Life

On safety and security

If you live in a first-world country, you are pretty safe from harm. If you live a middle-class or better lifestyle in a first-world country, you are overwhelmingly safe.

Of course, my neighbors on Nextdoor, an online bulletin-board system for neighborhoods, might not agree. They wring their hands all the time about crime and safety. They share the weekly police blotter and links to crime statistics and to a database of where all the sex offenders live. They recommend their security-alarm companies to each other, talk about starting neighborhood watches, and pester the city to increase police patrols and install more street lights. My Nextdoor feed crackles with fear.

It’s a matter of time, I’m sure, before one of my neighbors on Nextdoor links to this interactive tool on Slate which maps every reported shooting across the United States in 2015. Type your address and bingo. I find five shootings within a two-mile radius of my house. Cue the Nextdoor discussions about police patrols and alarm systems. Something must be done!!!!

Entry system

Perhaps I’ve not been concerned enough about crime. Half the time, my car is unlocked; it’s old and there’s nothing in there worth having anyway. I don’t lock my doors during the day when I’m at home. Heck, I first installed deadbolt locks on my doors only this year. I had painted the doors and installed new doorknobs and locks, and decided I might as well finally have deadbolts installed while I was at it.

Even worse, once or twice a year I manage to drive away from here for the day and leave my garage door up, providing easy access to the whole house. I’m such a doofus.

Yet every time I get home, nothing is disturbed. Actually, I’ve largely escaped crime my whole life. I had one close call as an adult, about 25 years ago. Wham! bam! rattle rattle rattle! on my front door, and then the back door, in the middle of the night. Woke me right up and scared the bejabbers out of me. But my locked doors deterred the would-be burglar. Or maybe it was a drunk trying to enter the wrong house. Either way, the police didn’t find him. It’s the only time I’ve ever needed police because of crime.

That’s not to say terrible things can’t happen. About five years before I moved in here, my next-door neighbor’s house was ransacked and burglarized while he was at work. And of the shootings the Slate tool found near my home, one of them made national news. Maybe you saw the stories on TV. It was the brutal murder last month of a young mother, a pastor’s wife, in a home invasion. She was pregnant with their second child. It was truly, breathtakingly, stunningly awful.

Dangerous people do exist. It’s easy, natural even, to fear encountering one of them someday.

But let’s consider the real risk. I like to think of risk as the product of likelihood and impact — what’s the chance a bad thing will happen, and how bad will it be if it does?

The other four shootings within two miles of my home appear to have involved people who knew each other — domestic violence situations or fights between familiars at a bar. This is terrible stuff, no doubt. But if you’re in a reasonably healthy relationship and have reasonably stable friends, you’re extremely unlikely to find yourself shot in either of these ways. Even if a shooting of this nature happens next door to you, you are enormously unlikely to be injured by it. And home invasions are so rare that they always make the news, even in this, the 14th largest city in the United States. Same goes for the mass shootings and domestic terrorism incidents that happen nationwide: you are more likely to be crushed by a bookcase falling on you than to be shot by a terrorist. So said The Washington Post last month, with stats to back it up:

Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.”

But obviously, the impact of being shot, whether through terrorism or crime, is enormously high. The impact of having your house broken into while you’re away is fairly high. The impact of having, say, your lawn mower stolen from your front yard is frankly fairly low. It’s irritating and costly to the tune of a few hundred dollars, and you’re not likely to forget it. But if you’re in at least the middle class, you’ll recover pretty quickly.

And so you can and should do reasonable things to protect yourself. I was well overdue to have those deadbolts installed. And I should always leave my car locked to deter casual thieves — it’s easy to hit the lock button on my keyfob as I walk away.

Yet I have no plans to install an alarm system. I had one once, when I was married, that my wife had installed over my objections. (I had that kind of marriage.) I didn’t like having it armed when I was inside because I had to temporarily disarm it just to step out to get the mail. I usually forgot to arm it when I left. Once, I came home to find it armed, could not remember the code, and got a visit from the sheriff, angry at the waste of his time. I hated the constant weight of managing the alarm, when the events it protected me against were highly unlikely anyway.

