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When “It Can’t Happen Here” Does and Will Happen Again

A common refrain after mass shootings is “we never thought it could happen here.” The idea is so common that Penn State’s Applied Research Lab produced a nationally circulating school security documentary entitled It Can Happen Here.[i] As a warning call, it signals to other communities that they are at risk and need to do whatever they can to prepare for violence. Implicit in this warning call is the hope that if more communities take the threat more seriously, then perhaps targeted violence will disappear. What would it take to guarantee security?

By: Brad SerberRock Ethics Humanities Initiative Dissertation Fellow

Authors note: Following the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College, politicians, journalists, bloggers, and op-ed writers have once again flooded television and the internet with their opinions about how to stop the next shooting. Often one-sided and seeking quick and easy solutions, these pieces try to shape what the nation does in response to targeted violence. This piece, which comes from my dissertation research, aims to contribute to this same conversation in a slightly different way: to shape how the nation thinks about targeted violence by slowing down knee-jerk reactions, recognizing the complexity of the problem, and considering the unintended consequences of the language and frameworks we use to understand it.

A common refrain after mass shootings is “we never thought it could happen here.” The idea is so common that Penn State’s Applied Research Lab produced a nationally circulating school security documentary entitled It Can Happen Here.[i] As a warning call, it signals to other communities that they are at risk and need to do whatever they can to prepare for violence. Implicit in this warning call is the hope that if more communities take the threat more seriously, then perhaps targeted violence will disappear. What would it take to guarantee security?

Title screen shot from Penn State-produced school shooting documentary It Can Happen Here (dir. Lynne Squilla, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Lab, Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies, 2010)

Because many instances of targeted violence involve guns, debates over gun control often resurface after they occur. While this conversation gets at the genre of school shootings, expanding to the broader genre of targeted violence points toward events like the Boston marathon bombing, the Germanwings plane crash, and the Franklin Regional High School stabbings.[i] Not all incidents of targeted violence involve guns, and even if they did, the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Final Report estimates that there are over 300 million guns in the United States.[ii] Politics aside, the weapons problem is hard to solve when those who commit violence are determined to do so by any means necessary.

When the gun debate stalls, those interested in prevention typically turn toward mental health or security. However, these issues are also messy and only provide partial solutions. Although many perpetrators of targeted violence suffer from some kind of mental illness, they do not fit neatly into one single category from the DSM. Even if they did, the vast majority of people with mental illness do not commit violence against others. A recent article from the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that “only 4% of violence can be attributed to persons with mental illness” and that “mental health experts do little better than chance in predicting who will be violent.”[iii] Although mental health professionals generally support improving mental health services, they worry about the stigma that comes from conflating mental illness and targeted violence.

Meanwhile, security, whether in schools, shopping malls, entertainment venues, or places of worship, is also not guaranteed. Cameras, locks, police officers, and metal detectors can alleviate some risk, but they cannot eliminate risk entirely. Perpetrators of targeted violence are adaptive; they lock victims inside buildings (Cho), wear protective gear (Holmes, Breivik), and shoot through windows (Lanza). Moreover, security measures are costly in terms of both money and personal freedoms and dependent upon contextual factors like funding, police response time, and spatial layouts.

Aside from “we never thought it could happen here,” another common refrain after targeted violence is the echo of Pericles, Lincoln, and others’ utterances that the dead should not “die in vain.” With targeted violence, politicians often suggest that the best way to honor the dead is to prevent the next incident, but what if prevention is impossible? What if “it can happen here” and will happen again?

None of this is to say that politicians, law enforcement officials, or mental health professionals should stop trying. Finding partial solutions or mitigating factors is better than simply giving up. However, when politicians, community members, and law enforcement officials channel the majority of their energy into prevention, they make promises that are hard to keep and put the focus more on the perpetrators than their victims.

What if those concerned with targeted violence focused less on prevention and more on victims and their long-term needs? What might they learn about community building, coping mechanisms, and memory practices? Recognizing that “it can happen here” need not mean admitting defeat, burying heads in the sand, or succumbing to an all-consuming paranoia, but instead listening to the voices of those who have experienced violence firsthand, opening up difficult dialogues, and becoming aware of collective responsibilities.

Brad Serber is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication Arts & Sciences and a 2015-2016 Rock Ethics Humanities Initiative Dissertation Fellow. This post provides a brief overview of the first chapter of his dissertation, “Reaction Rhetorics: Targeted Violence and Public Security.”


References

[i] “24 Injured in Stabbing at Franklin Regional High School,” CBS Local, April 9, 2014, http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2014/04/09/multiple-students-reported-stabbed-at-franklin-regional-high-school/.

[ii] Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, “Final Report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission” (Hartford, CT, February 13, 2015), 51, http://www.governor.ct.gov/malloy/lib/malloy/SHAC_Doc_2015.02.13_draft_version_of_final_report.pdf.

[iii] Richard A. Friedman and Robert Michels, “How Should the Psychiatric Profession Respond to the Recent Mass Killings?,” American Journal of Psychiatry 170, no. 5 (2013): 455–58, doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13010045.

[i] Squilla, Lynne, It Can Happen Here (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Lab, Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies, 2010), http://www.arl.psu.edu/INLDT/wpstc_focus_grps.php.