Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Schools in Los Angeles and New York City receive threats
Jeff Yang: For parents and kids, the impact is enormous, even if threat is not a legitimate plot
This morning, as I was getting my younger son ready to go to school, my phone rang with an automated announcement. School was canceled, the recording said. Not because of snow or rain – this is Los Angeles, after all – but because a “credible threat of violence” had been issued against the Los Angeles Unified School District. As a result, almost 700,000 students, 45,000 teachers and 38,500 other staff members in the nation’s second-largest public school system would unexpectedly be staying at home.
Welcome to the Southern California equivalent of a snow day.
Based on what appears to have been a terror threat – not to “one school, two schools or three schools, but many schools” – Ramon Cortines, the LAUSD’s superintendent, decided to shut down the system entirely and have every one of the 900 campuses searched for explosives.
At this point, we don’t know whether the threat against Los Angeles schools was a legitimate plot, a misguided prank or, as some frustrated parents are musing, a kid who’d forgotten to do homework seeking to get a one-day extension. (New York City’s school system received a similar threat, but authorities there dismissed it as a hoax.)
School administrators in both Los Angeles and New York City received email warning of an attack with assault rifles and explosives. Given the similarity of the description to the recent shooting in nearby San Bernardino, the decision was made in L.A. to take it seriously, and respond on the largest possible scale.
The impact on California’s biggest city is likely to be enormous. Hundreds of thousands of families were forced to scramble for last-minute play dates and caregivers. Some 20% of parents – based on estimates for other unexpected school closings – may ultimately end up staying at home from work. The productivity hit could be in the millions of dollars.
And that’s just the economic cost. The social costs are enormous, too. An actual attack, like the one that ended 14 lives in San Bernardino or the ones that killed 129 in Paris, requires planning and investment and the recruitment of a set of people willing to sacrifice themselves for hate.
But as can be seen, shutting down a city, and engendering anxiety and frustration on a metropolitan scale, now only requires nothing more than an email – easily anonymized and nearly impossible to trace. In the wake of recent attacks, governments and corporations have implemented zero tolerance, instant response policies that err on the side of caution, making massive reaction to minimal causes the default in our society.
It’s a form of asymmetric warfare that leverages emotions to amplify response – and threats to children are particularly effective in this regard.
There’s another social cost to zero-tolerance policies: Greater suspicion toward Muslims and individuals from the Middle East and South Asia.
We’re hearing more and more stories of passengers who’ve made the mistake of speaking to one another in Arabic being removed from planes, Sikhs (who are, of course, not even Muslim) being temorarily barred from entering sports stadiums just because they’re wearing turbans, and even incidents where kids themselves have been asked if they’re “carrying bombs in their backpacks.”
Is this the kind of world in which we want to live? While none of us want to place our kids in danger, the reality is that terror is exactly what terrorists want us to experience – especially unwarranted terror, aimed at the innocent.
We need to weigh the reality of whether our society’s reflexive reactions are keeping us safer, or simply driving us closer to the brink. We are constantly “fighting the last war” in our battle to stay safe – restricting penknives for years after they were used in the 9/11 hijackings, requiring the removal of footwear after an attempted shoe bomber was apprehended, banning fluids after a plot was revealed to blow up planes using disguised liquid explosives.
We are always being told that new restrictions and greater scrutiny and more generalized stereotyping are the price we pay for security, yet ironically, these are increasingly curtailing the freedom that security is intended to protect.
When an excess of caution leads to a climate of paranoia, and from there to a mindset of hate, we have already lost. We have historically been a country of openness and optimism, not suspicion and flinching fear. A nation that readily lets terror call the shots is not the one in which I grew up – and it’s certainly not the one in which I want to raise my kids.