An Open Letter to Whomever is Threatening to Blow Up Parts of the University of Pittsburgh
I'll put this first, so to be unequivocal: please stop.
Now. I don't know you, and I don't know why you're doing what you're doing, but I choose to believe certain things about you. Some people think you're crazy, in an old-fashioned sense of the term -- that is, that you're broken. That your actions are not the result of a functional decision-making process, but rather some horrible chemical misfire that manifests in certain things typed into an email and certain things written on a bathroom wall. I choose not to believe this, if only for the sake of this letter, which, like your messages, needs a recipient.
Although I choose to believe you have a reason for doing what you're doing, I don't know what that reason is. Perhaps you have some significant grievance against the University, or universities in general. Perhaps you are exposing what you see as a systemic weakness. Perhaps you deeply enjoy feeling powerful. At the risk of obviousness: these, and others like them, are not good enough reasons.
It is occasionally worthwhile to cover again the reasoning behind obviously true things. Some of us felt the need to do this about a decade ago with democracy: a robust and wonderful thing that suddenly appeared rhetorically behind preemptive warfare. In the present circumstances, it seems to me worth covering again why terrorism is bad. Terrorism is bad because the lives it harms are more valuable than the cause for which they are harmed.
You, whatever else you are, are a terrorist, in the truest definition of the word. You are engaging in unilateral public acts that target innocent people and work primarily by causing fear. You are exploiting one of the basic trusts that makes civilization possible -- the tacit assumption that those nearby intend us no harm -- in order to damage this civilization.
And you are hurting lots and lots of people. You are hurting University of Pittsburgh students, who cannot effectively pursue their own educations; you are hurting the faculty, who cannot teach them. You are hurting families, who fear for the safety of their loved ones. You are hurting the University staff, who must evacuate their offices with each new threat, and who must spend their time on contingency plans and media inquiries instead of the operation of their institution. You are hurting other colleges, who must add this scenario to their long list of security concerns, who must spend their resources on planning for such an eventuality.
Higher education, like medicine, is extremely expensive. It is expensive for many of the same reasons that medicine is expensive: we insist on highly-trained practitioners and excellent facilities. A modern four-year college must not only train a student in critical thinking skills, but also job-specific tasks; it must provide seamless and universal technology access regardless of what technology a given student owns; it must maintain an active alumni body that will hire its graduates; it must provide a diverse set of sports and activities; it must maintain its own security force, a force that must never fail.
I'm not sure what you think of college professors, but, generally speaking, they attend school for five to seven years longer than a comparable business professional for exactly the same wage. The next generation of professors -- currently in training -- will do this with much less hope for advancement or security, as more and more institutions restructure their teaching force around adjuncts. Yet these present and future professors accept these conditions because they understand the fundamental imbalance of the system: we, as a culture, expect a much better education for the average child than the average parent can afford.
Consider the remarkably thin wire upon which the modern university must walk: between financial austerity and breadth of opportunity, suspended above dissolution. And yet, somehow, thousands of colleges walk this line daily. As with the cultural assumption of trust that allows me to pass unconcerned through the many people on my way to the grocery store -- and allows you to pass unconcerned through the many people on your way to threaten them -- the social structure that makes possible the university's improbable balance is made of fragile connections. An old and complex web, to be sure, but breakable with a swipe of the hand.
Whatever its difficulties, whatever its failures, our education system remains one of the grandest successes of our nation -- one of the clearest examples of the depth and diversity of our virtues. In it there is hope, there is self-sacrifice, there is pursuit of knowledge, there is purity of intention. There is what you have chosen to attack.
And this, of course, is why you must stop, regardless of your complaint. Although you may have been well and truly wronged, whatever hope you have for change in this world properly rests upon the people you have chosen to hurt, whose ability to enact change you are deliberately undermining. If you are not crazy -- if you are a functional, decision-making being -- then you must understand the the problems that trouble and motivate you will be solved by building, not breaking, large and delicate things.