In 1951, a short public service film called “Duck and Cover” debuted in schools all over the country. It instructed children what to do in case of a nuclear war. The star was an animated turtle named Bert, who wore a jaunty civil defense helmet and pranced across the screen to this catchy jingle:
There was a turtle by the name of Bert
And Bert the Turtle was very alert
When danger threatened him he never got hurt
He knew just what to do
He’d duck and cover, duck and cover
He’d hide his head and tail and four little feet
He’d duck and cover!
The narrator went on to explain that the first sign of a nuclear attack would be a bright flash of light, and that students should respond immediately by dropping to the ground, underneath or next to some sturdy furniture or wall, roll up into a ball and cover their heads with their arms.
Drills that lasted 30 years
I have to assume that even back then, based on the still fresh memory of Nagasaki and Hiroshima alone, no one in charge of civil defense actually believed this was an effective response to a nuclear bomb. And yet, duck and cover drills lasted well into the 1980’s. I remember ducking and covering under my desk in elementary school. This was different from the fire drills, when we were told to go out to the blacktop and gather under the basketball hoop. I recall wondering what we should do if a nuclear bomb fell on the school and started a fire. This seemed like an obviously ambiguous situation that they’d failed to address, but I never got a satisfactory answer.
Looking back, I think these drills stuck around for so long because people needed to believe they could do something. Anything. Nuclear war was a constant, imminent threat, and acknowledging our complete helplessness in the face of it would have resulted in either widespread hysteria or a sudden, massive demand for collective sanity. Our leaders at the time didn’t think they could handle either, so they gave us Bert instead.
Now we have active shooter drills
Fast forward to 2022, and duck and cover drills are a thing of the past (at least for now–looking at you, Mr. Putin), but we find that 95% of American schools have now instituted active shooter drills. Most of these involve locking the classroom door, cramming the kids into a supply closet, and hoping that the guy with full body armor, two assault weapons and 200 rounds of ammunition will jiggle the doorknob, get frustrated and just go away. Though possibly more rational than hiding under your desk from a nuclear bomb, this seems unlikely to be much more successful. So far, real life experience bears that out.
At Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, they had done plenty of active shooter drills. Not just the students and teachers, mind you, but the school district’s dedicated police force, and the city police’s SWAT team, too. They even had an armed guard posted at the door. In the end, none of that stopped a man from walking in and killing seventeen children and two teachers, and wounding nineteen others.
The illusion that we’re doing something
Just like our old buddy Bert the Turtle, active shooter drills are popular because they give us the illusion that we’re doing something. They let us make-believe that we’re protecting our kids–but I don’t think many children are fooled. When we crowd them into a dark supply closet, close the door and tell them to practice being very, very quiet so the shooter won’t hear them, do you think they feel protected? Do you think they feel safe?
I’ve written columns about guns and shootings before. I remember thinking, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, that the children had paid the ultimate price, but that now our collective march toward sanity would finally begin. That was a decade ago. Today, even as I type these words, I wonder if I’m just doing some kind of pointless drill of my own. What evidence do I have that writing this column will get us any closer to taking the guns out of the hands of our children’s murderers? None. But what else can I do? What will all of us do?
Our children are terrified, sitting in the dark, being told to keep quiet—but we, who are supposed to protect them, are still ducking and covering. We can’t pretend this isn’t happening–the flash of light is here and it’s blindingly bright. What are we waiting for?