Someone needs to get busy and explain the meaning of the term “lockdown” in the context of a free society where citizens are free to risk their own lives moving about in the world if they care to do so. The legal ability of the police forces to order citizens about like cattle, in other words, is limited. Clearly, they may create a zone around a crime scene and exclude outsiders. They may block off a section of a city or a campus as they search for and engage a criminal in the effort to make an arrest. Beyond that, what are their actual powers? They are limited.
As the term lockdown is generally used, I think it means that people, in the case of Virginia Tech, students, are ordered to stay indoors and away from windows. This seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Yet, we should be aware that “orders” in a free society are not necessarily orders at all. So long as a person is not interfering with police officers or threatening harm to others, as adult they can’t really be ordered to stay anywhere. The choice for police if people chose to move is to waste time arresting them.
In a violent confrontation, like a mass school shooting or a terrorist event, ordering people to stay in place could lead to their death. Suppose the police at Tech on Thursday had gone into a dorm, ordered everyone to stay inside, but then were suddenly called away themselves by their commanders, followed by an invasion of the building by a shooter. The good boys and girls who had followed orders would be just as dead as if they had not been protected at all.
There are other more subtle problems to following police orders. When the police confront a situation, their goals are not the same as the citizen. The student or other person facing potential death has one main goal: stay away from or get away from danger and live. The police want to take control of the situation and handle it in the best professional manner that would result in the minimum of police casualties. These are not the same goals and sometimes they are direct conflict.
There have been many situations where the police stayed outside a building where shootings were taking place, or people were dying (such as Columbine), waiting to get orders on what to do next. The police objective is to save lives if possible, but above all to deal with the situation professionally and to end the day with no police officers dead. The individual’s goal is very different: to survive. The police are there to try to assist that individual, but they have other goals, too, ones that can conflict with the imperative of the person at risk.
In a mass shooting situation, it is reasonable to assume that having people running about a campus scared for their lives would create chaos and, perhaps, an opportunity for more killing. I would argue the opposite, however. If someone is intent on killing a lot of people, as the crazed shooter was in 2007, allowing people to disperse rapidly on their own might be the best solution, even though it might look like panic on television video.
LOCKDOWN itself is a kind of sick, ugly term. Its origins are prisons, a place where more and more Americans have direct or indirect experience. For the word to be used loosely, without any clear definition of what it means, tends to push all of us, and our society, into a prison mentality. In America, as a general case, the police are not allowed to lockdown free, law abiding citizens. That is otherwise called arrest and there are specific, Constitutional procedures that apply. The police can argue that allowing people out of dorm rooms would interfere with their investigation, but the courts have said repeatedly that the police cannot declare whole sections of cities to be crime zones.
In an emergency situation, it is wise to listen to those who are directly involved in dealing with it, especially for those who have had no experience in dealing in such matters. But, in the end, the individual must decide what needs to be done to protect his own life. This is as basic a right as can ever be imagined.
In the meantime, the news media owes it to all of us to get some definition to the meaning of the word and, at the same time, to explain that we all retain rights as citizens, even when there is great danger nearby.
Doug Terry, 12.10.11
A further personal note. I write about these issues both as a former daily journalist who saw more than my share of the results of violence and as a father who had a daughter in high school during the sniper killings in the Washington, DC, area in 2002. With ten people shot and killed in random fashion throughout the area, and most of the killings within a few miles of our house, the consideration of violence was not a matter of idle speculation. I would want my daughter then, and any family member now, to realize that no matter what happens, they need to take personal responsibility for trying to ensure or regain their own safety. Cooperation with police is fine, but survival is the immediate goal. Further, we can not surrender all of our basic human rights just because of an emergency. If we do so, we are likely to find those rights are not given back when the threat passes.