When I was at Cal, one of the great inconveniences was bomb threats against Sproul Hall, which was then (and I presume is now) Cal’s administrative building. From my point of view, the scenario was unchanging: I’d stand in an endless line in order to get or return some piece of paper that was essential to my academic career. Sometimes I’d be waiting an hour or more. And then, just as I got within spitting distance of the clerk’s window, the clerk would announce, “Sorry, there’s been a bomb threat. Everyone needs to evacuate the building.” Nobody panicked; everybody grumbled. These bomb threats all had a “been there, done that” feeling about them. As far as I know, no one has ever detonated a bomb at Berkeley, at least not since I first arrived there in 1979.
Not only was the bomb threat boring (although inconvenient) to me, it was to everyone else too, including the media. These things never made news.
Now, though, in our internet society, a bomb threat anywhere is big news everywhere. Today’s Drudge headline is that there was a bomb scare at Harvard, and there’s a story at the WSJ about it. While it used to take an actual explosion to make the media care, now all it takes is a phone call.
We all have the sense that we live in very scary times. Indeed, I think that 9/11 shows that we do live in dangerous times, with determined enemies. Islamists want to kill us, and they’ll do so with big attacks (9/11) or comparatively small ones (Fort Hood).
Having acknowledged that reality, though, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that a world-wide, 24-hour, instantly accessible media cycle means that things that we used to ignore or treat solely as local news are now presented to the public as immediate, imminent concerns in everybody’s back yard. For once, I don’t blame the media for this. They’re just doing their job in a reconfigured landscape. I do wish, though, that there was some countervailing force or belief system that would quell the fear and panic we feel when we view a headline that, in the past, the media would probably have ignored.