Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Terrorism, Sexual Assault, and School Shootings: Crime as a Social Fact in Modern Times

Today, London was hit with a terrorist attack outside of the British Parliament buildings. As such events are ever politicized these days, the American president's son criticized London's Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, for a statement made following terror attacks in New York last year. Kahn had said in an interview with London's The Evening Standard, that  "part and parcel of living in a great global city" is being prepared for terrorism. He further explained, 
"It is a reality I'm afraid that London, New York, other major cities around the world have got to be prepared for these sorts of things," he said.  
Kahn is correct. Terrorism has become a fact of life. Moreover, it's not just terrorism. 

In the 1990s, Punishment & Society scholars noted the way in which crime had become a social fact. (Liska in the 1980s, but more well known, Garland in 1996, 2000, and 2001, among others.) They were interested in why (how had this happened) and what were its consequences.  Just as scholars were starting to write about this however, in the late 1990s, fear of crime began to decrease (after a delay, following several years of crime declines) and it continued to decrease in the early 2000s. 

Importantly, just as crime (in general) as a social fact started to decrease, other specific types of crime as a social fact increased. In the early 2000s, following 9/11, fear of crime was displaced by fear of terrorism. Likewise, school shootings became another focal point in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the acknowledgement of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, increases, we probably have seen an increase in that as well (Gallup does not seem to have historical data on this, after an admittedly quick check, but for the last fifteen years or so, the numbers for women's fear of sexual assault as been fairly stable at around one in three).

I started to recognize the way in which terrorism, school shootings, and sexual assault have become a social fact---almost background noise---a few years ago. 

The first was in graduate school (c. 2012---the fact that I'm unsure of the date or incident is itself telling). I walked into the cafe at the law school to get my morning coffee; CNN was on the TVs, as it always is. I glanced up, saw the special alert, and paid attention---until I saw that it was "only" a school shooting. The "body count" wasn't "that high," so I stopped paying attention and went to order my coffee. After a moment, I realized how shocking my response had been. I had started to take school shootings for granted. I was in junior high, about to graduate into high school, when Columbine happened and I remember how shocking it was in 1999. Then Virginia Tech happened in 2007 while I was about to graduate from college. Sometime between Virginia Tech and the shooting I cannot recall at some point late in graduate school, school shootings had become normalized for me. In fact, in my last year in graduate school, we had a minor incident on campus in which a mentally ill man had brought a gun to the business school and was shot by the police. 

A few years later, at my first job as an assistant professor at another school, another mentally ill man brought a gun into the library around midnight and shot several students. My students' reactions were telling---to most, it was no big deal because, as they put it, no one had died. (Three students had been shot, in addition to the shooter, a former student; one of the students was paralyzed.) For the students who had actually been in the library at the time, however, it had been a traumatizing event; for the others, even though this had happened on campus at one of the busiest libraries I had ever seen (the fact that there were not just students at the library around midnight, but lots of students illustrates the point), it was not really worth talking about. Some of them were even dismissive of those students who were traumatized. By late 2014, a school shooting, even at one's own school, had become normal---unless it had a big body count, again reflecting my own assessment of the CNN coverage of a "miscellaneous" shooting late a few years earlier. 

I started to realize how much campus-based crimes were part of this new version of crime as social fact around the same time while teaching my students a Punishment and Society class. As I've mentioned before, I organize that class around the punitive turn and especially mass incarceration. I always have a discussion about what the late 1980s/1990s were like and how afraid of crime people were. I would also emphasize how people remain afraid of crime but how so often the people who are most afraid are the least likely to be victims---namely, white, upper/middle class people. Or rather, that the type of crime that they are afraid of is much less likely for them. (Avoiding digression on intimate crime in gated communities or the general fear of stranger violence while overlooking the more probable sources of violence.) I used to further tell my students that, as a group, their chances of victimization were relatively low by virtue of the fact that, as future college graduates, they would be among the class strata that experience less victimization. The first time I taught this class, while still in grad school, the problem with my statement didn't strike me. It was only later, as a first-year assistant professor, that I started to realize the problem. Many of my students did not hail from the same middle/upper class backgrounds and might not enter those ranks after graduating. Many of my students, as I increasingly found out, in fact battled serious challenges, including victimization of various kinds; a few had even been homeless earlier in life. These facts weren't what made me realize the complete falseness of my statement. Instead, it was the recognition that possibly 20% of my female students and some portion of my male students had already been the victim of sexual assault or would by the time they graduated. As I found out around this time, there was a "rape trail" near campus that young women were told not to jog on because of the high probability of assault. There was also a frat on campus that was notorious for assaulting young women---again the advice was basically don't go unless you expect to get assaulted. (Sigma Alpha Epsilon was also known as Sexual Assault Expected---not just at my former university but elsewhere, too.)

