The homicide rate in America ranks, internationally, between Pakistan and Tanzania. There are four times as many here per capita than in the U.K. The numbers for murder, a narrower legal category than homicide, are truly startling: France is about average among developed nations, and our rate is about 19 times theirs.
Three out of four times Americans kill one another intentionally, we use guns. This is only practical: we live in a country where almost anyone can go to a store and purchase a tool designed to kill people, a tool that does not require any great physical exertion, manufactured locally with pride. Naturally, that’s how we do it.
One salutary side-effect of our enthusiastic gun culture is the absence of bomb-making. Bombs are another way of killing people, but you can’t go to the store and buy a bomb. You’d have to make it yourself, which isn’t easy (you can literally die trying) so why bother? Also, bombs aren’t things you want to carry with you everywhere you go. In order to be ready to kill somebody at any moment (which many Americans see as an inalienable right), there’s really nothing like a gun.
The role of bombs in American life is illustrated by the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. The perps made pipe bombs and set them in the cafeteria. The plan was that the bombs would go off, the kids would flee the building, and the perps would start shooting. The homemade bombs didn’t go off, so the perps moved in with their store-bought killing tools and did their massacre anyway.
More recently, there were “bombs” found at a couple of locations in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, the date of the insurrection. They were duds; the invasion of the capitol proceeded anyway. It was as if the “bombs” (is a bomb really a bomb if it never goes off?) were some sort of style statement.
Lately, we have experienced a series of “bomb threats.” There has been a rash of them targeting historically Black colleges and universities during February. Classes were cancelled; campuses were locked down. No bombs went off. Was this a good result?
At this point in our cultural history, the “bomb threat” is a phony phone call. It’s a thing that you can do because there is such a thing as a bomb, and because anyone can make a phone call from an untraceable number. On current form, this is an easy way for anyone to shut down almost anything. If it becomes clear to every creep in the country that they can lock a campus down or prevent a public event from taking place with one call, won’t we see a lot of that?
It is good and right that people entrusted with public safety take threats seriously. Still, a little cold logic may be needed here. If you or I really did have a bomb that we planned to detonate in order to disrupt, damage, or destroy something, how likely would we be to tell the world about it ahead of time? Why would we do that?
That’s speculative, of course, but the hard evidence is before us: there are bomb threats, and no explosions. No matter how careful we want to be in responding to these hoaxes, there has to be room to acknowledge that this is what they are.
Every once in a great while a bomb actually goes off — the 16th St. Baptist Church in 1963, Oklahoma City in 1995; the Boston Marathon in 2013– always without warning. If you picture a Venn diagram, there are people who call in bomb scares (largish circle) and people who actually blow things up (small circle), and the circles do not overlap. Not at all, to my knowledge.
We Americans do kill one another. We do it with guns, and without warning, and it’s a horrible public health problem with no end in sight. In a whole separate category, where nobody actually gets hurt, there are bomb threats. They also pose a thorny problem in public policy, but quite a different one.
Hopefully, somebody somewhere is developing an algorithm that will listen to bomb-threat messages and analyze the wording, the emotional content and whatever else to determine if there’s really a need to cancel things. This will be difficult for many reasons, including the lack of real threat samples to work from. If it sometimes happened in America that someone called in a bomb threat and then a bomb actually exploded, one could search for commonalities among these messages and differences between them and hoax calls. But they’re all hoax calls, so that will be difficult.
Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.