Thursday, December 20, 2012

Instant Incineration vs The Endless String of School Shootings

I grew up in the 1950's under constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Children were drilled and propagandized to thoroughly fear accept the coming holocaust which we were essentially told was going to happen sooner or later, and we'd better be ready. Stockpiles of food and a home shelter were just part of it.

We were shown movies and filmstrips that showed in gory detail the results of a nuclear attack, using film from Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as from the tests out in the desert that were nearly daily occurrences. In those days, they were open-air tests. Though we weren't particularly close to the Nevada Test Site, for some reason I carry a memory of at least one "flash" from a test (we may have been in Las Vegas or even Palm Springs...)

We did Duck and Cover drills frequently enough that the procedure of pushing desks against the wall under the high windows and crawling beneath the desks and waiting with arms crossed over our necks until the All Clear was sounded was second nature. We cannot forget the high-pitched wailing of the Air Raid Sirens, nor the voice on the CONELRAD stations: "This is a Test. This is only a Test..."

On the other hand, there was no "security" as such at schools.  There was neither call nor need for it, at least so it was believed.

I attended many brand new schools, and few of them had any fencing at all when classes first assembled. Later, chainlink fences were installed on the perimeter of the school yards, mostly to keep the kids in, but so far as I can recall, none of the elementary schools I attended had fencing in the front on the street side. Schools that I attended in Southern California, and most of those I attended in Northern California were planned and built on the open model; classes were held in free-standing wings connected by unenclosed corridors which were roofed but open-air. Generally, there were high windows on one side of the classroom and essentially a wall of glass on the other side. If the bombs ever came, we would be cut to ribbons even hiding under our desks, and we knew it, too. We had no illusions about our supposed "safety" during a nuclear attack. We knew where the likely targets were as well, and we calculated distances and potentials for surviving a direct hit on these targets. They weren't reassuring. My schools were usually within 10 miles of a primary target. And that meant, realistically, when the bombs came, we were not going to survive, or that so few of us would survive, it would hardly matter.

That was the atmosphere in school in those days. It wasn't one of fear so much as fatalism. Realistically, there wasn't anything we could do, and if our rulers decided to launch the missiles, oh well. We didn't have much choice in the matter anyway, did we? Looking back, of course, it was obviously an atmosphere of learned helplessness. We went through the rituals of Duck and Cover, because it was required and everybody did it, but there was really no thought of surviving.

And truthfully, I don't think that when you are 7 or 8 or 10 years old, you even think about something as abstract as "survival." Truthfully, I don't think you fear death, either. At least I don't recall actually fearing the Bomb or instant incineration until much later, when I was in junior high or even high school and started questioning all this bullshit.

Questioning would come, for sure, but not in elementary school.

We were conditioned, however, to expect the worst.

We had no concern or even thought of someone coming on the school grounds armed to the teeth playing War with our lives and those of our teachers and office personnel. It never entered our minds. I had a very active fantasy life in those days which I shared with quite a few of my friends, and we played War and Cowboys and Indians and all sorts of variations on the school grounds and through the neighborhoods, and never once did we think that someone would actually start shooting up the school.

There was shooting, however. As idyllic a time as it may have been (ha), people -- many of them veterans of WWII and/or Korea -- did have guns and they did fire them, sometimes in anger, and sometimes people we knew, or on occasion even we ourselves, were wounded or killed. It wasn't that we didn't know about this possibility. We most certainly did. People snapped, they had psychotic breaks, just as they do now, and the episodes of people barricading themselves, holding hostages, sometimes killing them, or gun rampages especially within households were not that rare. They happened. There were also gruesome murders. It seemed like the victims were often women, chopped up, shot, burned or what have you, that happened with horrible regularity. The press and media loved these murder/mayhem stories.

I was shot myself. It was not in school; it had nothing to do with school. It was a neighborhood teenage bad boy out target practicing with a gun he got for Christmas and I was his target, little did I know.

"Security" in school consisted of the authority of the adults, the teachers and the office. And "security" was primarily a matter of keeping us, the students, from running completely wild. In other words, WE were the primary security issue, pre-juvenile delinquents that we were considered to be. We were considered monsters by nature.

I suppose in a sense we were.

