Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
When I was growing up, the threat of nuclear attack was always in the background. Now it's mass shootings.
The other day, in the wake of the Navy Yard mass shooting in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post published some "tips" on what to do if you find yourself in the midst of a "shooting event." The pretty commonsense advice, from a former U.S. Navy SEAL, included suggestions like "move to safety," "look for an exit," and "take cover, stay low," illustrated to look something like the safety pamphlets you find on a plane.
What's striking about the presentation of this information is the assumption of its universal applicability.
There was a time, in the hazy past of 25 or 30 years ago, where we just didn’t think much about mass shootings. How rare were they? Well, according to the Post, if you look at the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history – those claiming 12 or more lives – half of them occurred during the 50 years between 1949 and 1999. The other half of those deadliest shootings occurred in the past six years — between 2007 and now. (There was a hiatus between 1999 and 2007 in that "12 lives and more" category.)
The FBI defines a mass shooting as a case in which four or more people are shot to death in one incident; according to the meticulous Mother Jones database, the Navy Yard assault was the fifth such crime in the U.S. this year.
Mass shootings are a common enough threat these days that we routinely prepare our most vulnerable citizens — school-aged children — with "lockdown drills," which are now mandated in many states. If you're under 25, you may have experienced these yourself. If you have kids, you’ve heard about how they work: students learn to follow a teacher’s instructions to hide themselves in as secure a place as possible, behind locked doors, and remain absolutely still and silent.
Could these lockdown drills themselves be traumatic to kids? It depends on whom you ask, and also on how the drills are conducted. One exercise, conducted at a Harlem school for kids with special needs just a week after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre, sounds like it was truly terrifying. Teachers didn't have warning of the exercise, and a woman's voice came over the school's public address system saying "Intruder" and "shooter" and "get out, lockdown." It sounded so real that staffers were crying and praying. One called 911, and police responded, only to be told it was just a drill.
Another simulation involved shooting off blank rounds in a Cary, Illinois, school. Parents were warned ahead of time that their kids might be upset by the realism involved: "Please note that we will be firing blanks in the hallway in an effort to provide our teachers and students some familiarity with the sound of gunfire," the letter sent out in advance of the drill read. "At the conclusion of the drill, we will take some time to process what occurred and then we will return to our normal classroom routine ... These drills help our students and staff to be prepared should a crisis occur, but it may cause some students to have an emotional reaction."
Some parents thought that went too far. "If you need to run a drill, you run a drill," one Cary parent was quoted as saying by MSN News. "They run fire drills all the time, but they don't run up and down the hallway with a flamethrower."
These graphic drills are not uncommon, and they are only increasing in frequency. Some experts think current procedures don’t go far enough, and that students and teachers should be trained to actively defend themselves rather than passively sitting in darkened, locked rooms.
And of course, sometimes kids experience real lockdowns, not just drills. Since April of this year, three sets of personal friends have had their kids locked down either at home or at school because of active shooters in the area – in Newton, Massachusetts, in Santa Monica, California, and most recently last week in Washington, D.C. (None of those kids were in any danger during the incidents, thank god.) Three seems like a lot to me in just six months.
But did it freak them out? The kids I know who have been on actual lockdown don’t seem to have been troubled by it too much, or at least not in a way that shows on the surface. My son and his classmates are no more outwardly worried by lockdown drills than they are by fire drills, or than kids from tornado country are by storm drills.
I myself don’t recall being traumatized when my own school was repeatedly evacuated because of bomb threats directed against a student from a high-profile political family. As a second or third grader, I recall accepting the possibility of being bombed by a crazy person as part of life. The evacuations quickly became dull. That’s the way kids are: presented with even the most extreme conditions, they will usually adapt.
The people I know who are made most uneasy by lockdown drills are not kids, but parents. Those of us who grew up before mass shootings became common, before bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards that can be used as shields, are disconcerted that our kids are growing up in a world where such things are part of the fabric of everyday life.
When I was a kid, the threat of nuclear attack was always in the background, although the "duck-and-cover" exercises of the early Cold War had by then long been abandoned as pointless. I had frequent nightmares as a child about seeing an atom bomb go off and realizing it was all over. I thought that was completely normal, although now it seems strange we lived like that for so long.
Today, we don’t worry much about nuclear war. But it’s normal now for any American of any age to "realize you can be shot," in the words of the Washington Post, "and think through how you will react to the situation."
What is abnormal now is to hope that one day we will look back on this mass shooting era and think: how strange they lived like that for so long.
Top image: In this file photo of Jan. 14, 2013, New Washington, Ohio, Chief of Police Scott Robertson talks with fourth grade students as they huddle in closet a during a lockdown drill at the St. Bernard School in New Washington, Ohio. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)