a bad idea all-around. Body Count: unchanged, maybe even higher.

B.) Beef Up Security

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was one of many who wrote in favor of additional security measures at schools. Using familiar rhetoric of “good guys with guns” and denigrating “Gun-Free Zone” signage, he pushed for a hybrid system of a few teacher “air marshals” who’d carry, and an increased uniformed police presence on school campuses.  He believes that these additional security measures would serve as a deterrent to school shooters, and keep students safe.

I think Mr. Gingrich is half-correct. More security on campus would keep students safer. It would also bring the first rapid-response officers much closer to the scene, because they would be on campus instead of at the local PD.

It wouldn’t stop the body count. As stated before, those teacher “air marshals” would have problems in a firefight in a crowded hallway against AK-47s and AR-15s. As for the additional police on campus, Mr. Gingrich acts as though Douglas HS and Columbine were defending their campuses solely with Gun Free Signage, and didn’t have SROs (School Resource Officers).

They did.

How many more would have stopped the massacres from happening? If a school has a 7-acre campus with over a dozen buildings, are you going to put uniformed police officers in each spot? Even if you do, if a kid is willing to die in the massacre (and most wind up killing themselves after they’re cornered; the Douglas HS shooter was one of the first I’ve seen who managed to evade the initial police dragnet), all you’ve done is bring the police closer to the scene of the massacre.

Even if a school has officers in each building, a student can draw and open fire in a crowded hallway between classes, or on kids outside during fire drills, or in the middle of a packed cafeteria, or in the library, or in the bus loop before school.

ANALYSIS: More cogent proposal. Expensive. Body count reduced, but not eliminated.

C.)Fortified Campuses with Security Measures at Building Entrances

Do you love TSA lines at the airport? Well, let’s bring them into schools. Radically restructure open campus schools nationwide into single-building entities with a security checkpoint at the entrance(s). You’ll probably have to spend billions creating covered connections between buildings. Along with billions more for hiring screeners and equipment for them to monitor each backpack and student entering the building.

I hope you enjoy getting to school at least one hour early. For schools as large as my alma mater (Sarasota High School) or Douglas HS, you’re going to have lines. 2,000-5,000 students/faculty will take a long time to get screened. Creating walkways to connect 12-18 buildings over 7 -15 acres, and then constructing checkpoints, will be crazy expensive.

Have you made the school safer? Maybe. During school hours, once everyone’s entered the fortress. But you have created a giant target outside the fortress, as all those students and teachers line up to get through the checkpoint every day. And what are you going to do for football and basketball games? You going to set up TSA checkpoints outside the stadiums as well? Or are sports and concerts and any after-school activities going to be the next sacrifices?

ANALYSIS: Expensive as holy heck. Body Count- Unchanged. Schools-radically altered. Those who tout this plan must picture a high school as it appeared in Back to the Future’s depiction of 1959. One building, one entrance, three stories. They should do research before spouting nonsense.

D.) Patriot Militia on Campus

This is a popular idea I’ve seen pop up on right-leaning social media. For no cost, veterans and former police officers will patrol our country’s schools and protect our children. They’ll volunteer on their own time and instead of the expensive uniformed security presence proposed by Mr. Gingrich, we get trained, local, free patriots to protect children. They’ll volunteer for background checks, of course.

Sounds awesome.  It’s filled with American can-do spirit, which rises to the challenges faced by modern society, and preserves 2nd Amendment freedoms. Matter of fact, it takes those 2nd Amendment freedoms and shoves them in the face of the bad guys! It just makes you want to fist pump and start singing Toby Keith songs.

But we’ve got the same problems we had with Mr. Gingrich’s proposal. The patriot militia will likely be faster than local PD’s rapid-response teams, since they’re already on campus. But they won’t stop the hallway shootings between class, the bus loop before and after school, crowded cafeteria and library, etc.

Reduced body count, but it still happens. Also, when the police do arrive, they have the added difficulty of differentiating between the school shooter(s), the patriot militia members, and terrorized students running in fear.

As a teacher, I also worry that some members of this patriot militia, especially if they’ve got kids on campus, could turn into vigilantes. What if they hear that someone is bullying their kid? Instead of scanning their zones for security threats, they’re cornering some 8th grade boy in the bathroom to put the fear of God in his heart, while showing off their .44 Desert Eagle. As a teacher, I sometimes deal with helicopter parents who flood my inbox asking about their kid’s missing work, or schedule a lot of parent teacher conferences to express issues with test and quiz grades.

I’d get a lot more nervous if an armed patriot militia mom or dad just “dropped by” my classroom to “have a chat” about little Johnny.

