Any of us who fly from time to time know the familiar flight attendants’ spiel. Besides the wise reminder to “adjust your own mask before helping others”, we are told to “find the exits closest to you, keeping in mind that your closest exit may be behind you.”
I comply. Not only do I find the exits, I also decide which will be easiest to reach, even if it isn’t the closest.
In 1980, a fire started in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, killing 85 people. That disaster and others in the early 80’s taught me to find the exit on my hotel floor.
I’m not afraid. I have a better understanding of probability than the average Joe, due to numerous classes on it and a career in financial management. I know the probability of an airplane emergency or a hotel disaster is exceedingly low, and I run more risk every time I get in my car. But I look. After all, it only takes a moment to register this information.
The probability of being a victim in a mass shooting also is exceedingly low. (The current rate of occurrence, however, is many times greater than the airplane disaster or the hotel fire.) However, up until now I’ve considered this type of violence to be either TARGETED (not at me) or RANDOM (low probability). Now it feels like the potential for it is everywhere.
In 1991, before we moved to Iowa, a mass shooter at the University of Iowa killed four faculty members and a student, and seriously injured another, before killing himself. Since the shooting I studied at UI and taught there. On Valentine’s Day of 2008, a mass shooter at Northern Illinois University killed five people and wounded 21 more, before killing himself. Two of my college degrees are from NIU and I taught there, also. The murders were in a classroom I’d frequently used. There is no way to kid myself that mass shootings can’t happen where I am. The potential for it is everywhere.
Last night before I fell asleep, I conceded that the wise move is to locate the exits, in every public place I visit. Jim and I planned to attend the annual “Thieves’ Market” at the university union this morning. Mentally I located the exits of the rooms used for the market’s vendors.
Today while we spoke with a photographer selling his wares, the building fire alarm began to blare. The photographer was reluctant to leave his booth. I pointed down the aisle. “Your nearest exit is about 100 yards that way. When you need to leave it will be easy to get out.” Jim and I headed out the door.
Public health risks are addressed in every realm but firearms. Automobiles, yard darts, hotels and airplanes, sudafed, all are highly regulated to improve public health and safety. The one thing intended to kill us is not.
I am not afraid. I am sad and ashamed that we accept the violence, that it has become so commonplace, and that my only defense is to locate the nearest exit.