If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a very strong interest in history, especially disaster history. I frequently make the argument that there is really nothing new under the sun when it comes to disasters. It is just that we often forget the lessons of the past.
One of my current projects is serving as a keynote speaker for a series of events around school safety. In preparing my remarks, I spent a considerable amount of time digging into statistics and anecdotal evidence on school shootings. We assume that school shootings, particularly the mass killings that have made headlines over the past few years, are a recent phenomenon. The truth is the first school shooting in the United States was a mass killing and it occurred in 1764 when supporters Pontiac’s rebellion raided a schoolhouse and killed the teacher and ten children.
Similarly, we often hear the phrase “everything was different on September 12th”. Yet September 11th was not the first instance of a foreign terrorist cell operating in the United States. In 1915, German intelligence set up a ring of spies and saboteurs operating primarily in New York and Washington DC that was responsible for the destruction of a considerable amount of war matériel bound for Europe, bombings in major cities, and the attempted assassination of J.P. Morgan. Five years later, an anarchist’s bomb exploded on Wall Street, killing 39 people and wounding hundreds more. Terrorism is decidedly not a new phenomenon in the United States.
I firmly believe that we can learn a lot from the study of past disasters. However, let me add a caveat. We must not use events of the past as predictors of future events. That is, we cannot assume that because something happened a certain way that it will happen that same way in the future. The past can provide us with ideas of what could occur and how our predecessors either successfully dealt with the crisis or failed to deal with it. In the end, however, the lessons of the past cannot substitute for solid situation assessment and sound decision-making in a crisis.