Assessing and managing threats is one of the toughest jobs facing modern societies. A quick look around suggests that we are not very good at it.
Fourteen years after a fumbling would-be terrorist on a flight bound for Miami tried to set off explosives hidden in his shoe, airline passengers in the United States still have to take off their footwear when clearing security, whether they are giggling teenagers or middle-aged moms. Almost one year after a gunman attacked Parliament Hill in Ottawa, raising concerns about security at other government buildings, a guard still stands at the locked back door of Toronto City Hall, even though hundreds of people stream through the front doors unimpeded.
We are suffering from chronic anxiety that robs us of the ability to separate serious threats from minor ones and to respond accordingly. Consider the strange goings-on at the University of Toronto.
On Sept. 5 someone with the handle Kill Feminists typed a hateful rant urging violence against university women on the comments section of a local website. Police said they didn't think the threat was credible, and the posts were soon taken down, but that didn't stop U of T from going into a state of fretful agitation that lasted days.
University authorities said that they were stepping up patrols by campus police. Colleges and departments sent out notices giving details of the threat. The university president, Meric Gertler, put out a statement calling violence against women "a despicable reality in Canada" and saying the U of T was putting out information about how professors, students and staff could "ensure their own safety."
Female students told reporters who visited the campus that they were worried and fearful. Some recalled the case of Marc Lépine, who killed 14 women in the infamous Montreal massacre of 1989. "I do feel like I have to be more cautious," one student told the CBC. "I'm listening to my music right now. Maybe that's something I should stop. It's my first time living away from home."
A campus union local told its members they had a right to refuse to go to work if they believed their safety was at risk. A gender studies professor cancelled classes. Demonstrators marched to protest misogyny and violence against women.
In short, Canada's biggest university tied itself in worried knots for days, all because one idiot posted some drivel on the Internet. This may be just what he wanted: to cause a big stir. If so, the university played right into his hands.
There has to be a better way to respond to random ravings and stray threats. Sad to say, these are a reality of the times. Every city hall has the occasional bomb scare or threatening letter to the mayor. Every university gets its share of similar stuff. A place as vast as U of T, with its 84,000 students, can't avoid it.
Thanks to the Web and social media, those who want to spread fear or hatred have scores of virtual bathroom walls to scrawl on. Their vitriol spreads in a flash from screen to screen.
When authorities play it cool and try not to make a big fuss – in other words, when they respond calmly and rationally – critics pounce on them for failing to take the incident seriously or for hiding the truth from the public. That is precisely what happened at U of T, where administrators are being accused of failing to react quickly enough. No official wants to be accused of disregarding public safety. As a result, authorities allow themselves to be a goaded into an outsized response that only increases public anxiety.
It is sad to see a proud public institution devoted to the pursuit of reason let itself get so rattled by such a puny thing as an online posting, however vile. Somewhere out there, a grubby little scribbler is rubbing his hands.