A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.
She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.
This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.
It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.
While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.
Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.
I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.
Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.
Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.
While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.
Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.
The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.
I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.
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