ANALYSIS: Similar to Mr. Gingrich’s proposal but cheaper. Likely a reduced body count. But doesn’t eliminate school shootings. Also adds the complication of vigilantism/reprisals against students and teachers.

Let’s move on to the proposals coming from the Left.

A.) Ban Assault Rifles (and maybe more?)

Many mass shootings are committed with assault rifles. During the 2012 and 2016 Republican primary debates, no event or person other than 9/11 was mentioned more than Ronald Reagan. Republicans elbow each other out of the way to claim the title of Reagan’s successor.

Ronald Reagan supported expanded background checks, waiting periods, and a ban on assault rifles. Joe Biden recently noted that the US Government already limits 2nd Amendment freedoms, by restricting access to weapons of war like grenade launchers and bazookas. Wouldn’t assault rifles be the next logical step? Aren’t those also weapons of war? If Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan are on the record agreeing on something, shouldn’t we be able to get that bill through Congress?

Let’s assume you can. Let’s say we get a reprise of the 1994 Clinton-era assault weapons ban passed. Let’s say the Freedom Caucus in the House has a come to Reagan moment and joins forces with moderate Republicans and Democrats to get it done.

No assault rifles means no school shootings, right?

Doubtful. The Columbine massacre of 1999 happened in the middle of Clinton’s assault weapons ban. Some of the weapons used during that slaughter could be classified as conventional. The Virginia Tech mass shooting, one of the deadliest in US history, was committed with a humble 9mm handgun.

Ok. Let’s repeal the 2nd Amendment and ban all firearms, unless you’re retired military or police.

Let’s assume you can actually do that. Would that completely stop the violence? In 2015, we passed a dark milestone in the US. There are more guns in this country than there are people. Over 357 million of them. Any weapons ban that doesn’t involve confiscation is toothless. Any confiscation attempts would require significant re-interpretations of the 2nd Amendment, or its outright repeal.

Good luck with that.

Ok, how about issuing a buy-back program? Heck, make it mandatory if you have any felony on your record! If we can restrict felons’ rights to vote, we can certainly restrict their access to firearms, right?

Make the price high enough, and you might get 50% of them. Maybe. But are you going to get them all?

It worked in Australia!

Australia didn’t have 357 million guns. Australia didn’t have a 2nd Amendment that most conservatives can quote more readily than Scripture.

Give people $5,000 for assault rifles and $2,500 for handguns and you might reduce the number to around 100 million. Refurbish the guns you receive and give them to National Guard units and local police departments, and you might be able to justify that cost.

You’re not going to get them all. 100 million is still a lot of firearms. Are you going to go door to door to confiscate them all and turn every 10th house on the block into Ruby Ridge or Waco? I don’t want to be in this country when you try to do that. It’s going to be awful.

The toothpaste is out of the tube on this one. While I like the idea of an assault weapons ban, and I think stopping production on all new AR-15s will be useful, it won’t stop the violence.

It will slow it down, but it will continue.

ANALYSIS: Sound and fury. Brothers grabbing brothers’ throats on Facebook feeds and blocking Grandpa on Twitter. Record levels of vitriol in political process. Maybe violence in the streets if you try the confiscation angle.

Body count in schools-slightly lower. Weapons of choice might change, but kids will still die.

B.) Raise the Age for Gun Purchase, Expand Background Checks, Close Gun Show Loopholes, Restrict High-Capacity Magazines (30+), Fund Mental Health Facilities, Raise Taxes on Ammunition, Restrict Access to Firearms for Everyone with History of Domestic Violence and/or Status on No-Fly Terrorist Watch Lists, Charge Parents of School Shooters with Negligent Homicide if They Allow Their Firearms to be Taken by Underage Children

These are the ideas that have a chance at denting the violent epidemic of school violence. They are supported by Democrats and even a few Republicans who aren’t getting their talking points directly from Dana Loesch.

As President Obama said last year, it’s lunacy that American citizens who’ve been on ISIS websites and have been identified by the FBI as risks to public safety…can simply walk into a gun show and buy a weapon of war. Everything else on the Bill of Rights has limitations. Why is the 2nd Amendment regarded as ironclad? Why is everyone who suggests any of these measures instantly portrayed as tyrannical as King George III?

Perhaps the tide is finally changing. Maybe we’ll get a few of these reasonable measures passed. If President Trump can serve as a broker and absorb some political heat from his base, perhaps GOP legislators will follow.

The NRA will offer a ban on bump-stocks. That’s nothing. They want this to go away. They want the Douglas HS Students to go away. They want people to “stop politicizing” tragedy. As in, just shut up, accept your fate, and die if your number is selected. If people are loud enough, and persistent enough, some of these measures could get passed.

