Black, White, and Amber


“You are horrible people.”

Scott Gilmore titled his essay thus in the (electronic) pages of Macleans Magazine back in February of 2019, and he was far from alone.  The essay was written in the wake of complaints about an Amber Alert that had not ended well.  A child had been murdered.  And Gilmore, lashing out, declared in no uncertain terms that anyone that would raise any note of dissent about the system put in place to alert the public to these situations was not a “good person.”

No room for nuance. No room for grey.  Just dark, dark, dark.  “Horrible people.”

Said Gilmore, “That is what citizens are complaining about today. They were asked to help save a child and this irritated them. In small towns, when a child goes missing everyone knocks on doors and wakes each other up and searches all night. Because in a community people look out for each other, they understand the duty we owe our neighbours. They recognize that if you want to live in a town that protects its children, occasionally you have to get up, go outside, and help.”

There it is, The Answer.  If you do not agree, unequivocally, that these alerts, in their precise form, were a good thing, you are horrible.  And when it happened again, early Tuesday morning at around 5 am, and a few people extended tendrils of disagreement on social media with not so much the need for such alerts, but their execution, they were branded as such.  Horrible. Lumped in with the idiots who called 911 about the alerts, complaining about being awoken or bothered by them, and demanding from dispatchers–these folks that deal with the very worst of tragedies–that they stop the alerts.

Meanwhile, I am saturated, sponge-like, with the ongoing tragedies of the world, so much so that sorrow, and anger, and frustration seem to leak out unbidden from my every pore.  Migrants and refugees in cages. Georgia’s new abortion laws that make women more or less the property of the state, extending their tentacles across state borders and into hospitals, proclaiming life at all costs, even that of other lives.  Similarly restrictive laws in my own home state, where a corrupt party has engineered a seizure of complete control over many years and now, emboldened, reveals its true colours. Hate. The alt-right.  The abnegation of the lessons of history.  The 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches, and the truth that we had told ourselves–that we fought because the Nazis were evil–is a lie.  We fought because we were attacked. Chamberlain appeased, Roosevelt sat in isolation, Stalin made a deal with his fellow devil before he wheeled around and turned on him. Voices–now given new credence–deny the six million and the eleven million more. Other voices deny the advances of science, wishing back the iron lung and the graves of children.  They shout down the floods and the vicious hurricanes, the starving polar bears.  Facts do not exist beyond what they can make up, beyond what their leaders proclaim to be true.  There is no denying that there are horrible people in this world.

Meanwhile, an insomniac is startled by the sound of approaching disaster at 5 am. Phones in hospital wards go off with the same sound in waves of approaching calamity, and nurses and doctors scurry to calm their patients and themselves.  A man with PTSD trembles at the sound figuring a coming attack. A child screams with fear. A woman with anxiety has a panic attack.

Are these the horrible people?

Each of these examples happened when the most recent Amber Alert was triggered earlier this week.  Each of these people felt silenced because any note of disagreement with the need to signal the news of a missing child with the same tones we would use for an approaching natural calamity would brand them as horrible. Mean. Anti-child.  Whiners. Self-centred, anti-community, rejecting the requirements of civilized society.

To quote Gilmore: “But we have grown so entitled to our comforts, we’ve forgotten that we have to pay for them, that we bear collective responsibilities. We can’t be bothered to vote. We resent paying taxes for public goods. We volunteer in our community less and less. And now we even begrudge having to help save the life of a child.”

Every single one of those I just mentioned in my earlier paragraph is, by all definitions I know, a good person.  Many are people who have sacrificed deeply of themselves to help others, often despite debilitating disabilities or past trauma. Some are those too young to understand. Others’ brains are wired in a way that have difficulty processing disturbing sounds.

And yet, we are telling them that wanting to escape such sounds makes them horrible.

Let’s be clear:  Not one of these people I mentioned earlier called 911.  Not one is advocating for an end to the Amber Alert system. Not one was complaining because their TV show was interrupted, or because they were “inconvenienced.”

The concern that each of them had was about the sound–the piercing, undulating, klaxon sound of the emergency alert itself. It’s a very effective sound, startling, inducing a reptilian fight-or-flight response in the brain of even the most placid person.  And it can’t be silenced, except by silencing one’s phone, TV, or radio altogether.  That makes it pitch perfect for natural disasters or other imminent dangers to human life.  That’s the response you want if you want people to take immediate action to take shelter, evacuate, or avoid the scene of a tragedy.

It is not the sound, in my opinion, that you use if what you want is for people to be on the alert for a missing child.  And I think it will dilute, as time passes, the sound’s ability to convey important information about disasters or large-scale emergencies.  Amber alerts are much more common than those kinds of alerts.

Perhaps we are hamstrung at the moment. This relatively new way of propagating Amber Alerts uses the existing warning system; perhaps there is currently no way of creating nuance in the way the alerts are sounded.

And yes, it “works.” Several children have been found alive, and the perpetrator of a crime against one who was not was located quickly.

I am not one who the alerts really bother, except for the times that I have been clawed by a frightened cat bolting off my lap at its sound, and even then, I would not suggest that this is a reason for modifying the alerts.  (Because, you know, that would mean I was horrible).  But people I care about–people who care about me, and who care deeply for others–do have these issues.  And that’s why I felt I had to write this.

Where the perpetuators of the “horrible” narrative fail is in the discreditation and dismissal of the idea that the system can or should be improved or tweaked. Anyone who dares to voice this opinion is “horrible.” Full stop. Not a good person.  No room for nuance.  Your opinion thus invalidated, you are not worthy of being listened to or seen.

I hear you.  I see you.  I am listening.  Because that’s what being part of a community means.

“Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
–Wendy Mass