In amongst all the words being written in the wake of the shocking shootings in Connecticut, I want to draw your attention to a calm, reasoned piece by my friend and fellow advocate for children’s freedoms, Lenore Skenazy. She reminds us how today’s media removes time and distance, and leaves us all helpless in the face of the raw pain of people we feel we know. “It feels like terrible things are happening to our children all the time, everywhere,” she writes. “Nowhere is safe.”
Lenore predicts more ratcheting-up of school safety in the wake of the tragedy. If what happened here in the UK in the aftermath of Dunblane is anything to go by, she is right. She is also right to cast doubt on whether it will all be worth it.
Such a response can sound hard-hearted, even cruel. How can we do nothing in the face of such an event? Non-Americans, already bemused at the USA’s devotion to firearms, may be particularly puzzled by Lenore’s hesitance to join the debate about gun control and school safety.
Yet Lenore’s call is not an argument for inaction. It is a plea for perspective. What does it mean to take a measured perspective on tragedy?
First, as I have written before, perspective means being aware of the power of the emotions that arise in the aftermath of tragic events, and of how strongly these are shaped by the way that the media personalises and dramatises these events in their pursuit of audiences. In the case of Newtown, the sheer size of the media frenzy shows just how vigorous that pursuit can be.
Perspective also means being sensitive to the dangers of 20:20 hindsight. As risk academic John Adams notes, once a tragedy has happened, it is all too tempting for everyone – politicians, the media, the lawyers – to track back through the chain of events in search of someone or something to blame: the one bad decision, missed clue, or wrong turning that made everything else happen. The problem is, real life does not work like this. What is more, we live our lives looking forward, not through a rear-view mirror. Picking out that needle in a haystack – the one troubled teenage loner who becomes a random killer – is all but impossible.
More generally, perspective means coming to terms with the complexity of risk. Risk management, as John Adams has also said, is not rocket science. It is more complicated. This is especially true with risks to the public. We are dealing with people, not rats in a cage. When new safety regimes are contemplated, the costs, benefits and potential side-effects all need to be looked at, thoughtfully and dispassionately.
Here in the UK, we have a good example of where that failed to happen, in relation to child protection. The last government was on the brink of bringing in a vetting system containing the details of millions of people, in response to the risk of abuse from professionals and volunteers. The system was developed in the wake of the Soham murders of two schoolchildren: another case so scarring that its memory is evoked simply by naming its location. Eventually a public outcry over the system’s size, intrusiveness and potential side-effects on volunteering and community activity led the scheme to be scrapped.
Perhaps most fundamental of all, gaining a perspective on tragic events means taking a look at the bigger picture: at the reality of the threats we face in our everyday lives. Understandably, parents will hug their children a little tighter when they get home from school today. I hope they will also help their children to understand that their world – their school – their neighbourhood – is not Newtown. In fact, for those of us living in the wealthier nations at least, the world today is probably a safer place to bring up a child than at any time in history [pdf link].
If we want our children to grow up to be confident, resilient people, we owe it to them to take a balanced and thoughtful view when tragedies strike. As Lenore Skenazy says, “a tragedy like this is so rare, our kids are already safe,” she says. “Not perfectly safe. No one ever is. But safe.”