Harvard is not exempt. Harvard, the country’s flagship University, whose name is coincident with all that is best and brightest. Off all that’s upper case about brain wattage, endowed to the tune of a goodly portion of the national debt. Dripping with ivy, braced with red brick, laced with enough green acreage for Merchant & Ivory – is not exempt.
This past Monday morning, Harvard student, Eldo Kim, self-confessed hoaxer, emailed an anonymous bomb threat to various Harvard authorities, including the Harvard police. He then waited in Emerson Hall to take a scheduled 9:00 a.m. examination.
When Mr. Kim’s bomb threat hit the wire, authorities shut down the proceedings, postponed Mr. Kim’s exam and evacuated Emerson and several other buildings.
Although Kim had purchased a temporary email address and a temporary IP address to remain hidden and anonymous, investigators were able to identify Kim as the culprit. Kim confessed to the hoax. He was charged and released on Wednesday to his family on $100,000 bond. If convicted, Kim could face up to five years in prison, three years close supervision and a $250,000 fine – a rather expensive price tag for not wanting to take an exam.
Harvard now joins the list of other less august institutions plagued by bomb threats. The list is long and with each passing week one wonders where next the great tragedy will occur. One wonders after listening to the litany of 2012 and 2013 shootings, bombings and hoaxes, including this most recent assault on the ivory tower, itself, how can anyone doubt the Cassandras and conspiracy-theorists who warn the public every day that surely the “Apocalypse” is at hand. Surely, this is the “Second Coming.” Surely, nothing is sacred.
In a dangerous world, cyber terrorists can hack the government, hack the Pentagon, hack Target, hack Helthcare.gov, but to pull the wool over the 20/20 eyesight of the place that’s given us Lowell, Eliot and Mailer, Helen Vendler and Wallace Stevens, Alan Dershowitz and McGeorge Bundy, Larry Summers and Quentin Compson, Ryan O’Neal and Ally McGraw, please … say it is not so.
What was Mr. Kim’s motivation? What electrified the hot little wire resident in the upper regions of his chest when Sunday became Monday and responsibility with a capital “R” stared the little bomb hoaxer down? Mr. Kim wanted to get out of having to take an exam.
Enter the psychologists, sociologists, teachers, counselors and legal commentators to weigh in on the “why?” of it all. Perhaps if somebody can get to the “why?” of it all, then maybe somebody can form a committee and take it under advisement for a year or two, after which several somebodies will publish a white paper to be read by twelve other somebodies. This white paper will profess to tell all in proper English what everybody already knows: Mr. Eldo Kim wanted out. He wanted out from under the pressure to succeed. He was not up to the challenge of being tested. He could not handle the stress of being judged.
Maybe he had hoped for an act of God, the arrival of a late season hurricane that would shut down Cambridge and buy him some time. Maybe he had hoped for a snow day, a “no school today” blizzard. Maybe he had hoped to come down with one of those noro-take-a-cruise-viruses that make one pray for death. Maybe he wanted to call somebody to tell them that he had a migraine or a family tragedy or one more grandmother on the roof somewhere (i.e., dead, dying or about to die). Maybe he debated trying the “personal matters” excuse, resistant to inquiry because it’s “personal.” Maybe he would have couched the excuse in terms of an emergency somewhere, not fully articulated, keeping it vague because vague makes the smoke of conspiracy billow, makes it more mysterious and perhaps more credible. Maybe he had even considered the rarely effective and all too desperate “cheating-husband” 007 “I-work-for-the-CIA” excuse, only to remember that he went to Harvard and not Yale, and that Yale is still the CIA’s mother hen.
Maybe he thought of all these things and then realized that even if he had a good excuse, he had no one to call. The professor would be unlisted. The doctoral candidate and teacher’s aide would be without papers or authority. The deans would be off skiing in Aspen. And the exam proctor would be this old guy from Somerville who walked the aisles for ten per hour.
No, Mr. Kim had no number for that special person with the goods and the empathy to say: “It’s Ok, Mr. Kim. I don’t like Mondays, either and I understand what that particular brand of anxiety feels like. In my day we called that kind of anxiety the ‘Ed Sullivans,’ because it would start right around the time his show would come on. I even felt it the night he showcased The Beatles, but not even The Beatles could relieve anxiety like that.”
In one respect Mr. Kim is much like many others. In another respect he’s not.
When confronted with a challenge he was not up to, Mr. Kim scrambled for a way out. Not finding one, he manufactured one in a town now supremely sensitive to terrorist activity.
