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.