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Wednesday, 21 March 2007 00:00

Giving up too much for fear

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There’s been a lot of discussion about the attack on the student in the cafeteria of Tuscola High School a few weeks ago where one student beat up another and inflicted some relatively serious injuries. Apparently it wasn’t the guilty party’s first incident. I never have understood those for whom fighting is just something that happens on a semi-regular basis, but then again, there are a lot of personality traits I see in others that I can’t comprehend.

 

Our family experienced a similar situation just a couple of weeks before this student’s, and, like him, it seems the perpetrator was known to administrators as a something of a serial pugilist, an adolescent who shows frustration by getting into fights.

What seems a bit preposterous, though, or at least out of proportion to the incident, is the accusation that school administrators somehow did not react fast enough or had not taken enough precautions to protect this youth and others who attend Tuscola. Actually, it seems that it was quite the opposite. It took the head principal a mere six seconds to respond, less time than it takes to get a soda from a coin-operated machine. That is incredibly fast.

In truth, this incident brings to mind other, perhaps more pressing, problems than an isolated attack by one adolescent on another. As attention turned toward how this incident happened, we were given a close look at the American fixation on affixing blame and, correspondingly, going to almost absurd lengths to insulate ourselves from danger. Some of the ways we try to protect ourselves make perfect sense, like forbidding guns on school grounds, passing laws to ensure municipal drinking water is safe, forcing utilities to clean up emissions, or taking lead out of gasoline and paint.

But we also go to extremes that, if weighed against the cost, often don’t make sense. It may sound crude to some and heartless to others, but stuff happens. Living is dangerous, no matter how hard we try to take away risk. People make stupid choices, we all make mistakes.

So it’s important for schools to take precautions, but I don’t want my kids going to a school where razor wire, metal detectors and video cameras monitoring their every movement are as common as books and computers. That’s giving up a lot to protect against isolated incidents that, in truth, all these measures probably would do little to prevent.

In the little world of cocoons we try to build, it often seems the goal is to eliminate the unknown and control every aspect of our daily environment. When the unexpected happens — sometimes tragic, most times just painful — we immediately assume someone must be at fault, that someone is to blame. We didn’t plan for this, and so someone is going to pay.

Comparative risk is a measure of the danger involved in a given activity. It’s used by many companies, especially those who sell insurance. If you own your own airplane, then the comparative risk of flying yourself to a beach vacation rather than driving will be fitured into your premiums. It’s a pretty sure bet your life insurance policy will be higher than your neighbor whose most dangerous activity is riding his lawnmower around the yard with a cold beer in his hand.

A few weeks ago while I was working out at a local gym, a child went missing from her home in Arizona. Every single one of the 24-hour news networks was obsessing on the story. Flipping the channels from one station to another, every ounce of information on the girl — her personal history, the love life of her mom and the alleged abductor, the make of car, the history of the alleged abductor’s family, and on and on — flashed across the screen, with newscasters warning us that these kinds of abductions are best solved in the first few minutes or hours after they occur.

Childhood abduction is, of course, the ultimate in terror for all parents. So we take precautions. We use common sense and teach our children certain rules and make sure they know phone numbers and addresses and such.

The truth, though, is that there are no more — perhaps fewer — child abductions than there were 25 years ago. Yet we obsess over it to no end.

Obsessed on fear is dangerous. Our society, and perhaps others, seems to be at a crossroads. Our government is asking us to give up freedoms in the name of national security as we fight the scourge of terrorism. We are told that we need to let agents listen to our overseas phone conversations so terrorists won’t get us, that we should suspend basic rights for certain detainees because it is helps us in the war on terror. At the same time we are worrying about security at our public schools, and in many places children and parents think it best that their children attend schools where metal detectors are at all entrances and there’s razor wire surrounding the buildings.

What scares me the most, though, is giving in to this fear, of sacrificing too much in hopes of finding some elusive peace of mind. I’m not sure where the middle ground lies, but finding it is vitally important. There’s too much to lose in trying to protect ourselves from everything.

(Scott McLeod is editor of The Smoky Mountain News and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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