We are primed, almost programmed, to blame our troubles on outsiders. We like to think, need to think, that threats to us and our loved ones come from strangers. White Americans fear black criminals; suburbanites fear urban gangs; natives worry about violent immigrants. Even when the criminals we fear look like us, they are not part of us. Our iconic villain is the serial killer, preying on random strangers, swooping down from outside their worlds like a hawk on a rabbit warren. The scariest bad guys in America are those wandering child molesters who, as one activist put it, "roam the roads of our country kidnapping children at random." The whole industry of faces on mild cartons was built around this dark fantasy.
The sad truth is that almost all molested children are victimized by someone who knows them well. Most murders also arise, not from random encounters with strangers, but from close relationships gone badly wrong. Unless you are involved in drugs or gangs, or live in a neighborhood where crossfire is a problem, your murderer is likely to be someone you've lived with or slept with.
The nadir of blame-the-outsider thinking, to me, arose after an incident that took place in New York about 15 years ago. A drunk diplomat, attached to the UN, struck and killed a pedestrian with his car but couldn't be arrested because of diplomatic immunity. This produced an outpouring of anger in the tabloids, on local news, and even in the letters to the Times, about the dire threat posed by these wicked outsiders immune to our laws. It was left to the mayor to point out that diplomats are, for the most part, extremely law abiding and pose next to no threat to New Yorkers.
America has spent the past decade in a state of fear and rage about Islamic terrorists. They have become the wicked outsiders laying siege to our gates, the stuff of our nightmares. To combat this menace we have launched a vast war, invading two countries and bombing several others, spending over a trillion dollars and losing more than 5,000 lives.
But the real menace is not in the mountains of Afghanistan or the slums of Sadr City. It is here, among us. This, to me, is the lesson of the recent mass killings in America. If you are killed, either by a gunman or a drunk driver, chances are that your killer will be of your own race and live in your own town. The things that will reduce this threat are not dramatic acts like invasions or drone strikes. What will make us safer is a quiet, persistent struggle against the risks that really menace us. The nationwide campaign against drunk driving has saved more people than terrorists could kill in their wildest dreams. To reduce crime, we need better drug treatment and better treatment for the mentally ill, better relations between police and the residents of poor neighborhoods, and economic opportunities for the children of poverty.
To fight danger is often something of an oxymoron, because fighting is dangerous. This, to me, is the story of Sikh Temple murderer Wade Michael Page. He worked himself into such a rage over the threat posed to American civilization by dark-skinned outsiders that he became the very thing he claimed to fear: a violent assault on the order of our society. He was so addled by his anger toward foreigners that he opened fire on the wrong target, mistaking Sikhs for Muslims. He died in a crazed, futile assault on outsiders, born from his own demons and that deep, human impulse to blame the others for our woes.