Terrorists, Perverts, and Flaming Pajamas

better-angelsIt’s not nearly as bad as you think, or as you’ve been led to believe.

Certainly regarding violence, abduction, terrorism and general murder and mayhem, anyway. (I think it’s probably a lot worse than most people think regarding the state of the global environment, but that’s not our topic today.) Today is all about the current culture of fear, and why, despite what you may believe, you have every reason to be optimistic.

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which is an astonishing book, the most riveting and readable non-ficition I’ve enjoyed since Michael Pollan’s “The Ominivore’s Dilemma.” His basic premise, much of which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, is that “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

That may be met with incredulity by many people, for whom the expressions ‘We live in violent times,’ or ‘The world is a dangerous place’ feel like inherent truths. Pinker, however, demonstrates (in roughly 1000 pages and with innumerable charts, graphs, and statistics) that a person just about anywhere in the world today is far less likely to be a victim of violence than at pretty much any other point in human history.

The gulf between perception and reality is startling. For example, when surveyed, “people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.”

I don’t want to wade too deeply into the numbers here, but Western and Central Europe have homicide rates of about 1.4 per 100,000, and while the US is a sad anomaly among stable democracies, with a rate of about 7 per 100,000, that rate dropped from stratospheric highs in the 1970s and 80s, has steadily decreased since the early 1990s, and is continuing its descent. In addition, other violent crimes including rape, assault, armed robbery and domestic violence have seen a similar plunge.

Then there’s terrorism. We live in an ‘Age of Terror,’ right? One that is an existential threat to ‘our way of life’ and ‘civilization itself.’ Well, let’s look at the numbers.

Since 9/11, the date that kicked off the so-called ‘Age of Terror,’ 14 people have been killed in the US by terrorism, a rate of 1.2 per year. “Compare the American death toll,” Pinker writes, “with or without 9/11, to other preventable causes of death. Every year more than 40,000 Americans are killed in traffic accidents, 20,000 in falls, 18,000 in homicides, 3,000 by drowning (including 300 in bathtubs), 3,000 in fires, 24,000 from accidental poisoning, 2,500 from complications of surgery, 300 from suffocation in bed, 300 from inhalation of gastric contents….In fact, in every year but 1995 [the year Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal office building in Oklahoma City] and 2001, more Americans were killed by lightning, deer, peanut allergies, bee stings, and ‘ignition or melting of nightwear’ than by terrorist attacks.

Consider that a moment. You and your children are much more likely to be killed by flaming pajamas than by terrorists.

But perhaps the perceptual fallacy that most affects how we parent is the risk of kidnapping by strangers, what Pinker calls “a textbook case in the psychology of fear.” Of course, there is nothing to compare with the grief of parents whose children have been taken from them. But round-the-clock media vigils, popular shows like “America’s Most Wanted” and “Law and Order: Special Crimes Unit” (whose stories are “ripped from the headlines”), and the milk-carton faces of missing kids have thrown the perception of the danger out of any reasonable proportion to its reality.

When Lenore Skenazy – she of “Free Range Kids” fame – allowed her 9 year-old son to take the New York subway by himself, she was excoriated in a media frenzy that dubbed her “America’s Worst Mom.” But, as Pinker reminds us, “she simply did what no politician, policeman, parent, or producer ever did: she looked up the numbers.”

“The annual number of abductions by strangers has ranged from 200-300 in the 1990s to about 100 today [another positive decline], around half of whom are murdered. With 50 million children in the United States, that works out of an annual homicide rate of one in a million (0.001 per hundred thousand). That’s about a twentieth of the risk of drowning and a fortieth of the risk of a fatal car accident. The writer Warwick Cairns has calculated that if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.”

It’s perhaps a sobering thought that your swimming pool and your minivan are vastly, vastly more dangerous to your kids than child sex traffickers or some guy in a sky-blue tracksuit in the back of a van.

‘So what?’ you might ask. ‘Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?’ In general, yes, but you have to weigh the potential danger (which is incredibly negligible) against the potential downsides (which are very real).

For people of my generation (born in the 1970s), roughly “two-thirds walked or biked to school; today 10 percent do.” The vast majority of us – around 70 percent – played freely outside without parental supervision and without fear; “today the rate is down to 30 percent.” Yet by all indices, it’s much safer to be a kid today than it was in the 1970s.

