Schools in the Bogus Age of Terror

Massacre. Suicide-bombing. Mass murder. Conspiracy. WMDs. They love those inflammatory words, don't they? Not just adolescents, who use the words as adolescents would, without gauging their impact, but also law enforcement types, who should know better. The climate that makes chatter of school shootings so endemic can be attributed to the few deranged souls who think up mayhem fantasies in their miserable little journals and cyber-caves. But they're not the only ones responsible.

"Massacre" and "conspiracy to commit murder" were the words (and official charges) of choice when three DeLand Middle School seventh-graders were arrested in March after their "plot" to gun down other students and themselves was uncovered. "The investigators determined the students did not appear to have weapons or means to carry out the threats," a Volusia County Sheriff's spokesman said soon after their arrest. Nevertheless, word of a massacre averted and severe punishment deserved spread through the community. The three children's grind through the system is only beginning.

What, so far as we know, had these children done? One of them posted threatening messages and satanic idiocies on his MySpace page, along with the obligatory references to the Columbine school massacre. No matter how baseless, those references have become iconic for anyone angling for his 15 minutes of fearsome fame. Innumerable journal entries by seething adolescents, in print and online, are no doubt filled with Columbine fantasies. They're ignored, as adolescent scrawls generally (or absent more incriminating evidence) should be regardless of medium. Once in a while they're "uncovered." What should be the occasion for a parent-child reality check, a dressing down or at most a trip to the local counselor, is turned over to law enforcement instead. The cycle of public fear and sensationalism kicks in. For the children in question, humiliation and cruelty (what any form of juvenile-criminal proceedings and detention consist of these days) follow.

There's been a spate of alleged plots in schools lately, locally and elsewhere. Spring is the season of threats. It's stupid students' way of commemorating the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, which took place April 20, 1999 and April 16, 2007, claiming 47 lives between them (the three gunmen included). Earlier this month two schools in New Smyrna Beach swirled with rumors of an attack. Since April, Malcolm X College and St. Xavier University in Chicago, Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., and three parochial schools in Michigan all closed when threats scribbled their way around each campus. Tales of suspicious backpacks, rumors endowed with the power of errant bullets and bad jokes elevated to threat levels worthy of the Department of Homeland Security's paranoia locked down or shut down schools in Oveido, Pittsburgh and South Bend.

And police in Chesterfield County, S.C., in what's becoming a habit of pre-emptive arrests based on private thoughts rather than action, arrested a high school senior who'd been writing threatening messages in his journal for up to a year. He'd referred to an alleged suicide-bombing plot against his own high school as "Columbine III." The boy's parents tipped off police in that one. The boy was charged, if you can believe this, with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

What almost all these allegations have in common is disproportion -- the disproportionate fantasies of the alleged perpetrators, whose frames of reference are cribbed from a culture that blurs the lines between video games, entertainment, celebrity and violence; and the disproportionate response from schools and law enforcement, whose overzealous narratives incite fear by feeding into overheated anxieties. But there's glamour in the language of violence and humiliation. Witness the Daytona Beach police chief's fetish for the word "scumbag," now emblazoned (as "scumbag eradication team") with an obscene image on shirts for the teenagers in the department's Police Explorer program. There's power in the language of violence supposedly averted, even if the upshot of it all is more irrational fear, not more security, and more children slammed into a juvenile-justice system designed to scare and punish, not heal and reintegrate.

We live, it's true, in one of the most violent states in the most violent society of the developed world, the most crime-ridden, the most prison-happy (2.3 million people behind bars and rising). Schools might reflect their world. But sensational incidents aside, schools remain among the safest quasi-public spaces anywhere -- not because they've been turned into fortresses of discipline and order, which they have, but because schools are simply not useful to criminals. Rather, they're being made too useful to the policing mentality of zero-tolerance discipline, perpetual surveillance and unquestioned authority that mirrors a larger transformation of society. Security is the excuse. But obedience to authority has little to do with security, and everything to do with control. Schools in this bogus age of terror are the cheapest, most impressionable, most unquestioning incubators of mass submission.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at

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