The Fear Curriculum

August 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed.

That’s from Kieran Healy’s blog post  yesterday after two mass shootings in a 24-hour period had left more than thirty people dead. Though neither of these were school shootings, it is schools that have institutionalized the Active Shooter Drill. It has become a ritual.

As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy.

It wasn’t until I saw “Eighth Grade” that I finally realized that the Active Shooter Drill had become a regular part of the school curriculum. And it wasn’t until I read Kieran’s post, that I began to think about it as a ritual.

Rituals reinforce social solidarity. That’s why we have them. Even when a ritual is supposed to have a practical effect — to help the football team win, to make the rains come, to ensure that the deceased goes to heaven — we don’t judge it on whether that ulterior goal was reached. If everyone got caught up in the spirit of the pep rally, it was great regardless of the score the next day. The purpose of baptism is to cleanse the child of original sin, but nobody ever asks, “Does it work?” That’s not the point. The point is to have everyone get involved and to do the ritual correctly.

The Active Shooter Drill has a rational purpose — to save lives — but most schools, thankfully, will never know whether it accomplished that goal. The drill, like any other ritual, is judged on how well it is performed. But in most rituals, doing it correctly is not enough. If the people involved are not sharing a common emotion and a sense solidarity — to one another and to the group or institution as a whole — we dismiss their behavior as “merely going through the motions.” As Kieran (channeling Durkheim) says, in a ritual, the members of a group “enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins.”

But what is the reality that the Shooter Drill demonstrates, and what is the common emotion pulsing in the veins of the participants? The answer seems to be fear —  fear of an unpredictable and fatal attack. School is the place where children are taught to be afraid.

I guess this is nothing new. In the 1950s, duck-and-cover ritruals — crouching under a school desk as protection against a Hiroshima-like atom bomb — carried the message: fear the Russians. Kids were cynical about it all, of course, but underneath the cynicism, bravado, and joking lurked at least some ambivalence. I would guess that something similar is true of those kids in “Eighth Grade” and in real schools.

At the beginning of his post, Kieran alludes briefly to his own schooldays and first communion in Ireland. “My brother tells me that the preparation nowadays is a little more humane than the version we enjoyed.” I couldn’t help thinking of Father Arnall’s sermons in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, brilliantly constructed sermons designed to instill in the boys a deep and everlasting fear.

Maybe things are different now. At least some students, like those from Parkland who started “Enough is Enough,” are demanding that adults with the power to change things liberate then from the fear. That reaction may be spreading. When the Ohio governor spoke at a vigil yesterday following the mass shooting in Dayton, the crowd spontaneously chanted, “Do something.”

One can hope.

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