It seem sadly inevitable. Whenever we have a national tragedy, a pattern of repression — often flavored with a racist or at least anti-nonconformist undertone — breaks out. After the Columbine tragedy, schools rushed in to expell any kid that looked like a Goth and put “zero tolerance” policies in place that did little for safety but lots to satisfy panic. After 9/11, we got to see anyone who looked even vaguely middle eastern subject to extra searches, police stops, and occassionally getting dragged away on suspicion of something or other.
Now, sadly, it’s happening again. First, lets pump up the gullible with a non-stop media orgy of “How did we miss the signs?” “Kids these days are so violent, and exposed to so many violent influences.” “Who knows where or when the next mad student will strike?” “It could be anyone! It could be the (Asian) kid next door!” etc., etc., etc. And lets keep flashing the same pictures of the VA Tech murderer over and over and over — in case anyone missed he’s Asian.
All set, than lets zoom ahead to where our latest outbreak of post-trauma panic is taking place. According to this story in the Chicago Tribune, it would appear that the police have arrested Allen Lee for “disturbing the peace.” His criminal conduct? An essay he wrote in his creative writing class disturbed his teacher, who took it to the department head, who took it to the principal, who called the police, who had young Allen Lee arrested. His father subsequently paid the $75 bail, so they obviously do not consider him an imminent threat of some undefined terrible thing.
Until last week, Allen Lee was a straight A student with a contract to enter the Marine Corps after graduation. Other than being Asian, he does not appear to share much in common with VA Tech murdered Sueng Hui Cho. Lee wrote his essay for a creative writing class, in which the teacher urged Lee and the other students to “express their emotions through writing.”
More below . . . .
UPDATE: Here is a link to the essay in question and some author commentary. I am ungenerous enough to wonder if the teacher would have found it so “disturbing” if she had not been personally insulted as a bad teacher delluding herself.
Apparently, Lee succeeded a little too well. According to this follow up story, Lee had one of his characters express some pretty gross and violent thoughts. Of course, such thoughts might naturally be on anyone’s mind following the non-stop orgy of medi coverage from VA Tech.
But “better safe than sorry” goes the mantra in one of these post-national tragedy panic attacks. The Marine Corps has terminated his contract. The school and police continue to maintain that their actions were appropriate, although I find their logic rather dubious. Consider this from the local police:
McHenry County prosecutors on Friday stood firmly by their decision to pursue two misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges against Lee. The action was criminal because it “alarmed and disturbed” the teacher, Nora Capron, said Louis Bianchi, McHenry County state’s attorney….
“It’s like someone getting on an airplane and saying to the flight attendant, ‘Do you hear that ticking sound?’æ” Bianchi said. “The guy would be off the plane and charged immediately.”
We’ll leave aside for the moment that if someone actually thought they heard a ticking asound on an airplane, we would want them to report it to the flight attendant, even if he or she turned out to be mistaken. What’s more disturbing is that this isn’t like getting on an airplane. It’s writing something in class where the teacher instructed students “to write nonstop and not to ‘judge or censor what you are writing.’” And, as far as anyone can tell, there is not a single other thing to raise any sort of alarm.
Yes, the description of this stuff is pretty disturbing. But that suggests that maybe an inquiry from the principal or school counselor might be appropriate. Perhaps a discussion with the parents about what could be influencing their son to come up with such stuff in stream of consciousness in a creative writing class. But an arrest? For “disturbing the peace?” Because the teacher that read it was “disturbed?”
Oh yeah, I forgot. He’s Asian. Just like the VA Tech killer. Who knows what could be going on in that “inscrutable mind,” eh? After all, “they” aren’t like “us” normal folks. Not that we’re racist! We’re just cautious. After all, as State’s Attorney Bianchi reminds us:
Fortunately, we will never know if people’s lives were saved. If he has an issue with violence, he needs treatment.
Whereas from where I sit, what Allen Lee needs is some due process and a nice settlement from the county to help him get his life back together and remind the county, as well as everyone else in positions of authority, to stop panicking.
The sad truth is, it’s real easy to get all worked into a lather after a tragedy and start acting from blind panic. Especially when we can limit our panic to “them,” i.e., Asians, Middle Easterners, Goths, whoever. Then people get sort of embarassed and go “sorry about that citizen, but no harm done. Better safe than sorry, eh?”
But harm is done. Incalculable harm every time we treat our vital due process and constitutional protections as a joke. Allen Lee’s life is already damaged, possibly beyond repair. The Asian community in which he lives, like Asian communities everywhere, will now be looking over their shoulder and censoring themselves to one degree or another, lest they do something to “raise suspicion.” All the stuents at Lee’s school, who have now seen how the police can swoop out of nowhere and arrest you with impunity, have suffered a loss of trust in the system (or worse, beleive that this is how the system is supposed to act, to protect “us” from “them”).
But hopefully, we also learn a valuable lesson. We may not be able to stop the initial outbreak of panic, but we can hope to limit it. Spread the story, and keep them from arresting more Allen Lee’s “to keep us safe.”
Stay tuned . . . .