It was an ordinary Wednesday in Chapel Hill. A little after 9 in the morning, the university sirens blared, and all over town – in my home, two miles from the campus – the voice of authority, tuneless and metallic, told everyone to stay inside. Some 20 minutes later, the sirens blared again. Had the bomb landed or the bomber blown himself up? No: All clear. What happened? No one knew, or at least no one said. An uninformative email landed in our mail boxes, saying “there is no verified, ongoing threat.”
That night, the voice of authority reached into our homes again. The killers had taken aim at our phones, computers and TVs, and this time the voice was not crying “Wolf!” Two or three gunmen had killed 14 people in a government building in San Bernardino, California, and wounded 17 more. They threw a pipe bomb, but it was a fake. The police had killed two suspects, but they could not yet describe the scale and character of the plot, or even what the killers were plotting against.
Morning and night, the authorities bombard us: We must now protect you. We cannot protect you. We do not know what to protect you from. Go inside with your phone or laptop and scream your apps off.
Everyone is protecting you. No one is. Welcome to the national nervous breakdown.
Chapel Hill is a college town. We are too enlightened to panic because of what we see on TV. We know more gun control will stay the panic. Some political and academic authorities say so. Better mental health treatment will help. Give us a dose of some social tranquilizer. The music of Bing Crosby. Reruns of “Forrest Gump.”
Sorry, but being in a college town isn’t soothing. The students are warding off 1,001 micro-aggressions. Racial sub-violence is making some students scream, gender is making others scream, and transgender is the issue for some more. And the voice of authority says: We’ll protect you. Then they don’t. They can’t. If they can’t protect you from super-violence, they can’t protect you from sub-violence. If they can’t stop the bad guys, they can’t re-educate the not-so-bad guys.
Welcome to the national nervous breakdown. It isn’t less severe on campus. It’s more severe. The fragile students are harbingers of an increasingly fragile society. Those of us on the wrong side of 50 think the students are flakes, but never mind what the students think of their elders. Wait till Chapel Hill or Ann Arbor becomes the next San Bernardino. Then everyone will scream.
Even before he’s elected, Donald Trump will become president. This time, the voice of authority will mean business. The authorities will protect you by militarizing your fears and aiming them at someone or anyone else.
Fred S. Naiden is a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.