Essay

On safety and security

(originally posted 12/14/15) 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 the last year. 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, in the early ’90s. 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 in 2015 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, 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, during my first marriage, 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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Road Trips, Stories Told

I hate what domestic terrorism has done to our country

The first time I visited Washington, DC, was in 1993. It was an unexpected visit: I was in Maryland on business, and a schedule change left me with a free day. I was in a town at the end of the Metro train line, so I bought a pass and rode right into the National Mall.

I had no idea what to expect. I was surprised and delighted to find Capitol at one end, the Washington Monument in the middle, and the Lincoln Memorial at the other end, all separated by grass and pools.

US Capitol, 1993

Before I left Maryland I stepped into a drug store and bought a disposable camera. I’m so happy I did, because with it I recorded scenes that aren’t there anymore. Like this one.

US Capitol, 1993

Of course these steps are still there. What’s not there is the ability to walk up them. They are barricaded and a guard is posted. It’s been that way since sometime after that terrible day in September of 2001. But in 1993 I walked right up them. When I reached the top, I stood on the terrace and made this photograph.

US Capitol, 1993

You can’t make that photograph anymore because you can’t reach that terrace.

Here’s something else you can’t do anymore: on impulse, waltz right into the United States Capitol. I did just that on this August, 1993 day. I followed the yellow rope line up the steps (humming to myself, “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill…“) and walked in the door. Much of the Capitol was open to anyone. Only the House and Senate chambers were closed to the public.

US Capitol, 1993

It was thrilling to simply walk into and experience this hall of American government. But it was as I had always been taught: this government and, by extension, its buildings belonged to the people. We were therefore free to experience public spaces within them whenever we wanted.

You can’t enter the Capitol this way anymore. For that matter, you can’t enter the Capitol at all without having prearranged it (which you do online here). And you don’t walk up those steps. Instead, you enter through a bunker-like underground visitor’s center (completed in 2008) that’s about 150 feet behind where I stood to make the photo above. On the way in you have to empty your pockets into trays and walk through a metal detector.

We all know that drill. We’ve experienced it for many, many years now. We all probably expect it on some level. You don’t want someone walking in armed and shooting Senators.

In 1993 that idea was so far-fetched as to be ridiculous. Today we can all fully imagine it happening. It’s a national tragedy.

But screening us all creates a second, and in my opinion greater, tragedy. Formerly our government belonged to us. Now our government can’t trust us. Formerly each of us was presumed harmless. Now as any of us enters a government building there is that one moment where the guard at the metal detector just can’t be sure.

It changes how we view our government. We used to believe we were all in it together, that our government, while not perfect, was of us and for us. Now the government feels separate from us, and we don’t feel welcome in it.

Click here to get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week!
Standard
Essay

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.

Standard
Personal

12 years hence

My family was spending most of the week living in an extended-stay hotel while a crew of plumbers were replacing all the pipes under the money pit we called home. My wife was leaving the hotel late in the evening to sleep in the house to keep our dogs and cats company.

I chose a hotel across the street from work. As I started the family minivan for the short drive that morning, the radio came on. As I pulled into the parking lot at work, the disk jockey gave a preliminary report of an accident, of what was thought to be a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe the disk jockey. This was a funky free-form radio station not known for its news coverage. But I sat there in the parking lot listening anyway, and soon the disk jockey turned the mic over to a reporter from a news service the station used. As he read wire reports and related what he was seeing on television, I started to believe this was real.

I got out of the car and ran into the building to my desk, where I brought up the Web sites of the local TV stations, hoping to find a live stream. That was pretty new technology in 2001. Two stations’ sites wouldn’t load, which I learned later was because they were overwhelmed by people trying to find out what was going on. I can see now that it was amazing luck that I was able to bring up the local ABC station’s site and watch coverage there for several hours. Co-workers crowded around behind me.

My ex was frantically calling my cell phone, which I forgot to turn on, trying to find out from me if I had heard the news and whether it was true. She had recently left military service, and was highly emotional because just a short time before she would have been part of a greater mission of protection for our nation. But stripped of her status, she felt helpless and useless. Worse, one of the fellows working on our home had served in Vietnam and was clearly still twitchy from the experience; upon seeing the news he had a full-on meltdown in our living room. My wife finally remembered my desk phone number and reached me there, crying. That’s when the emotion of the morning finally hit me, too. By then, both towers had been hit and it was clear that this was no accident.

My company’s entire executive team was offsite that day in strategic planning. I learned later that they instead spent the day watching the news. It was a turning point in the company’s history. We had become a public company only a couple months before, a risky venture at any time but, it turned out, especially so given these national events. It seemed like the executives lost their will to lead for a while, and then our company’s fortunes began to flag. By the following January my company could no longer afford to pay me, and let me go. The entire software and technology industry experienced difficult times in the months following September 11. The dot-com bubble had burst, and it was harming the entire industry. The attack didn’t cause the burst, but it seemed to accelerate its impact, and so I still trace my unemployment to that morning in September.

Please tell your September 11 story.

readmore2

Standard