It won’t be enough. The numbers will be moderately reduced, but to me, it’s a math equation that can be done on a napkin. 320 million Americans. 357 million firearms. Let’s assume that just one in a million is deranged enough to shoot up a school. Or a theater. Or a McDonald’s. Or a church.

That’s 320 people with at least one gun and the desire to kill random people. We’ll still have at least 1-2 school shootings a year.

ANALYSIS: Body count moderately reduced. Incidence Number=reduced. Best ideas on paper that we have so far.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The moments after school shootings feel like an American rendition of the dystopian Hunger Games. We are all glued to our TV sets. We hear stories of the carnage. We admire the heroes. The faces of the fallen are displayed on CNN and Fox News.

And we do it all again next time.

As a teacher, I used to be filled with righteous anger at the callous nature of American society. This volume of school shootings doesn’t happen anywhere else in the civilized world. Western democracies look at us with horror. Canada looks down at us and wonders, wtf, eh?

French philosopher de Maistre noted that every nation has the government it deserves. As I stated previously, the toothpaste is out of the tube. This is what we are. This is what we’ve accepted. Every morning when I show up to work, I play a twisted lottery game, and hope my number won’t be selected at the next American Reaping.

During the moment of silence each day, I pray for my students. But my thoughts aren’t enough. My prayers aren’t enough. My words aren’t enough. It’s going to continue to happen. And I have no faith in my leaders to change anything, because as a policy analyst, none of the options I’ve seen can stop this carnage.

After the Las Vegas massacre, Bill O’Reilly callously opined that mass shootings were “the price of freedom”. As much as it pains me to say it, at this moment, he’s right. That is what we’ve chosen to accept as a nation. It’s disgusting. It’s also disgusting when policy actors like Ben Carson blithely tell students to attack the guy with the rifle, as he did after the Oregon community college shooting when he said, “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.”

No, Mr. Carson. You’d be running in terror, like any normal human. Or frozen in place, which is also a natural reaction. When someone has the drop on you, there isn’t much you can do. When given time to prepare, maybe you have a chance. But you’re also going to die. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this blog post, I’m presently sheltering in place at my own school, first in line in the corner of the room, armed with a kettle of boiling-hot water and a pair of scissors. If that door is opened by anything other than an administrator or police officer with a key, 80% of us are likely to be cut down, and I’ll be the first to die.  But I guess 80% is better than 100%, right?

We’re sheltering in place because there’s a rumor a kid brought a gun to school, and the police are investigating. Yesterday, at another school in the district, a 7th grade boy actually did bring a loaded gun to school, ‘on a dare’.

How sick are we as a society? One of the most triumphant talking points that the far-right brings up is the fact that the commonly quoted figure of 18 school shootings in 2018 is misleading. In actuality, it’s three or four, depending on your interpretation.

So, experiencing at least one deadly shooting a month, perhaps two, is supposed to put my mind at ease? Would my anxiety be soothed if I was wounded by an “accidental discharge” from the firearm of a 12-year-old girl, who gravely injured a number of her peers in California a few weeks ago? Is it supposed to be heartening that some of the school shootings reported are actually students committing suicide in bathrooms? Thank God! Students are so depressed that they’re just killing themselves instead of others. Darn those liberals who count those in their stats of shootings committed on school campuses.

Whether you are left, right, center, or somewhere on the fringes, we all have to face the realization that there is something seriously wrong with our country right now. You can’t just repeat one or two of these common talking points and triumphantly sit back in your chair and believe you have the answer. Or maybe you can.

I can’t. I’ve got to play the Hunger Games every day. The music from those films plays in my ears every time I step on campus in the morning.

I hope that the odds are in my favor, and that today isn’t the day that my kids and I are chosen as tribute to this madness.

 

Dr. Rudolph Lurz is a teacher and education scholar living in Roanoke, Virginia. He received his doctorate in Administration & Policy Studies from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beyond Portland & Manchester

To provide security in a post-9/11 world, the West should not return to 1933.

I was going to use this Lurzday Thursday article to write about the origins of my novel.  I was going to introduce the basic outline of the plot and discuss character development. That can wait a week or two.

A dear friend of mine almost became a casualty yesterday.  That changed the focus of this post.

Let’s call my friend, “Pete”.  For the last few years, Pete has been tutoring a family of Iranian descent. Yesterday, he was early for his appointment, and was relaxing near his car.  A maniac began shouting at him from a balcony.  When he glanced up, the guy used his hands to mimic shooting at him with a rifle.  As he walked toward the Iranian family’s apartment, the man continued shouting at him, yelling, “You better fucking look at me!” When Pete ignored him, the man became enraged, ran outside, and charged toward him, screaming, “I’m going to fucking kill you!”

