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Opinion

After Sandy Hook and Webster, N.Y., the real 'monster' only community can heal

After the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. and now the shooting ambush of firefighters in Webster, N.Y., public dialogue has focused on the world's evil. But the real 'monster' is the abuse and neglect that kills kids every day – stopped by strong communities, not guns.

By Courtney E. Martin / December 26, 2012

Monroe County Sheriff Deputy Chief Steve Scott and Webster Police Lt. Joseph Rieger stand by the photo of firefighters killed and injured by William Spengler in Webster, N.Y., Dec. 25. Op-ed contributor Courtney E. Martin writes: 'We feel safer externalizing 'evil' and pathologizing particular individuals, so that we can delude ourselves into thinking that the risk is contained.'

Marie De Jesus/Democrat & Chronicle/AP

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Brooklyn, N.Y.

When I was 8 years-old, I went through a six-month period where I couldn’t sleep at night because I was convinced I would be kidnapped out of my bed. I had a vivid imagination to be sure, but it was being fed by a potent catalog of images. It was 1988, the height of little missing kids on milk cartons and “It’s 6pm, do you know where your children are?” on the nightly news. All the neighborhood families had “safe words.” We were trained to cut our Snickers bars in half on Halloween, lest they be hiding razor blades, and to avoid strange men in windowless vans.

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Even though my own parents didn’t succumb to the culture of fear created by these overblown news stories, I did. It was in the water I swam in and, a sensitive little girl, I drowned once the lights went out.

After Adam Lanza’s shooting massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. – and now the shooting ambush of firefighters in Webster, N.Y. – our public dialogue, once again, has turned to the big badness of the world. I have been imagining what it is like for little kids right now, listening to the radio on the way to school, catching a headline on their parents’ iPads (NRA Calls for Armed Guards at Schools), sensing the tension in their teachers’ urgent whispers in the faculty room. For me, the fear of kidnapping was omnipresent; for them, it is gun violence.

Barry Glassner, a sociologist, documented just how overblown our fear of kidnapping in the 1980s really was in his important book, “The Culture of Fear.” He also wrote extensively about how the media is a fun-house mirror on reality. In an interview, he said that “when we watch national TV news…[we see] a distorted view of the nation and the world in which we live. It is distorted, in particular…in the direction of making the community, the nation and the world appear much more dangerous…than is actually the case.”

This is particularly pernicious when it comes to children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the greatest killer of kids in the United States is unintentional injuries, and these are largely determined by socioeconomic factors like access to safe vehicles, health insurance, and exposure to unsafe environments.

Large-scale social inequality is never labeled the “monster.” But strange men in vans and angry teenage boys – statistical abnormalities – are over and over again.

And why is that? We feel safer externalizing “evil” and pathologizing particular individuals, so that we can delude ourselves into thinking that the risk is contained. But this is “an optimistic fiction,” as Andrew Solomon wrote in this Sunday’s New York Times.

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