Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fear of Strangers

In Barron, Wisconsin, revelations about the horrible plot staged by James Patterson – he kidnapped a 13-year-old girl after murdering her parents in front of her and held her for 88 days – have people reacting in the way we have seen so many times before:
Some parents were newly hesitant about school buses, and wondered aloud what else might no longer be safe.

“I’ll be taking my child to school,” said Amy Christensen, the manager of Skippy’s Pub in downtown Barron, a town of about 3,400 people. Since this happened, Ms. Christensen said, she has let her 3-year-old daughter sleep with her. “I’ve been holding her close every night,” she said.
But really acts like this are about as common as lightning strikes:
In 2017, fewer than 10 percent of homicide victims were killed by strangers, according to the F.B.I. And according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, cases in which strangers abduct children are very rare; of more than 25,000 reports of missing children that the group received in 2018, only 77 were abductions by nonfamily members, said Erin Farrell, a center representative.
Incidentally that 10 percent of homicide victims statistic is flawed, since so many murders are gangsters killing each other. Unless you are involved in drugs or gangs, or live in a neighborhood where crossfire is a problem, your murderer is almost certain to be someone you know well. If you are a woman, it will probably be a man you have slept with.

I was talking to a friend recently about all the shock and anger over people sexually abused by Catholic priests, as if they were uniquely awful people and the church a sinister den of pedophile monsters. Actually most abused children are abused by family members. That rarely makes the news, though; too close to home, too icky, too lacking in a good villain we can all hate together. Victims of priests are now getting million-dollar settlements, while those abused by relatives get nothing.

Our whole psychological system for assessing risk is messed up. We are very good at sensing threats from outsiders and reacting to them, but we miss the greater dangers close to home. Many people who drive every day are afraid to fly. Statistically the one thing no child in Barron, Wisconsin has to worry about is abduction by a stranger; the already tiny risk will be even less in a place where everyone is hyper-alert to this particular danger. Riding to school in a car rather than a bus is very slightly more dangerous, and that slight increase in risk is probably a hundred times greater than the chance of abduction.

I worry about this because I think we are on guard against the wrong things, and that this distorts our politics. We fear outsiders, but immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native born. We fear people who don't look or act like us, when our greatest danger comes from those we know. It is much easier to get people riled up about a danger you can see, like a nuclear power plant on the horizon, than about too much of an invisible, odorless gas.


ArEn said...

I addressed the issue of faulty risk assessment in an essay I wrote on childbirth in which I explored our decision to give birth outside of a hospital. Did I ever show it to you?


G. Verloren said...

People need scapegoats. Why? Because most people are overwhelmingly unhappy or unsatisfied with their lives, and they need some neat and tidy way to explain away that fact, so when reality fails to provide that, they embrace fantasy instead.

A poor white factory workery gets laid off, and his entire family faces hardship. Who does he blame?

Few if any of the people actually responsible for his misfortune are known to him - and even if they were, they're all wealthy and powerful people who he will never be able to exact justice or reparations from, no matter how hard he tries. Laying blame against them thus becomes difficult to impossible, and getting satisfaction from the guilty even moreso.

(And this is all assuming there even -is- someone to blame, when often that's simply not the case, and people are just victims of random chance.)

But that's okay, because there are other people out there who are easy to blame and powerless to defend themselves, despite their actual innocence of any wrongdoing. It's not the rich white capitalists who rig the sytem in their favor who are the problem, or the simple fact of bad luck in an uncaring universe - it's the poor non-white immigrants, who are stealing jobs from good and decent white workers!

In the end, it's not at all about truth, justice, or fairness. It's entirely about laying blame and feeling some small measure of vindication about grievances that are unable to be properly addressed.

You know where the vast majority of bullies come from? They start out as victims of bullying. Someone who overpowers them treats them unjustly, and then their powerlessness against that injustice gnaws at their minds. They become desperate to feel powerful, and that leads them to seek out ways to exert power over others. And thus they become bullies, targetting people weaker than themselves and getting a sick kick out of feeling powerful compared to them.

And of course, in their minds they aren't doing anything wrong. In their minds, the weak deserve the abuse they get, and it's not really any sort of actual injustice. The real injustice is their own victimhood, because clearly that's different. It's okay for them to treat "losers" like losers, but it's not okay for other people to treat them like a loser, because they're so clearly not a loser!