I could buy a handgun, maybe even get a concealed-carry permit. Someone breaking in wouldn’t have a chance! Except that I know myself: I’d strap that gun on every day for a while, but soon I wouldn’t like how it made me think about an enormously unlikely event every day. So the gun would lie in a drawer in my bedroom. Then on the day an assailant did bust in through the patio door, I’d be just as screwed as if I didn’t have the gun.

You may choose differently on the alarm system and the firearm. Please do; I have no judgment to offer you. And I hope you don’t judge my desire not to think all the time about something awful but enormously unlikely, not to expend anything more than easy energy protecting against it. I want to live a life as carefree and relaxed as I can, and be free of needless anxiety.

Regardless of what measures you take to protect yourself from crime, someone can get around them. As the locksmith installed my deadbolts, he told me a story of a woman whose deadbolts he installed. Two days later, someone broke in anyway. Hacked the doorframe to pieces to get in. She called him back to fit new locks into a new door and frame.

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12 thoughts on “On safety and security

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    Hey Jim, I’ve lived a lot of places around the country over my lifespan. I know you live in Indianapolis, and I moved here only about 18 months ago. Never lived here, don’t know anyone from here, or knew anyone when I moved here. Based on my experience, I have to say that Indianapolis is one of the scarily least policed cities I’ve even lived in (and I used to live in DC with a burned out car on my block)!

    I know cities with 225,000 less people that have 300 more police officers! And the cops seem very poorly trained here. Gangs of thieves roam some of the better class neighborhoods in this town because they know that both income earners will be gone during the day, and that there won’t be any police patrols to catch them in the act…Low taxes means no services, one of the services being police! The amount of home invasion burglaries here compared to places I’ve lived like Chicago, and Washington DC, at least in the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, is staggering!

    Get those locks put in!

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    • Sure, the locks are in, it’s an easy enough thing to do. And I’m quite sure you’re right: our shockingly low taxes here do translate into low services. However, I’m just not interested in living in fear. I’m not taking stupid chances, but I’m also not going beyond reasonable measures to keep myself safe and secure.

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  2. Jim, great article! Even though I had to opposite experience of having to grow up in a crime ridden area, my parents, sibling, and I were lucky to have escape unscathed from that neighborhood. I totally agree with your carrying the gun then leaving it in the drawer analysis. I’d probably do the same thing! :-)

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    • My church is in a crime-ridden area, and even in that tough neighborhood you’re safer than in most non-first-world countries! But at the same time I don’t mean to trivialize the experience of growing up in a tough neighborhood.

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  3. I have long wondered why most people seem to do so poorly at judging what they should be afraid of. I was reading today that it is speculated movie attendance is down because of fears about mass shootings. The fact is that you are many times more likely to be killed or injured driving to the movie than you are to be shot at one. Still not many people are scared to get in a car or demanding that we take drastic measures to make driving safer. Anyway it looks like you are one of the rare people who actually thinks these things through. We could use more like you.

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    • It is part of survival of the species, I think, to overreact to the worst events. “There was one mass shooting in a theater; it could happen to us next!!!!!!!1!” Probably not, actually, but nobody ever died from not going to the movies!

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    • I think you’ve got a really good point. There’s this strange perception of threat in the States that’s difficult to account for. There are much more dangerous places in the world, person for person, than the United States, and I think by almost any fair measure, the security of the person enjoyed virtually anywhere in the US must come in much nearer the top of international lists than the bottom. Yet so many people live in such fear, and primarily of their neighbours.

      As you point out, one of the biggest risks a person routinely takes is just driving a car. It’s what gets most people who don’t die of some natural health issue. And yet, it’s a big part of the American mythos. Getting in a big, powerful machine, getting out on the open road, wandering at will a huge, free land. You don’t hear people say, “Oh no, I have to subject my family to that horrific death machine again…” But it’s the biggest risk most folks ever take.

