A few weeks ago we had a school shooting. OK, I guess I should say instead that we had another school shooting. Two weeks ago I profiled the teacher who made a real difference and literally protected the lives of his students while risking his own. Today another question strikes me – one for which I do not have an answer.
I began practicing law in 1985. For something over a year before that I was a law clerk for the same small law office. As a law clerk and young attorney in that crude and unsophisticated era, one of my duties was filing.
When someone says “filing”, most of you probably think of putting stray papers into the proper folder in some drawer. This is a kind of filing, but it was the kind for the legal secretaries in the office. The kind of filing I did was to go into a court clerk’s office and present pleadings and motions for filing in a case.
Because our practice involved much of the state, minor hearings were also often assigned to me because it was cheaper for me to drive to a distant county for a fifteen minute scheduling hearing than it was to send one of the partners, whose time was much more expensive than mine.
This long introduction is a way of setting up the fact that I could waltz into the clerk’s office or court room in any court in the State, all without going through any kind of security checkpoint whatever. These courthouses ranged from the small farming counties (where I stuck out as “that big city law-yer”) to the busy courts of the most populous counties in the state.
Even the State Capitol building (which contained the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) were a “walk right in” affair. In fact, procrastinators were able to go to a security guard up until midnight and get a file stamp on a document in a process we all called a “rotunda filing”. For the record, I never had to resort to this.
The U. S. Courthouse was the first one to install a security checkpoint which required walking through a metal detector. “Empty your pockets into this and proceed” was the line that the U.S. Marshall must have uttered a thousand times a day. I had no way of knowing then that this would become the norm not too many years later.
I also remember the last time I walked into a county courthouse where you could go into any entry door and which did not contain any kind of security. It was one of those little farm counties where everyone knew everyone and the only people who caused trouble knew to do it far from the courthouse so as to not get thrown in jail. And it was probably twenty years ago.
Today it is impossible to walk into any kind of court room without going through some kind of security. And the question I have is this: What is it that has changed about us to make this necessary?
I wish I knew the answer. I know that there have always been nutjobs and malcontents, and there have always been people who were just plain dangerous and would not think a second time about killing innocents. There just weren’t that many of them.
Is it that people are so much more mobile today and are not so well known in their communities? This could be true in the small towns, but there were always strangers waltzing in and out of government buildings before the late ’80s.
Is it that we have a government that impacts the lives of so many more people than it used to? I kind of like this theory, though I have no proof to back it up. But think about it – before the 1970s, so long as you didn’t hurt anyone and kept your taxes paid, you stayed away from the law and the law stayed away from you. The advent of no-fault divorce brought the court system into direct contact with so many more lives, what with an ever-increasing need to keep child support coming in from those who owed it.
Perhaps it is the diminishing influence of religion in our culture. Belief in an afterlife with rewards or consequences can have some influence on how we live in the here and now. I do not mean to suggest that sane, rational people who reject religion will naturally turn to public violence. But for the insane or the unstable it could be a factor.
Or is it just us? I am kind of afraid that it might be. When I was growing up, the thought of someone going in and shooting up a courthouse was unthinkable. Now people are shooting up middle schools in smaller communities of the Midwest, with the result that armed security is going to become the norm there too.
As I was working through this question I came upon another possible answer. I have just spent something like two hours dealing with the gas utility that serves my mother’s house. The short version of the problem is that the day after they assured me that the gas would remain on after tenants moved out, their technician turned it off. And when I called to ask a few days later they assured me that gas service was on.
I am a sixty minute drive from the house. They offer a thirty minute call-ahead for having a man come to restart service. So thirty minutes is possible, sixty minutes is not. For someone not schooled as an attorney (or for someone less persistent) there would have been no recourse but to take a day off work and drive there to wait. I finally got (after much time and effort) a solution from a supervisor, but I am certain that most people would not have.
Over the last generation our society seems to have transformed from one where a human deals with a human to resolve a problem to one where a human deals with menus and options and a multiple choice interface to something that may not really be solved by a multiple choice kind of solution. We have become slaves to the well-meaning software programmers and management types who have been trying to bring higher efficiency and lower costs to us all. (I am trying to maintain a generous attitude on this.)
However, a side effect of these efforts has been to make us helpless against a nameless, faceless system that will not accommodate our needs and is incapable of explaining why. Rage against the machine is more than just the name of a rock band, it is becoming a feature of our everyday lives. Is this powerlessness against authority pushing the less stable among us to violence against what they see as The Man?
In any event something has changed. I refuse to believe that whatever that something is cannot be somehow addressed. But before that can happen we will have to figure out just what that something is. And a multiple choice menu is not going to be a helpful part of the process.
Opening photo credit: United States Courthouse for the Southern District of Indiana at Indianapolis. Source Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Author Nyttend, taken January 4, 2010.