Putting these two ideas together---how school shootings and sexual assault (primarily of women) were an expected part of life---I started to think of campus crime as a new social fact. A few other illustrations of this, drawing on my own experience: On a campus where students love their guns---and some told me about the gun(s) they kept in their car (campus carry was still in legislative debates)---I had frequently thought about what I would do in the event of a shooting. Each new classroom I taught in, I would have a little strategy session with myself about what to do. Likewise, I do not know how common this was or if it was unique to my particular .edu account at the time, but shortly after starting my first job as an assistant professor, I received a number of mass mailings advertising jewelry and clothing I could purchase to protect myself from sexual assault. I started to pay attention to other advertisements I saw elsewhere. I saw an ad for rape-proof pants, panic-button jewelry, rufie-proof nail polish (dip your fingernail in your drink before drinking), and (moving closer to the non-stranger forms of danger) an app to document your willingness to have sex and your level of intoxication. There was also a whole host of campus-based security protocols students learned about at orientation---these were similar to some that became common across the country several years before while I was in grad school---including campus alerts (emails/texts in the event of emergencies), crime alerts (emails/texts about crime in the area), blue light emergency pillars, campus police escorts for returning from late-night studying, etc. A new one was a special app where if you didn't check in by a particular time, a message would instantly be sent to the police so they would check on you. In general, when there is an industry around a particular crime fear, I think it's safe to say it's become a social fact. 

Interestingly, some of these social facts emerge whether or not the actual risk is low or high. Sexual assault on college campuses appears to be quite high: the statistics certainly vary by study and how sexual assault is defined (it often includes rape, but can involve other forms of non-penetrating sexual assault), but it seems to affect more than 20% of female college students. (I haven't checked, and I'm not sure if there is data on this, but I suspect it has long been around this high. The number of cases of sexual assault we are starting to hear about in other privileged spaces like job interviews, airplanes, office jobs, etc. suggests this is a widespread problem that we are only just now starting to discuss.) School shootings, however, are generally less common, and those that have occurred, terrible though they were, were relatively small---Columbine remained the worst school shooting for nearly a decade, but the frequency of "high body count" shootings seems to have increased in recent years, although there are many more non-casualty or low-casualty shootings (and stabbings) that we do not hear about. (There is actually a wikipedia page listing school massacres by body count.)

Finally, we come back to terrorism. Terrorism is more like school shootings than sexual assaults. As with crime more generally, our chances of being in a terrorist attack are much lower than other potentially fatal problems---car accidents and cancer, as Jonathan Simon (among others) have noted, are far more likely than crime or terrorism, but crime (and now) terrorism remain scarier possibilities or at least those we (seem to) think about more frequently and do more to (look like we are trying to) prevent. At the same time, it also seems to be becoming more common. In the last several years, there have been way more terror attacks than I remember previously. Limited to mass casualty events alone: 
San Bernadino
St. Cloud
New York
A longer list of terrorist attacks since 2014 is available here. When somewhere like San Bernadino, CA, has a mass casualty event (which I'm defining here as 10 deaths or more), I think it's safe to say terrorism is a fact of life. More importantly (for our purposes), it is also a social fact. Unless it injures or kills a large number of people---and even when it does---we don't seem to have the same sense of outrage or other emotions. 

The question for us as punishment scholars is how are these new social facts shaping not just our policies---there's lots on this already---but our lives, our actions, our thoughts, our reactions, our expectations. 


Over the last several months, we've developed a new social fact: hate crime. We've had hate crime for a long, long, long time in the States and elsewhere. But hate crimes targeting Jewish, Muslim, Latino, Black, and LGBTQ individuals, among other groups, have increased over the last several years and particularly over the last month. (See here and here and here.) Earlier in 2016 (pre-election), some countries issued travel alerts warning their citizens about traveling to the US because of its gun violence, anti-LGBT harassment and violence, racism, and xenophobia. (See here and here.) What worries me is the possibility that this change will be like school shootings and sexual assault---a new normal---something we need to prepare/plan for, but also something we get used to. What I do look forward to is how our colleagues make sense of this in the coming years. How much of our received wisdom needs revision in light of what might be a sea change? What are the sources of continuity and difference with the past (for example, a move away from a general "crime as a social fact" model to a specific version in the form of certain crimes as social facts).