My campus is closed tomorrow. The college received a threat of an undisclosed nature and now we cannot go to work. “Security will be on hand to turn back students who try to enter the grounds,” the office manager, her voice taut with excitement, tells me. She used to be a police dispatcher. She falls into the language of law enforcement easily.
I have to pick my daughter up from rehearsal early. I drive to my office after I’ve stopped by the auditorium. “Wait here,” I tell her. “I’m going to pick up some papers to work on tomorrow.” She shakes her head, both nervous and thrilled by the unexpected, not-quite-comprehended threat, and accompanies me into the building. Decker Hall is deserted. I walk upstairs to my light-drenched office in the late afternoon stillness, grab papers and my textbook, and we head downstairs again. The silence is eerie. I’ve been here often enough during breaks to know the building in all its moods, but still, today the silence is different, weighted with my tension.
The crazy thing is it’s a crazy tension. It’s bound to be copycat fools out there, seduced by the promise of headlines and photo shoots, or some kid desperate to get out of a final paper or a test, or hungry for some control over something, anything, in a life in which he feels powerless. But still, a frisson of tension speeds my movements. I can’t wait to get out of the building. “Terrorism” has won, I think. People live in terror of terror. I am glad to emerge from the dark stairwell into sunlight, to get behind the wheel of my car. On the way home, Zeke tells me of a bomb threat at her high school, which was ruled a child’s bluster by the administrators and dismissed without lockdowns and announcements of terror. I’m glad. But deep inside I think, “What if…?” and the “What if?” shows me how deeply this culture of violence has inserted itself into my psyche.
When I first came over to the U.S. some 20+ years ago, people frequently asked me if I was afraid to go outside in Ireland for fear of IRA shootings. “No,” I said. “Not over there. But here I’m kind of worried. People have guns here, and they seem a bit unstable.” Even back then I sensed the difference in attitude towards violence. I recognized an underlying paranoia and and depth of fear in too many people. Now I find myself wondering if I’m turning into one of them. Not for myself, certainly, but for my daughter.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I’m sure closing down the college was an overreaction. In a few weeks, things will go back to normal.”
I hope I’m right.