The email appears to have been a hoax, a mean-spirited effort to force more than a million people to change their daily patterns out of fear.
No matter. Even though there appear to be no explosives-laden backpacks, no mysterious packages and no actual plan to harm children, the online threats that led to the closure Tuesday of every Los Angeles Unified school and preschool demonstrate for Angelenos what it means to be terrorized.
As Supt. Ramon Cortines noted, the district receives threats all the time. But with the San Bernardino shootings still a vivid memory, and with a somewhat more detailed threat in hand, district officials believed they had little choice but to close the schools. Had anything happened to a student or teacher, the horror would have been unspeakable, a wound from which it would be hard to recover. It's easy to understand why the district erred on the side of safety.
The costs of doing this are heavy, though. The already cash-strapped district will probably lose millions of dollars in state aid as a consequence of closing. Thousands upon thousands of parents were forced to change their work plans for the day; chances are that many of those will not be paid, and that's a sacrifice that L.A. Unified families can ill afford. Meanwhile, other cities worry that the district has just shown malefactors around the world how to inflict a major economic blow with a few emails.
This is what terrorism does. The brutal slayings of 14 office workers less than two weeks ago strike such fear into us that a worrisome email can force a shift in our way of life and cost extraordinary sums. Terrorism aims to inflict not just death and injury, but large-scale intimidation that ripples through society long after the attacks are over.
But what options do we as a society have — especially when the possible victims are children?
Perhaps if the San Bernardino attack had occurred a year ago rather than this very month, the emailed threat would have been easier to dismiss. But being more relaxed a year from now could be an even bigger mistake; people with ideologically inspired evil on their minds don't tend to offer warnings.
What new wisdom can the district carry into the future? L.A. Unified officials didn't say at first whether they consulted with counter-terrorism experts about the credibility of the email before deciding to close the schools. If they didn't, that's something worth questioning. The federal government could help by creating a national system for analyzing threats quickly for local agencies.
On a bigger level, it's important to remember that this threat didn't just target the 700,000 students in L.A. Unified and their teachers and librarians and parents. It targeted everyone who sends children off to school each day with a general sense that those children will be safe there. But then, how drastically are we willing to react to the new awareness that our lives might not be as secure as they had seemed? Sweeps at every public school before each school day? We rightly rebel at sacrificing a way of life and giving terrorists exactly what they want. But we cannot afford to take our safety for granted, either.