How Terror Works

September 26, 2013 § 16 Comments

Yesterday, there was a stabbing on my bucolic New England college campus.  A male student (on leave from the university after an arrest two weeks ago) approached a female student on a campus shuttle bus and stabbed her.  When the bus driver intervened, he also got stabbed.  The wounds were not life-threatening, the woman was treated at the scene for a laceration to the top of her hand and the bus driver was taken to hospital for his wounds.  The suspect then fled across the street and jumped in his car and escaped.  This all happened about 150 yards from the campus police station, and the suspect fled past the station.  Campus police then pursued him, but gave up the chase for safety reasons.

The university community was apprised of this about an hour later in an email sent out to everyone.  I give the university full credit here.  When I was in undergrad, there was a serial rapist on campus.  The campus police and the university administration did not consider that to be information that the students, staff, and faculty had a right to know.  Times have changed.

About half an hour after the email, someone resembling the suspect was spotted on campus.  This led to a lockdown, or “shelter in place”, as it’s called, beginning around 12.30pm.  For the next two hours, there were police crawling around campus from both the campus and city forces, there were at least two helicopters in the air (whether media or police, I don’t know) and there was a generally tense atmosphere in my building.  My colleagues and I speculated on whether or not the suspect might have returned with guns.  Who knew?

Around 2pm, classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and evening.  About half an hour later, the lockdown was lifted.  No one had any idea as to whether or not the suspect had been captured, but we presumed he had been.

But.  A few hours later, it became clear that this was not the case, as an arrest warrant had been issued for the suspect, who had obviously fled.  This morning, we learned from the news that he was arrested a couple of hundred miles away from here in Upstate New York.

So, in essence, campus experienced a two-hour lockdown and students, staff, and faculty experienced an unnecessary trauma.  Looking at the suspect’s mugshot, he’s pretty generic looking and one can see a dozen or two young men who look vaguely like him on any given day around campus.  It’s easy, of course, to conclude that the campus police and the administration over-reacted.

But did they?  I’m not so sure.  What happened yesterday on my campus appears to be the end result of terror and terrorism.  Since 9/11, Americans have obviously become much more vigilant.  And with mass shootings happening at an alarmingly frequent rate in the past couple of years, this only makes people, military/police/civilians, all the more vigilant (as an aside, I’ve noted the media, especially in Canada, likes to point out that gun deaths are down in the US, which is true, but then this is used to argue that mass shootings are no biggie.  That’s false, there are more mass shootings now than ever).  And, in pursuing this vigilance, the campus police and the administration yesterday erred on the side of caution, calculating the chance of a real threat to the campus community.  The suspect had apparently attacked his victim(s) completely randomly.  Thus, the threat was real, if he was indeed back on campus, he could conceivably randomly attack again.  Or maybe he had a more destructive weapon?

And this is how terror and terrorism works (yes, I consider mass shooter and those who enable them terrorists).  It causes terror, and it causes massive overreactions like we had yesterday because it is better to be safe than sorry.  What if the campus police and administration did not react in the manner they did yesterday and the suspect had returned to campus and caused more damage?  Imagine the lawsuits and negative reaction.

I’m not saying I like this, but I am interested in how terror works like this.  I am presently teaching a course on the History of Terror.  And while the course is centred around the very fundamental fact of the terror of history, that we’re all going to die, terror on a smaller scale (like 9/11, the Boston Bombing, these massacres) works the same way and makes us more vigilant, easier to scare, easier to over-react.

It’s all rather depressing, yeah?


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§ 16 Responses to How Terror Works

  • Matthew, what textbook are you using in your course? Would be interested.
    Also, there was 2 interesting articles recently, can’t remember where, that called attention to all the gun deaths not associated to mass gun deaths, and how much muter our reaction was to the mass gun deaths in Navy Yard. Are we devolving to desensitization?

    In my opinion, US doesn’t get to call itself exceptional until it treats with seriousness the violence within its borders.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I don’t use a textbook, they’re pointless in courses like this, but the best book on the subject is Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History.

      Of course we’re desensitised, it happens every other week at this point. It’s either be overwhelmed by the terror or find a way to cope and ignoring it is easy.

      Violence is everywhere, not just here, but here it is exceptional because these fruitbats with guns and the gun lobby insist that to question the right to be armed is unconstitutional and un-American. Meanwhile, there’s another shooting. Ugh.

      • Is there a strong turnout for a course such as this? And is there a multi-ethnic mix to your students? Just wondering if anyone brings an interesting perspective from real-life terror experienced in a foreign land.

      • John Matthew Barlow says:

        Yeah, I do this within the matrix of a World History course that’s required here, so I have maximum enrollment. We have a multicultural mixture of students, many of whom are Latino/a. Also, our school is particularly good for veterans, so we have a lot of them who have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, depending on the subject matter, I get feedback. But, also, too, a lot of Americans can now speak to real-life terror since 9/11 and Boston.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I’m uncomfortable calling this “terrorism.” I’ve in past considered terrorism to be violence conducted to cause terror in targeted groups for the purpose of influencing their behavior. Yes, we should be concerned, even afraid as appropriate, when violence strikes near us. But if everything that alarms us is categorized as terrorism, then whether something gets categorized as terrorism is determined by publicity as much as anything else, and the divide between ordinary crime and terror becomes hard to distinguish.

    • Strong points, Brian. In a way, global leaders have high jacked the term itself and perhaps made it more benign by diluting it.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I don’t call this terrorism, I call this terror (with the exception of those perpetrating massacres), and there is a difference philosophically and intellectually.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        Fair enough, and I think Caroline was reaching for a similar point. Could you elucidate how you differentiate between terror and terrorism?

      • John Matthew Barlow says:

        Terrorism is what you suggest it is, it’s the targeting of a specific group or events, with the desired outcome of producing terror. But terror has many sources, from the existential crises of life (the fact we’ll all die, our innate loneliness, etc. ), to anxiety, to actual terrorism. It’s a desired outcome of terrorism, for sure, but it’s bigger than that. To limit terror to being an outcome of terrorism limits the discourse.

        What happened yesterday at my campus was terror in action. We are conditioned through a variety of different sources, from 9/11 and the Boston bombing, to mass shootings, to lawsuits for negligence in emergencies, and a general fear that is encouraged by politicians and the police, to feel terror. What happened yesterday is extraordinary (as are mass shootings), but the outcome of the events inflicted terror on many members of the university community. We live in a time of what many would refer to as the security state, we expect the government to keep us safe, from the things we can control and those we can’t.

        Terror and terrorism aren’t the same things.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Thank you. And sorry for the name screw-up. Since I’ve seen you familiarly called Matthew and Matt, including in these comments, that was a bit of mental vacation on my part.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Ha! Don’t worry about it. I’m finding that since I moved to America, the fact I go by my middle name is very confusing. Wasn’t so controversial in Canada.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        Ironically, it was a common practice in my father’s family; several of his brothers were known by their middle names.

      • John Matthew Barlow says:

        It an Irish tradition in my family: eldest son is named for his father, but goes by his middle name to avoid confusion.

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