      I was down in Georgia about ten years ago on inter-office business, and I spent a lot of my time watching TV in my hotel room. The shows were familiar but the commercials were kind of surprising. Every second commercial seemed to be for a drug to solve some problem, or a basement fortress, or an alarm system, or even home defibrillators. I almost thought that was a joke at first… I didn’t even know those existed! In fact, the first defib machines I personally ever saw were rows of them on the wall at the airport in Atlanta. So many of the commercials were all about fear. And yet, I got out and around in Atlanta. I drove around, ate at places, bought things, talked to people. I never felt unsafe or wary. It was lovely and homey and I remember it fondly. The strangest thing I saw my whole time there was the cubicle of a coworker stuffed to the gills with Bush-Cheney paraphernalia.

      I’m not sure where the sense people have that they’re in serious, constant danger comes from. I wish people could put it into perspective… be sensible, but not anxious. You’d think with vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with perspectives on what a REALLY dangerous place looks like, it would be on the decline.

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      • One thing I’ve figured out lately about living in the United States is that we have to have at least one boogeyman. At the national level, for most of my childhood it was the Reds. Today it’s Islamic terrorists. But there are also local-level boogeymen, and much of the time it’s been Bad People breaking into your house and hurting you. I don’t know if other nations have this as part of their national psyche, but we sure do.

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  4. George Denzinger says:

    Safety and security are conditional ideas, conditioned by your environment. We live a middle class suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our neighborhood is actually pretty quiet, other than the fact we live between an elementary school and a middle school, so when the school buses run, we get a fair amount of traffic. Our neighborhood is majority white, with a sprinkling of black, asian and now muslim neighbors. When my next door neighbor, a black woman, moved into the neighborhood, she was surprised at how quiet and how little the neighborhood cared what race she was. I think like everyone else on the planet, we just want nice neighbors who keep their yards up and their kids out of trouble.

    But within this quiet neighborhood, we’ve had some violent home invasions, a number of break ins and some personal assaults over the last 17 years I’ve lived here. But those are “black swan” events; I still find the traffic going to and from the schools far more dangerous than the likelihood of some gangbanger rolling into neighborhood and unloading a clip from an automatic weapon into our living room windows.

    My brother used to live in a nice lower middle working class neighborhood, up until the steel mills all closed down. Then it all hit the fan. He used to remark that we had billions of dollars to kill brown people three quarters of the world away, but oddly no money to eradicate drug dealers here in the US who were corroding the lives of our young people. Priorities, I guess…

    All of this recent talk about middle eastern immigrants coming to the country and stirring up terror events is ridiculous to me. With the advent of the internet you don’t need to import Jihadists as events in California seems to have proven. On top of it all, we have sufficient nut jobs here that we don’t even need to import foreign ones. And those are most likely the people in line with you at grocery store.

    But politicians and pundits being what they are, they rely on a certain amount of fear of the “other”. I think the few who do make it here to the states, after having gone through scrutiny by the UN and our own federal and state governments will be just so exhausted from the experience they won’t be able to start global Jihad.

    I’m with you Jim, I take reasonable precautions to secure my family and property, but I don’t feel the need to arm myself with an AR-15 or an AK-47, with an ankle holster of .38 to feel secure. Like you, the day I go to the movies and someone decides to take out their frustrations on the world, will be the day I forget to bring my weapon. If that *does* happen, hopefully I’ll be in a state of grace with our maker and pray for the tortured soul who took my life. Their eternal life is in grave doubt, not mine.

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    • George, thank you for your thorough and thoughtful comment. You ought to think about starting a blog of your own; you have interesting things to say and are very articulate. I especially like your last few lines.

      The point of course is that the time, money, and effort needed to prevent a bad thing from happening to you increases geometrically with how unlikely/high impact that bad thing is. You and I really could prepare for the day someone opens fire in the theater where we’re taking in a flick. But it would consume us heavily. We would have to give up other things to do it. And then it’s not going to happen to us anyway; statistics are on our side.

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