Facing our fears armed with truth

October 08, 2006|By Gordon Livingston

We are defined by what we fear. This has never been more evident than with the public reaction to three school shootings in a week.

That these occurred in Colorado and Wisconsin high schools and an Amish one-room school in Pennsylvania suggests that it may be hard to identify a common theme or prevention strategy.

That two of the shooters were adults apparently intent on molesting girls injects a new variable into the usual perpetrator profile of a student who has been bullied.

In our inevitable attempts to make sense of random acts of violence, we are prone to seek "expert" advice. Consider the following excerpt from an exchange between NBC's anchorman Brian Williams and its chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, about how to deal with children's reaction to the Amish school shootings.

Mr. Williams: "If this can happen in a one-room schoolhouse in Amish country, how safe can our kids be?"

Dr. Snyderman: "You listen to them ... and you say, `Look, it's isolated, it's selfish, it's brutal, it's a part of our world, but I'm still here to protect you."

Mr. Williams: "Yeah, they've got to know the adults in their lives will keep them safe."

This is a pointless and misleading conversation in many ways, but it is revealing. What it reveals is that those reporting and interpreting the news are frightened and have a stake in frightening us. And it is well known that fear and anxiety are contagious.

The TV advice also violates the first rule of parent-child communication: "Don't lie." To say "I'm here to protect you" when we have no ability to do so at school is a transparent falsehood. To say that "the adults in their lives will keep them safe" is likewise untrue and even seems to suggest that the parents of the victims in school shootings somehow didn't meet their responsibilities.

Real reassurance lies in the statistical rarity of these events. There are more than 41,000 schools in this country. What is the probability that any one of them is going to be the site of an attack?

This issue is much like the fear of stranger abduction that is drilled into children. Because such an event represents our deepest fear, and because each case receives such wide publicity, we end up frightening children needlessly with repeated lectures, "child safety" fingerprinting events at the mall, and talk of implanting tracking devices in kids so we can know their whereabouts at every moment (probably every teenager's worst nightmare).

It is worth noting that the common theme in the recent shootings involves the ready availability of guns to disturbed people. But we wouldn't want to do anything about that, would we? Second Amendment, you know.

We have all been exposed in recent years to the political uses of fear. In the face of incredibly costly incompetence in the waging of a war of choice, we have seen terror alerts manipulated and have been told over and over that we are engaged in a cosmic struggle to protect our lives and freedoms. Through two national elections, this tactic has enabled one party to remain in power and has persuaded the American people to support torture and surrender many of the fundamental rights that we are supposed to be fighting to defend.

In about a month we will have another chance to reconsider where fear has taken us. But will we?

You can see why purveyors of the news want to scare us ("Is your water safe to drink? Film at 11"). It grabs our attention. But in a time when we're trying to cope with religious terrorists, street violence and the occasional sniper, why frighten ourselves and our children further by either dishonest reassurance ("I'll protect you from all harm") or exaggerated threats ("Never talk to a stranger")?

Here's a healthier message: "The world is an uncertain place with lots of risks, most of them unanticipated and unpreventable, in which it is nevertheless possible to live in a relaxed and happy way. Look, I'm doing it."

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is the author of "And Never Stop Dancing." His e-mail is gslcvk@aol.com.

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