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Paranoia, will it destroy ya – or will it save ya? Columbine, 20 years later

Paranoia, will it destroy ya – or will it save ya? Columbine, 20 years later

Would you rather live life blissfully unaware of the hazards around you, but exceedingly happy and fulfilled, unafraid and experiencing all that life has to offer, only to be killed suddenly in some sort of violent attack, or would you rather live your entire natural life, prepared and hyper-aware of the violence around you, even if that meant being nervous of everything and suspicious of everyone, living in a constant state of fear that your world will rapidly end at any moment?

This was the debate I had a few years back with a former LAPD officer. He was arguing the ‘exceedingly happy’ path and I was arguing the ‘prepared and aware option.’ My point was that the passengers on United Flight 93 on 9/11/01, knew the real threat and intention of the hijackers and were able to respond to that level of threat, thus saving the White House or US Capitol and hundreds if not thousands of others. The passengers on the other flights were, for the most part, blissfully unaware until the final moments. Remember, there was no national warning to air travelers about potential terrorist attacks prior to or on 9/11.

I’ve always been an advocate of informing people about the threats around them so they can be prepared – it’s in my nature, otherwise my textbooks would be about something other than aviation safety and security. I was trying to push for middle ground in the argument with the officer, but he wasn’t having it. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. If you’re living any part of the life of suspicion, you’re incapable of having the life of blissful naivete.

By the way, if your argument is that NO ONE lives in the blissful state, then you may be so deeply ensconced in the second category that you cannot see that there are plenty of people living the blissful, carefree life. I know several personally and frankly I’m envious of them to a certain extent.

The recent lockdown of nearly every school in the Denver Metro area due to what the FBI said is a “credible threat” brings us to this very argument. Growing up in the 70s and 80s we didn’t have lockdown drills, in fact I’m not sure any of us even knew what that term meant. Today, our kids, and most kids, can recite the lockdown drill procedures verbatim and have practiced it more than we used to practice fire alarms. They even have their own techniques to deal with it – they all start Snapchatting their friends to make sure they are okay.

With the anniversary 20th of the tragedy at Columbine High School, the topic always comes up about whether all these school drills really are helping kids prepare for tragedy, or does it make them worry unnecessarily about their schools being unsafe, and makes them feel even worse?

My personal connection with Columbine is very minor. Since I was the Jefferson County Airport’s public information officer at the time, I volunteered to be in the information center at the Columbine incident site the following day to help with the tsunami of phone calls from media outlets around the world. I claim no critical role in any of that incident, I just happened to be there the following day with access to the same information everyone else was hearing publicly. Also, I’ve had a few students come through my university classes that escaped from Columbine on April 20, 1999, and we’ve kept in touch. They are all still affected by it.

Being in aviation security I’m frequently asked if I’m always awake, alert and suspicious when I’m on a commercial flight – slowly and carefully evaluating each passenger as they get on board to see if they are a potential threat. This is kind of hard to do considering I’m asleep half the time. But shouldn’t a good security expert be on guard and on watch 24/7? Maybe, but I don’t want to live my life that way. I want to have both. I believe that a pretty high level of bliss can be obtained BY having an heightened level of awareness, but not to the rank of full-blown-paranoiac (yea, it’s a word, look it up).

There’s an argument for a level of preparedness that doesn’t leave you fearing for your life every second of every day but does provide a better level of safety and security. I’m both saddened but also relieved that my kids can recite the actions to take during an active shooter in their school. In public areas, yea, I do look around for obvious signs of suspicion but I’m not scowling at every person, asking them why they are here and subjecting them all to a hand-wand to detect threatening objects.

On the plane, yes, I do take a look but usually in the boarding area and the look is casual, but if something catches my eye and my spidey-senses start tingling, I will actually inform the crew, or if I know someone working at the airport, I may call their office. If the airport uses the eLerts See Say Something app, I’ll make a report that way.

Once I’m on board, if I’m awake (and after reviewing the safety card), I’ll continue a level of casual awareness, the same one I’d have if I was walking through the woods in bear country. In the Colorado mountains, I don’t dart from tree-to-tree in full camo gear while hauling a .50 caliber machine gun, but I stay alert to my surroundings while also enjoying the stroll and the sights. I may have some repellent with me which may not have any affect on the bear other than to provide seasoning for the meal he’s about to enjoy (me!), but hey, nothing wrong with a little last-chance defense when everything else goes south, particularly if it doesn’t weigh down my backpack.

Should we be aware of the threats that surround us? Yes, I still believe so. I still strongly believe that or else I wouldn’t do what I do for a living. As a safety and security professional I have no choice other than to be reasonably-cautious (and maybe a bit over cautious when the situation calls for it). I also think you can strike the happy medium between being cluelessly-blissful, and reasonably-cautious, both personally and professionally. But, if you just can’t find the middle ground, instead of living your entire life in fear maybe choose to be cluelessly-blissful – those people always look so happy.

By Jeffrey Price,

Professor MSU Denver

Lead Author of Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats

Leading Edge Strategies

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