The Smart Way To Fear
Posted: January 11, 2013
A few years ago, a friend of mine fell ill and was confined mostly to her bed. For something to do during those many hours, she began watching TV.
When I next saw her, she tried to educate me about present dangers: I should lock my car, keep my house locked during the day, never take walks alone, all because there is so much crime — robberies, rapes, assaults — and why am I not aware of this?
As I spent time with her, she referred to this topic so frequently that I became concerned. I suggested she stop watching news and crime shows.
“Fear is a fantastic marketing tool,” writes Daniel Gardner in “The Science of Fear.”
While violence can be riveting entertainment, constant exposure gives viewers a skewed view of the world. The facts about violence paint a different picture.
According to FBI statistics over the past 20 years, violent crime in the U.S. has fallen significantly. In 1992, the violent crime rate was 757.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2011, it was 386.3.
That means we have half the violent crime today that we did 20 years ago.
Broken down, the murder rate fell from 9.3 to 4.7. Rape has fallen from 42.8 to 26.8. Robberies have fallen from 263.7 to 113.7.
The FBI has no reason to skew these numbers. They’re not selling insurance or security systems or television time. They are not lobbying to change any policies.
By way of comparison, according to the United Kingdom Home Office in England and Wales, the violent crime rate is 1,361 per 100,000. That’s 3.5 times that of the U.S.
We live in a society that is relatively safe and becoming safer. However, my friend lives in a large U.S. city, where there may be more cause for concern.
According to 2011 FBI statistics, in cities with populations greater than 200,000, the violent crime was 410.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. The average rate in smaller cities was 382.1. In non-metropolitan counties — which includes most of the Shenandoah Valley — the rate was 186.1.
New York City has been successful at lowering the rate of violent crimes: When I grew up outside the city in the 1960s, it was known to be a dangerous place. Nobody should walk in the city at night alone. Women and the elderly were particularly vulnerable.
In 2005, New York City had the lowest crime rate among the 10 largest cities in the country. The decrease in crime began in 1991 and had dropped by 75 percent in 2005. That year, the murder rate was at its lowest level since 1963, with 539 murders, for a murder rate of 6.58 per 100,000 people, compared to 2,245 murders in 1990. In 2009, a new low was achieved.
This was as a result of efforts by Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, which have been continued by the present mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
In “Beyond Fear,” Bruce Schneier writes, “There’s a smart way to be scared. … It involves looking beyond the newspaper headlines and getting a feel for the numbers: a feel for the threats and risks, and the efficacy of the countermeasures. It involves making sensible security trade-offs. The smart way to be scared is to be streetwise.”
Living in the Valley, where the crime rates are so low, I find these statistics reassuring. Whenever I am tempted to be afraid, say, of flying in an airplane, I often use self-talk to calm my fears. I tell myself that it’s more dangerous to drive in a car, that of the thousands of flights per day all over the planet, there are relatively few crashes.
And so it should be with this data on violent crime.
I am not saying we should be complacent. Nor should we be unaware of potential dangers in our environment. We should take sensible precautions to protect ourselves. This does not require fear, but common sense.
Those who are afraid of stepping out the front door would do well to consider the facts and not the television.