Discussions about current events and how they’ll play out in the future tend to blunder into the concept of “slippery slope“. The counteracting idea is “relax, nobody is going to go crazy“. I, being a cautious Curmudgeon, tend to place more emphasis on “slippery slope“. I’m skeptical of arguments based on the rationality of people in groups.
The reason I don’t assume that trends will self modulate is because I’ve seen lunacy happen far too often. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes its tragic. Sometimes it causes erratic outcomes never envisioned at the outset. In most instances we’ve been promised at the beginning that things wouldn’t go overboard. (I honestly think most people who say such things truly mean it.)
The key when you’re looking for a slippery slope is to consider (or experience) a long time frame. Over years or decades (or longer) that which is “impossible” slowly, gradually, incrementally, evolves into “possible” and sometimes “unremarkable“. Society would never make the whole trip at once but it can be led inch by inch virtually anywhere. Here’s an example:
On April 20th 1999 two murderous raging assholes went on a rampage. (You’ll note that I refuse to apply politically correct terms. I won’t pretend that Harris and Klebold were disturbed youths, domestic terrorists, or shooters. “Raging asshole” is, in my opinion, a superior descriptor.)
During the tragedy, which was entirely constrained within a single building, the school was placed in “lockdown“. That day was the first time I’d heard the phrase “lockdown” applied outside of a prison. Maybe I’m sheltered. Maybe I was naive. Regardless, I heard the word “lockdown” and my frame of reference was a prison. Something like this; “Inmates in ‘Federal Bad Guy Prison’ rioted until the warden ordered a ‘lockdown‘ while guards restored order“.
I couldn’t make up my mind about it. On the one hand I don’t like the idea of innocent children being “locked down“. On the other hand, children are not adults. When I was in school I was not free to leave. Precocious kid that I was, I tested the concept by occasionally skipping school. I didn’t always make it out of the building. Having read the last sentence you won’t be surprised to know I sometimes found myself in detention which is just what it sounds like. You are detained and not allowed to leave. (I’m not trying to sound overwrought. To the disappointment of my teachers, I never considered detention a big deal.) My point is that you or I cannot legally detain an American without the force of law but a math teacher can do it to an eighth grader.
In the end I decided that “lockdown“, regardless of its efficacy against a shooter, wasn’t a bridge too far; provided it applied to minors within a school for a couple hours. However, I foresaw the “slippery slope” and was concerned. If you can “lockdown” innocent children, what else can you do? To whom can you do it? For how long? On who’s authority?
Three weeks ago two raging assholes set off bombs. During the manhunt the entire city of Boston was placed in “lockdown“. The public more or less accepted this as reasonable. The slippery slope of “lockdown” had taken its next logical (and disturbing) step.
Thirteen years, eleven months, and twenty-six days. That’s how long it took. “Lockdown” had drifted from “prisoners“, to “minors“, to “everyone in Boston“. Comparing Columbine to Boston shows it expanded from “a school building” to “a metropolitan area” and from “a few hours” to “a full day“.
There couldn’t have been a better demonstration of “slippery slope“. I didn’t make it up. It’s not my paranoid imagination. You got to watch it on TV just last month. I’m not saying the folks at either Columbine or Boston were motivated by anything other than the best intentions. Yet the first event which was mildly disturbing set the conditions for the next event which went much further.
The slippery slope hasn’t come to it’s end. If Bostonians had ignored the lockdown order the idea would have run out of steam. They didn’t so the next step will happen when the conditions are right. (Actually I’m not really sure it was an “order”. Nobody seemed concerned with defining the authority under which a local government imposed something very much like martial law. That too is a slippery slope.)
At any rate the “order” was not rejected. It demonstrated that Americans can, will, and do accept the premise. Shutting down the subway system apparently made perfect sense to them. They accepted orders telling businesses to stay shut. They willingly stayed indoors. They did not protest or resist meddling in their affairs.
I’m not going to make dark predictions and dire warnings. Folks going overboard in Boston is not cattle cars and concentration camps. It is, however, a step in that direction. Each time the “unthinkable” becomes “acceptable” we are diminished. The next time someone says “we’re just going to do this, but just for this emergency so trust us” remember the thirteen years between Columbine and Boston. Implementing a “lockdown” on a rural village in Kansas would have been inconceivable in 1970; it actually happened to a city of a half million in 2013.
The Columbine / Boston progression is why slippery slopes matter.