Red Noise

On one of the many sleepless nights since this all started, I rouse myself from bed to settle the question of whether I am hearing sirens. I head upstairs, open a window, listen hard, but I still can’t tell. Is that cyclic whine really detectable under the already distant hum of highway traffic? Did it go away for a while and then come back, or had it never even left? Can I even tell anymore?

Our ability to filter and distill is fearsome powerful. We can pick out loved ones’ voices in a crowd, navigate four lanes of traffic on autopilot, follow multiple storylines while eating popcorn and Junior Mints. We can find Waldo. Distinguishing signal from noise and banishing the latter to the recesses of our brains is a big part of what allows us to navigate the world without blowing our circuits. Has this most potent weapon of ours been turned against us?

The Sunday before last, a gunman in Halifax killed 18 people, Canada’s worst mass shooting in 30 years. I’ll forgive you if you missed it. Killing sprees have become so commonplace that our brains have filed them away, factoring them into our everyday lives. Never mind that more people died in Halifax than in Columbine, a story which dominated our national discourse for days in a bygone age before such things were commonplace.

My almost three-year-old sleeps with a white noise machine. It’s loud enough that if we don’t calibrate correctly, it will constantly trigger the monitor throughout the night and contribute to the usual restlessness. But the white noise knocks out the din from streetlife and neighbors and allows my kid to sleep (mostly) peacefully. In other words, it does what it should. Background sounds are supposed to be harmless, irrelevant, and filtering them out should improve our lives. My son’s white noise machine is so effective that sometimes I’ll play in his room with him for two hours before realizing I never turned it off.


The white noise machine, in its natural habitat.

Since January of 2017, we’ve been in a constant battle to reshuffle the various noises, each new signal dropping from our attention and being reclassified as noise with ever alarming speed. Banning travel from majority-Muslim countries. Firing an FBI director for investigating the chief executive. Gutting environmental protections. Gutting health care laws. Provoking war with North Korea. Illegally bombing Syria. Illegally assassinating a foreign military leader. Using the presidency as a money-making enterprise. Separating family members, locking kids in cages, and letting them die. Extorting a foreign leader for personal political gain. Bypassing our system of background checks for unqualified relatives. Concocting inane defenses for these actions, and/or engaging in the sloppiest of cover-ups. Any one of these outrages, all listed off the top of my head, could’ve rightfully dominated our attention. Now they’ve all been relegated to the history books in the face of the latest entry: allowing, through inertia and incompetence, the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, and causing the worst unemployment crisis of our lifetimes.

The term “white noise” doesn’t apply anymore. White noise is anodyne, inherently dismissable. What we’re hearing now is something else, and it’s no longer confined to metaphor. As I sit in the epicenter of the pandemic, down the street from the nursing home with the most deaths in New York, and in listening range of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the sirens never seem to stop. There goes another one. How many have I missed?

My almost three-year-old has adjusted, as kids always do, to the lack of playdates, the end of car trips, the new sonic landscape. Will the red noise soon register to him entirely as background? Will the blares and beeps that signal yet another life in peril, another soul gasping feverishly for air, become part of his surroundings, accepted without thought? This is the fear, and the disservice I do him whenever I don’t call attention to the distant sirens as we’re poring over a puzzle, or reading a book, or taking a walk. Red noise cannot become white noise, even if our brains want it that way. Evil learns from evil, and we’re all but guaranteed to see this horrifying tactic continue to overwhelm us long after the current crisis is over. I can only hope we’ll do better than I have so far, as another emergency may or may not have just echoed past.