Crazed Man
Terror is terror. It might wave a black flag. It might decide to not wear a shirt in public.  Its function is to intimidate opponents into submission.

Pete didn’t know if this maniac was armed or not, and ran for his life.  He got to the door of the family’s apartment and barged inside without knocking, not knowing if his next footstep would be greeted by a bullet. He called the police.  The man was arrested.  The story told by the police and the apartment managers was chilling.  The neighbor had been intimidating the Iranian family for months, and was apparently not pleased that Pete was helping them. In this man’s eyes, teaching children was akin to aiding the enemy.

The man’s mother apologized to Pete, telling him, “Sorry my son terrorized you today.”

That’s exactly what it was.  Terrorism.  A good pair of shoes and a head start of a few yards were all that potentially separated Pete from being mentioned in the same breath as Portland.

To the police, what happened to Pete wasn’t terrorism. It was an incident of mental illness.  The terrorist was taken away in an ambulance instead of a police cruiser.  He’ll be evaluated and likely released within 72 hours.

Consider this.  If that red-bearded, shirtless man had mentioned Allah or Mohammad in any of the terroristic threats he directed at Pete, he would be in federal custody right now, being interviewed by the FBI.  Instead, he’ll be back at mom’s house by dinner time.

Terrorism is terrorism.  In America’s virulent and toxic climate, Portland is more likely to occur than London Bridge. Both loom over Western society as threats. Both are fueled by hate.

In a different article I wrote almost a year ago, I discussed how to confront terrorism in a complicated world.  I noted that travel bans and xenophobia were poor choices that wouldn’t keep the country safe.  The proper response is augmenting our capacity in cyberspace, human intelligence (HUMINT), and special forces.  Terrorists who desire glory on battlefields in Syria or rock concerts in Manchester should not be granted the opportunity to gain recognition.  They should be discovered early, and then silently destroyed in back alleys and bathrooms, where no one will learn their names.

Such responses require nuance, attention to detail, and meticulous planning. They require a multifaceted, cogent strategy combined with visionary and inspirational leadership.

Policy actors like President Trump and propaganda artists like Sean Hannity have chosen a different strategy: fear. Blind fear.  The message is clear.  Muslims are out there, they’re coming to get you, and true Americans have to stop them.

Muslims trying to enter the country must be stopped, and those who are already here should be kicked out. Those who rely on Breitbart and Hannity for their news are given the message that Sharia Law and suicide attacks lurk behind every woman wearing a hijab.

Such a response is misguided and tragic.  Travel bans and anti-Muslim rhetoric won’t make us safe.  Terror attacks in Orlando, Paris, and London weren’t committed by refugees, they were committed by citizens.  ISIS doesn’t need to help foreign nationals navigate the 18-24 month vetting process for refugees when they can use the Internet to recruit Americans to do the work immediately.

Muslims also are not a singular group with a monolithic, universal system of beliefs. By painting all Muslims with a single, Islamophobic brush, President Trump creates a message that aids potential recruitment of homegrown terrorists.  He’ll block attackers that weren’t going to get in anyway, and create more potential extremists on US soil.

The bigger danger is violence against innocent Americans like the tragedy that occurred recently in Portland.  People get so riled up by the “us vs. them” rhetoric that they are driven to actions that range from screaming to shooting. Bystanders who dare to stand up for the marginalized face the risk of getting their throats cut.  Those who commit the unspeakable offense of just appearing to be Middle-Eastern contend with the threat of being shot, like the Indian engineer murdered in Kansas earlier this year.

When bullets are fired and throats are slashed, it doesn’t matter what the attackers are shouting or which deity they claim to support.  The perpetrators of these actions are terrorists, the victims are dead, and families are left to pick up the pieces of broken lives.

Portland and Manchester are two sides of the same hateful coin. Combatting such hatred requires nuanced, smart security policy from nation-states.  For citizens, it means showing compassion and love to neighbors instead of suspicion and vitriol.  For leaders like President Trump, it means abandoning the divisive rhetoric which is simultaneously ineffective and inflammatory.

To provide security in a post-9/11 world, the West should not return to 1933.  Instead of turning to the fearful hate of the past, we need to look forward to the future-a future in which a teacher can tutor children of a different religion without fear of being murdered by an extremist.

Any extremist.

A world without the tragedies of Portland and Manchester is possible.  It can only occur if we stop judging, start listening, and demand more nuanced policy measures from those tasked to protect us.