These trends have a major impact on the health and well-being of  our kids. When we’d prefer to have them safely inside the house playing video games rather than outdoors playing in the yard or the local park, it’s time we step back to reevaluate our cost-benefit analysis and perhaps make smarter, more reasonable choices.

“The campaign for greater safety from abductions ignores costs like constricting childhood experience, increasing childhood obesity, instilling chronic anxiety in working women, and scaring young adults away from having children.” Not to mention scaring children witless by constantly implying or even outright telling them that ‘the world is a dangerous place.’

Then there are the unforeseen, collateral consequences. To take just one, “more than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic, so when more parents drive their children to school to prevent them from getting killed by kidnappers, more children are killed.” That’s a pretty devastating thought. In order to protect our kids from one harm we put them, and other children, in the way of a far more likely one.

So what do we take away from all of this? First of all, that our fears are overblown, inflated by constant news coverage, politicians who promise to ‘get tough on crime’ and save us all from the looming and imminent specter of civilization-ending terrorism, police who engage in ‘crime-control theater,’ and the pernicious influence of other parents who lead us to believe that if we’re not paranoid we’re not doing our job.

Relax. Look at the information available, understand the numbers, and make reasonable, rational choices based not on the shrill voices of pundits and prognosticators, but on the little one inside your head that tells you that letting your child out to play in the yard with her friends will most likely not prove fatal, that, after all, it might just be good for her.


19 thoughts on “Terrorists, Perverts, and Flaming Pajamas

  1. Can I just say what a relief to find an individual who essentially knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know the right way to bring an concern to light and make it very important. Alot more individuals should read this and fully grasp this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more well-known for the reason that you absolutely have the gift.
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  2. Pingback: Looking for Some Naughty Adult Entertainment? Try Old Sesame Street | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  3. Astute observations. The Daniel Morecombe case in my sphere of the world certainly did nothing to help allay parents fears. Very high profile cases scare even children who hear it constantly over the news. Is that a good or a bad thing?


    • A bad thing. Sowing fear and mistrust of others in kids, while we think it keeps them safe, I think makes them distrustful in general. It’s like teaching them to be terrified of the water because so many kids die in pools. Nobody does that, even though pools kill way more kids than, say, guns. Instead they teach their kids how to swim.
      I had to look up the Daniel Morecombe case. Tragic. But the very facts that it was such big news and that it sticks in the public consciousness show that these kinds of events are extremely rare. When a child dies in a traffic accident it doesn’t make the news.
      Thanks for the reblog!


      • Yes, you are absolutely correct. Abductions are extremely rare and the publicity makes kids fearful. Your analogy with the pool is profound. And teaching them to swim is a skill with multiple benefits. Teaching them to be aware, and responsible, and teaching self defence and other things I can not think of, would be more pro-active. I am glad I found your blog post. It is refreshing reading from all the paranoid comments/posts one sometimes find re guns and terrorists.


  4. This sounds similar to another book I read a few years ago by Barry Glassner… Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, and So Much More. Plus Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy is one of my favorite parenting books. Love her! I wish everyone (especially parents) would read these books, overcome their unfounded fears, and start living. This is a great article. Thanks for writing it!


    • Sure, Linda – thanks for reading it! As I mentioned in a previous comment I haven’t read “Culture of Fear,” but it’s definitely on my reading list. “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a bit different in that the parenting bit is a minor aside, and what he examines is nothing less than the history of violence in human society since the dawn of such a thing.His conclusions,backed up by extremely solid science, are astounding. It’s one of those books that has the potential to change the way you look at the world – a “Guns, Germs and Steel” kind of work. Although it’s a hefty and dense read, I find that I can’t put it down. Highly recommended.


  5. I think I need to pick up that book. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially live in one of the biggest cities in the world. I tend to agree for the most part and I especially get upset about the restrictions put on our individual parenting preferences by the perpetuation of these fears. An author I’ve worked with, Peter Gray, wrote a great piece a few years ago on the subject. He allowed his teenaged son to travel to Europe on his own with friends and wrote about why. Very interesting.


      • I couldn’t find that piece, but I didn’t realize that he recently published a book on the subject. He has written on “freedom to learn” a lot on his blog on psychologytoday.com. The book is called Free to Learn. I haven’t read it, I worked on his text book. He’s a little extremist, but the idea that we aren’t allowing our children enough freedom and trust to develop and learn properly is intriguing.


    • My tiny examination of a minor part of the text reflects the scope of this blog, but this is a book that can definitely change the way you look at the world. A must-read, as far as I’m concerned.


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