iPhone-Obsessed Muni Passengers Miss Gunman -- But That's Not the Real Problem

Stanley Kubrick, Look Magazine, 1946
Oblivious passengers in the postwar era...
This morning, the Chronicle ran a chilling article about how an entire train full of iPhone-gawking Muni passengers didn't notice a man unsubtly brandishing a pistol until he fired it off -- killing one of them at random.

Well, that's horrifying from beginning to end.

But the Chronicle takes this article in a peculiar direction, using it to hammer home the point that Angry Birds et al. have led us to grow far too oblivious of our surroundings (even bringing in a scholar who employs fake vomit in an academic setting). It also quotes the chief of police stating that two-thirds of city robberies now involve smartphones.

Fair enough. Good points. Authorities are preaching vigilance, which is probably a smarter thing to do than play Angry Birds. 

But, left unsaid is just what the hell a train full of vigilant people were supposed to do if they noticed a man waving about a pistol -- a man, specifically, in search of a random passenger to murder. What then?

Guns have managed to kill people for quite some time. And, in truth, public transit has been a place to lose oneself in thought for quite some time too.

It seems like a long time ago that smartphones weren't ubiquitous. But it wasn't. Before people stared into glowing tablets and phones on trains and buses, they read books or kept newspapers in business (the photo gracing this story was snapped for Look magazine by an up-and-comer named Stanley Kubrick. You can Google him on your iPhone).

That said, no one wanted to steal your $500 newspaper. Things have changed in that regard.

(Also, in 2011, the threshold for Grand Theft From a Person was raised 150 percent to $950 -- more than the cost of a smartphone). 

Frankly, in the wake of a Muni shooting -- and with onboard smartphone robberies stretching into ubiquity -- one has to ask if mere vigilance is enough. You can be plenty vigilant and still end up blocking a lunatic's bullet or surrendering your iPhone. If you're going to be on the bus 90 minutes a day, keeping an eye out for random thugs or murderers every last moment is a surefire route to insanity. Reading on Muni -- rather than peering about fearfully -- can actually be a pleasure.

Considering Muni is the slowest transit service in all North America, San Franciscans ought to be the continent's most well-read commuters.

Finally, a pertinent question to ask in the wake of all this misery: Shouldn't there be more of a police presence on these trains and buses? Muni disgorges scores of millions of its operating dollars to other departments every year via work orders, including many millions to the SFPD. But seeing a cop on a train or bus is still hardly commonplace. In fact, a huge chunk of the money the cops siphon out of Muni goes toward the motorcycle brigade. That's a story in and of itself, but this much is clear -- these guys aren't transit cops and they aren't going to break up an onboard incident.

But, when crimes do occur, there's no shortage of telephonic devices on hand to inform the proper authorities.

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Michelle A Bravo
Michelle A Bravo

Yep...the phrase, "get your head outta your ass," is now being replaced with, "get your head outta your phone." The only other instances that I can think of where people bow their heads to anything is in prayer (technology being the new God?) or something that slaves do (technology being the Master). Take your pick, either description is pretty sad.


Horrifying and tragic, why doesn't Muni have police protection like BART?  While San Francisco spends Gazillions on a new bus terminal, it might be prudent to spend some of that money to protect Muni riders.

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