I didn’t wait till the WTO came to town, the nitroglycerin arrived from Canada, or the year turned to launch my terrorist career. My target (though I didn’t realize it going in) was a Seattle high school that was staging a student drama festival. A performer had asked me to videotape one of the plays. That play proved an exquisitely apt choice: Bang Bang, You’re Dead, a heavy-handed drama about high school shootings written in the wake of the Springfield, Oregon, massacre, which the students performed with persuasive conviction.
I arrived shortly before curtain time and discovered that the camera’s battery had failed to recharge. I noticed an electric outlet and remembered an extension cord in the car. I spotted a familiar-looking couple sitting by the auditorium’s center aisle and asked if I could leave the camera bag with them. Sure, they said, and I dashed out to the car.
As I reentered the school, I passed a security guard who was exiting. “Is this yours?” she asked, holding the worn camera bag as though it were a pit viper. Yes, I replied—did someone try to take it? No, she said, and chided me for causing a panic and stopping the show; people thought I’d left a bomb and she was about to call 911, presumably to have the bomb squad blow the bag up. I tried not to sound impatient as I explained that it was just a camera and I had to get back in for the play. She finally (and warily) looked in the bag and returned it to me. “Just don’t leave it there again! We’ve had a lot of bomb threats lately.” Oh? “Not in this school, but in other schools.” (According to district data, threats have declined this year after tripling in the previous school year.) She later asked for my name: “I have to put it in my report.” I was relieved that she didn’t want to take my fingerprints.
As I slunk out, I considered what an absurd suspect I made: If I wanted to plant bomb, I’d stash it discreetly under a darkened seat to the side, rather than announcing that I was placing it by the well-lit main aisle. And then I realized: Here I was plotting how to plant a bomb in a crowded auditorium—a thought that never occurred to me even during the dreariest high school assemblies. And I understood one reason such thoughts do occur to the kids themselves: When the system cracks down, it’s only natural for adolescent ingenuity to find ways to sneak through the cracks. I remembered one of my daughters’ friends—the kind who didn’t shirk such challenges—telling me how to sneak a knife through a metal detector. Don’t ask, but it’s easy.
Welcome to post-Springfield, postColumbine High School USA, in the age of zero tolerance and maximum vigilance. If grizzled parents with camera bags can arouse such suspicions, imagine the scrutiny the kids themselves must endure. Like the 11-year-old middle-schooler who was expelled when a squirt gun left in his backpack from a weekend sleepover fell out in the cafeteria on Monday. After three weeks of parental appeals and public outcry, district officials relented, let him back, and announced that expulsion would no longer be automatic for every toy gun brought to school. But they still seemed puzzled at the outcry; after all, one noted, they’d already expelled “more than a dozen” students with toy guns in that year of the Super Soaker.
Leaving the school that night, I also thought of another accidental terrorist, one who shut down downtown Seattle without even knowing it: the artist savant who first came to fame as “Subculture Joe” when he and his friends pinned a full-scale welded ball-and-chain on the Seattle Art Museum’s Hammering Man. After more and even more ambitious guerrilla-art projects, “Joe” attempted a final gesture. He dropped his summary piece—a 10-foot realistically detailed welded heart—off at Westlake Park, where it had stood before with a giant motorized knife through it. A meter-reader ticketed the truck the heart sat in, and the cops prepared to tow it. Then they noticed one snatch of graffiti, scribbled on the bumper by a Job Corps kid when this Heart of American Youth began a cross-country tour: “Timber Lake Carpentry Rules (The Bomb!)” Anyone who’d spent any time listening to adolescents could have told them “the bomb” (or, more properly, da bomb) meant “cool.” If anyone did, the cops didn’t listen, just as they ignored the passersby who told them not to worry—”That’s just Subculture Joe again.”
When the Heart‘s creator turned himself in later that day, he was charged with using a “simulated” explosive device “to intimidate or harass”—a law passed in the hysteria after the World Trade Center bombing, it’s a felony carrying up to a five-year penalty. Prosecutors kept him in jail through the summer and, after they got their grandstanding in, let him go quietly.
The affair of the Heart had two visible results: Seattle’s police received a $100,000 bomb-sniffing robot that the City Council had refused to buy them the week before. And Subculture Joe renounced art and disappeared from view. I wondered if the uproar might also teach the town a lesson about the perils of overreaction and terror-phobia. Now, chastened and wiser, I’ve vowed never to be caught again abandoning camera bags with intent to intimidate.
One more reason to bleed
In the January 27 column enumerating all the good selfish reasons to give blood, I left out the starkest of all: Giving blood prevents hemochromatosis, excess iron build-up, a painful, crippling syndrome. An estimated tenth or more people of northern Europeans ancestry are susceptible to it, and the treatment for it is—bleeding. So, might as well beat ’em to the puncture and put that excess blood to use.
A few months ago, I said I’d take some time off from this column and (doubtless to the disappointment of some readers) only took a few weeks. This time I really mean it. I’ll be away till autumn, to catch up on other work I’ve been trying to get to since, well, the last millennium. See y’all after the sunny weather has come and gone.