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.
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.
After all, Adam Lanza’s mother – and first victim – had a whole stash of guns. She was, in NRA CEO Wayne Pierre’s language, “the good guy with a gun.”
What Adam Lanza inflicted on Sandy Hook Elementary School, on his own mother, was a freakish version of the violence that presents itself to us every day – in his case, compounded by mental illness and semi-automatic weapons. But in every community there are children exposed to violence – child abuse, incest, neglect, poverty. Adults are the perpetrators of that violence, and in many ways, it’s actually a more inconceivable tragedy than what happened in Newtown – diffuse and unspeakable. An unhinged young man massacres 20 children and we can’t help but feel the violence to our core; but every single week of the year, that many die because of abuse and neglect, and the loss largely goes unnoticed.
In the last couple of weeks, people have repeatedly said, “There are no words” that can give voice to the tragedy at Sandy Hook. But in fact, there have been so many words spoken – on loss, on community, on gun control, on mental illness. The kind of violence we really don’t seem to have the words for is the kind that happens every day – to kids suffering in toxic environments, to kids who are sexually violated by trusted adults, to kids shuffled from home to home in the foster care system.
What happened in Newtown reminds us of just how much our very survival depends on unspoken social contracts. We must trust perfect strangers not to endanger us and we must trust our neighbors and friends to see when we are faltering and reach out to us for help. We must trust them enough to ask for help in turn.
There may be kidnappers (although, statistically they are rarely strangers, à la the 80s mythology). And there may be gun violence (although, gun ownership is actually declining in the US overall). But more common than either of those, there will be potentially lifesaving community. People will reckon with their own capacities for violence, their avoidance of vulnerability, their own responsibility to create places and relationships where ugly truths can be spoken before they curdle and endanger.
And there will be children, watching us, the adults, to see what monsters we have made up – and what communities we have created as the real safeguard against what threatens us.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists” and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.