By Robin Hattersley Gray · April 20, 2017
From early January through March of this year, Jewish day schools and community centers around the world received more than 160 bomb threats. Before any suspects were apprehended, some folks assumed that ISIS or Al-Qaeda sympathizers were responsible for the threats. Others assumed the KKK or some other right-wing group was responsible. I thought it could have been any of these groups.
According to the FBI, however, the primary person responsible for the bomb threats was a Jewish Israeli named Michael Kaydar. He suffers from an inoperable brain tumor, which his lawyer says “may have had an effect on his cognitive functions.”
Authorities also believe that former journalist Juan Thompson was a copycat of Kaydar. Police say he threatened the Jewish History Museum in New York, as well as Jewish schools in New York and Michigan. Allegedly, Thompson made the threats to frame his ex-girlfriend, and his hoaxes were just the latest in a serious of bizarre actions by him.
When these suspects’ backgrounds came to light, did they surprise you? They surprised me. The bomb threats case is a good example of how our assumptions and biases can be wrong.
I mention this case because of how polarized our nation is right now. It is human nature for people to give greater weight to information that agrees with their preconceived notions, and considering our current state of polarization, the tendency to cling to our biases is probably amplified.
Folks on the left might dismiss the danger that terrorists like ISIS, Al-Qaeda or the Animal Liberation Front pose. The right might dismiss the dangers posed by the KKK, anti-abortion extremists and other rightwing terrorist organizations.
The most important reality to remember, however, is that although our nation is currently focused on terrorism (CS covers the topic of international students and terrorism here and here), to date none of the mass killings on U.S. campuses have been the result of terrorism. Truth be told, many threats to hospitals, schools and universities come from unexpected sources.
Let’s also not forget the fact that, according to the FBI, the average American is much more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by an active shooter. Despite this, we pay a lot more attention to active shooter training than lightning protection.
Then, of course, there is the very real possibility of a female college student being sexually assaulted. In March, the University of Texas (UT) system found that 15 percent of UT Austin’s female students have been raped. Considering the statistical probability of this crime actually happening, how many resources are you putting toward sexual assault prevention and response?
The point here is that we all have the tendency to focus on risks and evidence that confirm our biases and let other information that doesn’t fly under our radar. Some of us would rather cling to our cherished beliefs and be “right” than protect our campus from vulnerabilities and threats that are much more likely to result in injury or death but make us uncomfortable or don’t fit into the narrative of our world view.
Do we need to continue training for the possibility that a terrorist attack might happen on campus? Yes. Do we need to keep an eye on individuals who might be inspired by ISIS, the Aryan Nation or some other terrorist group? Certainly. Do we need to prepare for the possibility of an active killer attack? Of course.
In addition to these threats, however, we also must focus on other crimes and issues, many of which happen much more frequently. These include mental health issues, sexual assault, hazing, dating/domestic violence, workplace violence, cyber security, severe weather and more.
Keeping an open mind will make campuses safer because we will be less inclined to ignore or explain away critical threats and evidence.
If the authorities investigating the Jewish school and community center bomb threats had not kept an open mind and not followed up on all of the evidence, this case might still be unsolved. Fortunately, the investigators understood the need to set aside their own beliefs and follow the facts.
We could all learn the important lesson that it’s better to be “wrong” and safe rather than “right” and dead.