Mr. Kim not only crossed the line, committed a federal crime, but displayed an obtuse disregard for the forces at work in post-marathon-bombing Boston. Of all the cities in the entire United States that would prove Boston-Strong once again, Mr. Kim chose the absolute worst venue to attempt a terrorist-style hoax.
Over thirty years ago Bob Geldoff, of “Live Aid,” wrote a song that he and The Boomtown Rats recorded. The lyrics screamed: “Tell me why,” a command directed at a school girl who, with a shotgun, had blown away several of her classmates from her bedroom window as they walked to school. In life and in the song the little killer answered: “I don’t like Mondays.”
When acts of God or a person’s digestive tract or a relative’s apparent demise fail to provide that Monday morning getaway, the person looking to call in sick will test the rasp in the voice, lower it some, feign depression and a kind of hopelessness that will cure itself in twenty-four hours. Depending on his or her nature and nurture, the absentee, the AWOL student or employee, might feel a twinge of guilt throughout the day. He or she might even feel a little catch in the throat, a real cold, a real excuse, a reason to hide out from under the all-oppressive monster who plagues most adults from before the time they become adults. The monster’s name is “Responsibility.”
The monster stared Mr. Kim down and Mr. Kim committed a crime. Fortunately, unlike the little Irish school girl, he did not kill anybody, but he did commit a serious crime.
Mr. Kim’s situation also shines a light on another aspect of those big tragic events that seem to be showcased on the 24 hour news channels at least once or twice a week. It’s the underside of tragedy, the unexpected benefit derived from bad news. It’s the rare event, tragic, heart wrenching, life changing, personal or shared by a larger community, that does not offer up this benefit, wrapped in anonymous wrapping, barely noticeable so as not to draw or be given attention. It’s this very benefit that makes people huddle together and whisper in the conspiratorial tones of how terrible it all is, this thing, this happenstance, this tragedy that just occurred.
It’s this very benefit that can underscore mourning or pain with a lightness of heart and the adrenalin rush of mourners greeting one another after years of separation at an Irish wake. Whether one cares to admit it or not and most do not, there is a benefit, and the benefit is this: tragedies, illnesses, deaths (any kind of death), acts of God, terrible accidents, relieve one, for a time, even if it’s just for a day or two, of the weight of one’s responsibilities.
Tragedies and all the rest can afford one the ultimate day off. Tragedies and all the rest will outline the victim or the mourner left behind with bold strokes. They will set him or her apart with yellow tape. For a day or two tragedies and all the rest can even elevate the victim or mourner to a kind of celebrity, endow him with gifts he does not have, forgive past wrongs or save his job. Compassion and sympathy white-wash a lot. The gift they give allows the drinker to drink and the smoker to smoke. It brings on the “James Dean self-indulge” in young men and stoic grace in young women. It tells the whole world to back off, to expect nothing from the injured soul, to leave well enough alone.
Apparently Kim was more pragmatic and less romantic in his thinking. No need to get so fancy for Mr. Kim, he just wanted out and one expects, he had no desire to milk it for sympathy after that. It would not be that kind of tragedy. After all, he had authored it, knew what it was and how far he could take it. He was both the cause and beneficiary of his little disruption. He did not want in-house celebrity or in-family praise or an opportunity to sing poorly at a relative’s funeral. He just wanted to get out of being tested, challenged and asked questions that would call on his memory and ability to process information he had taken in over time.
Apparently the fact that the test was a Harvard test for a Harvard course raised the stakes too high for Mr. Kim. It is very hard to be the best when one’s classmates are all the very best.
Mr. Kim, please, rethink your future. If they don’t send you away for five years (and only that Texas District Court Judge Jean Boyd of Ethan Couch fame wouldn’t), you must remember that whatever happens at Harvard stays at Harvard, which is to say: the gains and losses experienced on a college campus are an exaggeration or a minimization of what goes on every day in and about the shops and streets, bars, restaurants and alleyways of Brattle Street or Mt. Vernon Street (that little slice of Cambridge called Harvard Square, otherwise known by students as the “real world”).
Is college life real?
Yes, Harvard’s real, but it is not more than real and it should not be taken as seriously as it or most academies take themselves. For all the Henry James sobriety, the Emersonian self-reliance, the brittle Yankee propriety of the Cabots and the Lowells, colleges in general and Harvard in particular are still just expensive half-way houses. Ostensibly meritocracies, situated between the all-forgiving marketplace of a child’s home (depending on culture, pathology and luck of the draw) and the unforgiving marketplace of the post-grad, go-to-work world – the real world in which one gets what one gets and not necessarily what one deserves. Now that is a Monday morning stress test worth worrying about.