So. Security in school in those days consisted of keeping us in line, following the rules, behaving properly, and so on, and punishing transgressions swiftly and surely. In Southern California schools as I recall, there was no corporal punishment (there was in Northern California, and at least in my experience, it was completely arbitrary, but I digress). There was all manner of psychological persuasion, however, and most kids learned pretty quickly what was expected of them and how to behave appropriately.

The idea that someone would bring his arsenal onto the school grounds and start firing on the boys and girls was unimaginable. It wasn't so much that it couldn't happen, it was more like, "Why would anybody bother...?"

How to put this? Children in those days -- at least in my experience -- were not considered "precious treasures." Nor were they typically indulged at all. Animosity toward JDs -- juvenile delinquents -- was rampant, and showing any sign of deviance from the norm or "delinquency" was suppressed. Conformity was the persistent demand. That demand applied to adults as well.

Schools were not the way they are today -- little mini-prisons. "Lockdowns" were unheard of. The whole point of the educational theories of the time was to make school as pleasant and open as possible, to encourage -- and if necessary enforce -- conformity with the social norms of the era, and to educate the young in the necessary topics of learning. The school was the place to take the "wild" out of the child.

That's what parents expected, and that's usually what they got.

But I don't think that we (elementary school students) had any illusions that school was somehow "safe" from the perils of the outside world. How could we when we were constantly being told of our impending doom from nuclear attack?

The emphasis now, of course, is on the "security" of the schools, with all that that entails, and it has been so for decades. High fences, locked campuses, armed guards, arbitrary searches and seizures, cameras and surveillance everywhere. Suspicion. Schools are operated like prisons, not so much to enforce conformity (though there is that) as to ensure security.


  1. I'm still a great believer in nuclear disarmament, regardless of the end of the Cold World. Part of that is due to concern for people in the non-nuclear armed nations, who can't rely on MAD to keep them safe. (I'm not sure if MAD really works or not, anyway.)

    I believe that war is sometimes unavoidable (not that America ever seems to meet a war it doesn't like) but that nuclear weapons are inherently immoral in all circumstances. I fear a government desperate to hang on to power that deploys them in a last act of madness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, "Nuclear fallout falls on the just and the unjust alike."

    The world has so far been fortunate. Whatever lies they tell in US history classes, there was a horror of these evil weapons after the Second World War. John Dolan (writing as Gary Brecher) likes to point out how the folks in the Pentagon constantly chomp at the bit to use them again. "Just a little one," they plead, "And watch us win war after war."

    So far, even George W. Bush has resisted, but as our military power crumbles, who knows?

  2. It was obvious during the early going of the Bush II regime that lunatics like Rummy were deeply desirous of launching nuclear attacks come what may. He was convinced that such a thing was survivable and that America would arise from the wreckage stronger than ever. It was an article of faith with him that derived from a faction of the Cold War that you see starkly represented in "Dr. Strangelove." These people were really around back then, and they were itching to push the button. How cooler heads prevailed, I don't know... Somebody must have realized that nuclear weapons are non-discriminatory. There is no escape from them -- or from their consequences if used in warfare. No one is safe and there is no safe place to hide.

    We -- somehow -- understood that as children. We knew we would not survive a direct hit on nearby primary targets. Nor would anyone. And thus the whole idea of nuclear war was an absurdity on its face. A criminal absurdity, but absurd nonetheless.

    But Rummy and his cohort were convinced that enough of "the right people" would survive and they would be in the supreme position to rule the debris. And they wanted it, desperately.

    How we avoided that apocalypse I don't know. Dumb luck?

    At this point, it doesn't seem likely to me that the US will willingly engage in nuclear war any time soon, but you never know, given some of the sheer insanity (much of it religiously generated) abroad among the higher echelons.

    A more likely nuclear player is Israel -- talk about religiously insane. But there are enough other crazy players on the nuclear board that it wouldn't surprise me too much if some "small" nuclear exchange occurs within the next decade or so.

    Nuclear weapons are intrinsic evil, to be sure. They should never have been developed at all; they should never have been employed; they should never have been stockpiled; most of all, they should not have been proliferated. But once that genie was out of the bottle, it could not be put back.

    Evidence has so far shown that nuclear armed powers do not directly attack one another, however, so there is that...