Trench-coats and body-counts

When I went across to Arizona last October, I was looking to buy a long, black leather trench-coat -- like so many clothes, they're a lot cheaper in America, and so it seemed a good chance to get one. But I soon discovered that post-Columbine, long black trench-coats have become an under-the-counter article -- you just don't see them in shops. Sure, they still exist, but they're a special order item. In fact, you need a licence to own one, and the background checks are considerably more stringent than for any automatic weaponry.

Actually, that last bit is an exaggeration, but the black market in black clothing is not the only cultural change to take place in Arizona since the Trenchcoat Mafia had their day in the sun. In the first four weeks of the year, no less than 18 schools were threatened with Columbine-style retribution; bombings, arson or good ol'-fashioned shooting sprees. The latest hit close to home, at Chaparral High School, which Chris's son Robert attends. This started with graffiti in a bathroom, saying that everyone would die on February 3rd. Next, there was threats made to kill/rape/dismember a specific teacher - found in the supposed sanctity of a staff toilet. And then a gun was found on school premises. Whoever was responsible had a nice sense of threat escalation; a career in Hollywood script-writing beckons.

The authorities took no chances, and made February 3rd an optional school day. Robert went - armed with his mobile phone, so that at least he'd be able to phone-in an eye-witness account of the apocalypse to CNN [Interestingly, my old high school, Forres Academy, have just banned mobile phones as "disruptive". Wonder how far they'd get with that in America?] Needless to say, nothing happened; well, Robert got hit with a volleyball, but this did not turn out to be the precursor to Armageddon. This is unsurprising, given the presence of enough armed law-enforcement, in a variety of flavours, to take over most less well-armed nations. You'd need to be a particularly stupid psychopath to take them on, after a marketing campaign that puts The Blair Witch Project to shame.

All these incidents have prompted soul-searching about the causes, from the blatantly obvious - "it's power for the kids," said the president of a security company - to the patently fatuous, with one "expert" suggesting it was partly due to Arizona's nice weather, giving kids lots of alternatives to do on their extra days off. The responses to the threats have been similarly varied: the best one seems to involve bribery. At one school, they found a threat at 10:15, the principal offered a $200 reward after lunch, and the perpetrators were in custody by 1 p.m. That's swift and to the point. It helps that the kind of losers who make these threats (not to be confused with those, more deserving of respect, who actually carry them out), are usually Johnny No-Friends, so that only mild inducement is necessary for their classmates to turn them in.

There's no doubt, as mentioned above, it's a power trip for an almost entirely powerless group to be able to cause so many adults to run around doing headless chicken impressions. And it's not something that's going to go away in the near future; no school is going to treat these threats with the seriousness they deserve i.e. none at all, simply because they would be totally crucified if something did happen -- even if it was a meteor hitting the school. These days, the hypersensitive authorities tend to leap on even the slightest sign of "trouble"; so no matter how fine your grades, you'd better watch out with those English compositions...


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