Dispatches | September 13, 2007

There is a disturbing misconception in the air these days that says if only we prepare enough, we can prevent tragedy.  Airports teem with Homeland Security officers.  Every local government has terrorist-response plans in place, as does every school.  We are told that the country is on code yellow, or orange, or, God forbid, red.  The Homeland Security Department suggests that “All Americans should continue to be vigilant, take notice of their surroundings, and report suspicious items or activities to local authorities immediately”. 

The reasoning behind all this is that if we spy enough on our neighbors, if we take our shoes off at the airport, if we promise not to bring shampoo or knitting needles on the plane, bombs will not go off, throats will not be cut, guns will not be fired, and people will not die. 

Similarly, according to Inside Higher Ed, Virginia Tech has issued “guidelines for responding to disturbing student writing”.  There are a series of steps the instructor should go through beginning with an informal discussion with the writer, ideally not in private, with the goal of probing the writer for literary intent.  If the violent or disturbing subject matter is merely a literary device, then the prof puts the writer’s pen back in his hand and sends him on his way.  If, however, the writer can’t articulate a justification for the ugliness in his writing, step two brings in the director of the creative writing program, the associate department chair and the department chair.  Only one of these four people needs to feel strongly that there is a risk in order to move on to step three wherein the Dean of Students is notified and any or all of the following: the Dean of the College; the counseling center; the Justice Department.

Again, if we do this, bombs will not go off, throats will not be cut, guns will not be fired, and people will not die.

Despite all this, hurting people is incredibly easy.  The vulnerability lies in our very existence, in that we live and work beside each other.  (This is a disturbing concept, yes?  I have thought about this and know that it’s true.)  Our failure to accept our vulnerability is the driving force behind all these preventative measures, and the price we’re paying is too dear.  We’ve created an atmosphere rife with paranoia, and paranoid people are notoriously bad judges.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union,  


in the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, US government officials have admitted to detaining 765 Arab American and Muslim immigrants without charges, without access to attorneys and, in many cases, without access to their own family members. The government acknowledged deporting a total of 478 of these immigrants.  


I wouldn’t be even a little bit surprised if during the weeks following the Virginia Tech tragedy there weren’t a flurry of phone calls from creative writing instructors to counseling offices and Deans of Students and even to police departments.  Now that Virginia Tech (and no doubt other schools will follow suit) has a policy in place to defend against the indefensible, we run the risk of innocent writers being expelled from school, sentenced to therapy and even placed on FBI watch lists.  Is this really the way we want to live our lives, tenuous as they may be?  Is this really the way we want to define the limits of our art?