On Friday, I got an email from KU’s new safety alert system, implemented after the Virginia Tech shootings. About 15 minutes later, I got another telling me:
UNIVERSITY POLICE HAVE COMPLETED A COMPREHENSIVE SEARCH OF CAMPUS IN RESPONSE TO AN UCONFIRMED REPORT.
THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF ANY THREAT AND EVERYONE ON CAMPUS IS ADVISED TO RETURN TO NORMAL OPERATIONS.
In my humble opinion, they should have waited those 15 minutes rather than sending out this meaningless warning. I want to point out before you even read this that it was a completely false alarm:
KU PUBLIC SAFETY HAS RECEIVED AN UNCONFIRMED REPORT OF A MAN CARRYING A RIFLE NEAR WESCOE HALL. KU AND LAWRENCE POLICE HAVE RESPONDED TO THE AREA AND ARE CONDUCTING A PERMETER SEARCH. REPEAT— THIS IS AN UNCONFIRMED REPORT.
THE CAMPUS IS NOT IN LOCKDOWN BUT IF YOU SEE ANY SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR ON CAMPUS, CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY. IF YOU ARE IN THE CENTRAL CAMPUS AREA, PLEASE REMAIN INDOORS UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
Unconfirmed reports, as anyone in the news business will tell you, only create fear and confusion. And anyone who has told children the story of the boy who cried “wolf!” know that repeated false alarms make people less attentive to real threats. This message did no one any good.
When KU created this alert system, they sent an email telling people to provide their phone numbers or emergency contact email so that they could alert us to these sorts of events. I didn’t bother giving a phone number, because I figured this is exactly what would happen. The odds of an alarm being bogus so vastly outweigh the chances that it’s a legitimate threat that such a warning system would be without merit.
At least that system lets me opt out. The federal government’s security apparatus seems to be operating with about the same precision, focusing on attention-grabbing but irrelevant programs like seizing water bottles and toothpaste tubes from airline passengers, while leaving the ports unsecured. Bruce Schneier calls this “security theater,” since it is intended to give the appearance of security without actually securing anything.