The Chicago Tribune

June 8, 2003

It’s so exciting to think that in less than a month, all the freelance pyromaniac celebrants in the Chicago area will be lighting fireworks fuses to show their love of country.

And magically, despite issuing ample warnings about launching illegal fireworks, police officers somehow will be unable to locate and arrest these hordes even though the joy boys of pyrotechnics produce huge noises and sparks that easily give away their locations.

But celebrating the 4th of July–and the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th–this way is not the real issue; it’s just that the beloved national observance represents the high holiday for people who insist on spilling or spewing their expressions of life into the lives of others.

That is, they don’t care if you don’t want an M-80 to explode outside a frail relative’s bedroom window or within easy earshot of what had been a sleeping infant. It’s their fun that’s important, not your peace.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in fireworks. Beyond official shows, however, I think they should be legal to shoot off only if duct-taped to the forehead of the user.

The larger issue is the willingness of so many people to intrude on the peace of their neighbors.

That is, when someone brazenly jacks up the volume, the blood pressure of those nearby soon will follow. (This and other noise-related health problems have been demonstrated in medical research, by the way.)

Noise, though, is a subjective thing, and it’s not all loud. Here’s a good definition of noise from psychologist Arline L. Bronzaft, who works with an anti-noise group in Toronto: “Noise should be defined as unwanted, uncontrollable and unpredictable sounds that intrude upon our activities. “Those activities would include sleeping, hearing yourself think, etc.

Consider also that some people don’t suffer in, eh, silence. This spilling can domino into other bad behaviors.

“There is good data showing that noise potentiates anger, aggression if the person has already been provoked and/or witnessed” aggressive behavior, reported psychology professor Gary Evans of Cornell University. “There is evidence that noise by itself suppresses altruism.”

In non-scientific terms, that means that if Guy A is not the most stable fellow around, he might behave very poorly with a garden hoe if Guy B next door shoots one more exploding bottle rocket at Guy A’s house. And, of course, the police will find Guy A.

In sum, we’re talking about a plummeting quality of life for the whole neighborhood.

Noise, however, is not the only way to spew or spill. It might be visual, as with a neighbor who never manages to trade in a car. In his yard he keeps every vehicle he has ever owned so he can enjoy watching them rot.

But noise seems to be the most inescapable spill and the chief weapon of spillers, especially in residential areas.

Consider this scenario: The couple in the apartment above yours love techno zapping sounds and, by the way, have recordings of all the top artists. But it never occurs to them to use earphones with their stereo, because in their world, you don’t exist, and if you did, how could you not love the album “Techno Razz Puppies Replugged”?

And if you knock on their door and ask them to turn it down? Oops. You’ve offended them. Now you exist but only as a menace. They must punish you.

This, friends, is the root of all evil: the total disregard of those around you. Though at its lower levels, such as fireworks, stereos, unparented children in restaurants, drunken campers who can’t do without a boom box, these complaints might sound petty, noise has drawn the attention of official entities from village boards to the World Health Organization, which sees it as a major health issue. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s the chief neighborhood complaint of Americans, topping crime.

And here we are, heading into summer, probably the season of greatest spillage.

So barring an act of God, who could order parents to teach children the antique concept of common decency to their fellow man, the only alternative is to control the spill.

Meet Ted Rueter, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. He founded Noise Free America, an organization that promotes an active battle against noise on all fronts.

“I fear that simply taking actions to avoid noise is not going to reduce noise,” Rueter said. “It can be exhausting trying to change other people’s behavior. It’s certainly easier to just walk away. But if quiet-loving people don’t tell other people about the fact that noise is bothering them, the noisemakers and the authorities will not get the message.”

Noise Free America has chapters in 21 states, including Indiana and Wisconsin but not Illinois, which one would think has more noise and/or spillage problems than the other two. (If you’re interested, the Web site is

Maybe it is time for the quiet people, the non-spillers, to make some noise.

Send e-mail for Ross Werland to [email protected].