Don’t Let a Tragedy Make Us Stupid

Hi Readers — Security guru Bruce Schneier (author of  “Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive,”) is so right about a whole lot of things, including the fact that we should almost ignore what’s on the news when it comes to making both policy and personal decisions. Why? Because the news is filled with the rarest and most horrific events. So trying to plan our lives around them is like planning a trip to Florida solely around how to avoid shark attacks. Do that and you’d spend your whole beach vacation avoiding the water. It just doesn’t make sense. So here’s a link to Schneier’s smart piece in The Atlantic about the Boston Marathon tragedy. And here’s my favorite bit from an interview Ezra Klein at the Washington Post did with him:

EK: You seem skeptical of the ability of policy to keep us safe, but doesn’t the relative safety of the last few years suggest that our post-9/11 policies have actually worked?

BS: The problem with rare events is that you can’t make those sorts of assessments. I remember then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking two years after 9/11. He said that the lack of a repeat event was proof that his policies worked. But there were no terrorist attacks in the two years before 9/11, and he didn’t have any policies in place. What does that prove? It proves that terrorist attacks are rare.

It also proves the fact it’s hard to prove a negative: Just because something DIDN’T happen doesn’t mean that any security measures “worked.” This is the argument I am always burbling when folks feel that the only reason their kids have not been kidnapped is because they never let them out of their sight.

But, like terrorist attacks, stranger-danger is rare. Sure, take some basic precautions, like teaching your child never to go off with anyone, and then — send them out into the never-can-be-perfect world.

I realize I keep leaping from terrorism to everyday issues of parenting. But the link is this: Tragedies are dramatic and searing, but as they are also rare and unpredictable, they don’t deserve much weight in making our “safety” decisions. And the same goes for making our political decisions. As Ben Miller, a policy analyst at the group I’m working with, Common Good, puts it, “In the wake of any tragic event, our instinct is to write a rule that’s supposed to stop it from ever happening again. But the next tragedy needs a new rule, and the next, and so on, until there are too many rules for anyone to keep track—and we end up worse than if we had no rules at all.”

Rules always beget unintended consequences. Think of all the schools that have implemented background checks to keep their kids “safe.” How many otherwise eager (and non-threatening) parents have decided not to bother volunteering? Are kids better off (considering they were safe already)? Or worse (considering they have lost those free helping hands)? You could say, “Now parents aren’t harming kids at school!” But…wasn’t that true before the background checks?

Or think of the advice tendered yesterday by some know-it-all on Facebook:  “If you love your kids, don’t bring them into crowds.”  That was a quick, stupid fix, as if crowds are inherently unsafe. (As someone commented, “So maybe no one under 21 should be allowed into Disneyland?”)  Let’s make sure we don’t put equally quick, stupid fixes onto the lawbooks where they are anything but quick to be erased, even if they’re worse than useless. – L

We haven’t had a second 9/11. How come?

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