Sunday, December 27, 2009

Living In A State of Fear

I have a theory that the safer we truly are, the less safe we actually feel?

My home county paved its last gravel road 2 decades ago. Our typography and grid work of roadways make for some of the flattest, straightest roads in the country. Add modern traffic engineering and you have some of the safest roads one could imagine.

Upon them we drive the safest generation of cars the automobile industry has ever made. Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock breaks, halogen headlights, and interiors reengineered to reduce injury after crash impacts. We should feel pretty safe, right?

Then why are people still driving gargantuan, 4-wheel drive SUVs, their design inspired by off-road, and in some cases, military vehicles? I asked a couple SUV drivers why they continue to drive such uselessly huge gas-guzzlers. They both said it made them feel safer.

In his NBA Hall of Fame speech this year, Michael Jordan said, “Limits, like fears are often just an illusion.”

Fear of terrorism has become an illusion of staggering proportions for many Americans. Sure, I want the government worrying about it and taking proper precautions, but the fear most Americans harbor is ridiculously unjustified.

In their best selling book Super Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner provide stark data: “The probability that an average American will die in a given year from a terrorist attack is roughly 1 in 5 million; he is 575 times more likely to commit suicide.”

Why do we think the danger is so much greater than it is? Consider what happened Christmas night. A man lit an incendiary device on a Detroit-bound plane. For days to come cable news will bombard us with information about that 1 chance in 5 million as if it’s breathing down our necks. And the hundreds of suicides that took place around the Christmas holidays will go unmentioned.

A neighbor recently told me he was worried about crime. “It all just seems out of control,” he said. Watching a home security system commercial depicting criminals kicking in doors, you’d think we're all in constant danger. But according to FBI data our current rate of violent crime is about the same as it was in 1970.

In the various media accolades Hamilton County has gotten as a great place to live, our low crime is one measure. Yet, in the homes I show in my rounds as a Realtor, more and more have security systems.

We live in one of the safest places in one of the safest countries in the world – a kind of safety that the vast majority of people around the world can’t imagine. So why are we so scared?

And since the election of Barack Obama, guns sales have gone through the roof as fearful citizens, egged on by TV and radio demagogues believed Obama would dramatically tighten gun control. But the only action Obama has taken on guns is to broaden where they can be carried, making it legal to carry them in national parks.

What might those new gun owners worry about instead? The fact that nearly 60% of gun deaths are caused by suicide and accidents. And how about those women who are buying guns to protect themselves? The person most likely to kill a woman with a gun is her husband or boyfriend.

So these folks bought guns in record numbers and brought them home to the one place where they do the most damage.

A lot folks don’t understand what to fear.

How about child abductions, the worst fear of any parent? We fingerprint the kids, warn them about talking to strangers and have them report cars that drive by too slowly as they play. The schools are locked-down and the teacher and parental field trip background checks have been conducted and filed.

But the chances your child will be abducted are 1 in a million - literally. They’re twice as likely to be killed in an airplane crash. If your child is playing youth football or taking horseback riding lessons, you better pull them out because far more children are killed in those activities than are abducted. In fact, your child is 700 times more likely to attend Harvard than to be abducted.

My college freshman son, home for Christmas, lamented that if he wanted to visit one of his old high school teachers, he would have to call ahead to make arrangement with the school, then check in at the office upon arrival to get a ID tag, and then sign an arrival and departure sheet.

I suppose we can blame Columbine for this school lock-down insanity. But was Columbine the worst school massacre in history?


The worst happened in 1927 in Bath, Michigan in which 43 people were killed. In the aftermath, our grandparent’s generation did not lock-down every school in America. Instead they recognized the freakish rareness of the tragedy and went on living life in a hopeful, rather than fearful manner.

FDR was right. All we have to fear is fear itself.

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