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?


28 Responses to Don’t Let a Tragedy Make Us Stupid

  1. bobca April 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    Great interview, and post. Thanks for sharing it.

    I am a statistic of the parents that choose not to continue participation with the insanity and inconvenience. I have been a Boy Scout merit badge counselor for several years. They just instituted a policy where counselors need to reapply every year, re-document their experience with the topic, get approved, show that they have taken the required “safety” course…again…just to do what we have been doing for years.

    I quit…!

  2. Matthew April 17, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    One indicator of measures that worked is near misses. Incidents prevented by the measures taken turns proving a negative into proving a positive. Sometime after OKC restrictions on volume of fertilizer sold in addition to storage and inventory requirements and permitting were put in place, as well as communications to people legitimately using large quantities to report suspicious inquiries. If a guy living in an apartment requests 2000lbs of ammonium nitrate, don’t let them have it and call the FBI. Reports I’ve seen indicate scores of prevented bombings, although I haven’t dug into details. A friend with a winery also says the requirements aren’t overly onerous, as inventory management is good business practice anyway. Of course, the risk/reward of policies can be unbalanced. Somewhere between “Doing anything is restrictive and pointless” and “Do everything we possibly can at any level of restriction and cost” is a balanced analysis of the risks and costs.

  3. Warren April 17, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    What we all have to understand that no matter what measures are put into place, there are ways around them.
    For example, the ferilizer limits. All they have done is made the item harder to get, but not impossible. Or change the fuel, for the bomb.
    I am not saying that we are doomed, because we are not. All I am saying is that all these measures seem to do is inconvenience the innocent while creating the illusion of safety. And that illusion of safety is going to come back to bite us in the ass.

  4. Toby Farley April 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    I suspect someone will now at the very least attempt to force the manufacture of “safe” or “terrorist proof” pressure cookers or ban their manufacture and sale all together. That is the crazy mixed up reactionary world we live in.

  5. Julie April 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    On a related note, the NY Senate passed a bill yesterday regulating the ages at which you may leave your children in the car alone. You would be breaking the law to leave your 11 year old in the car while you go into the station to pay for your gasoline purchase. Part of their rationale is the risk of child abduction. Hopefully New York’s Assembly will hear from enough people that they vote this down and allow parents to make their own, responsible parenting decisions.

    A local reporter reviewed this well on her blog:

  6. Alan April 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    @bobca, the MB counselor registration varies by council, (aside from the Youth Protection training, which is required annually by National). Sorry to hear your having a hard time with it. Don’t give up on it, though. It’s for the boys!

  7. BL April 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm #


    No, he did the right thing. When there are enough bobcas, maybe these organizations will decide to stop treating a volunteer like a criminal reporting to a probation officer. Either that or they can just collapse for lack of support.

  8. mystic_eye_cda April 17, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    It’s really time for there to be serious competition to the Boy Scouts anyway. I’m not interested in putting my children in a religiously affiliated group. There are lots of religious childrens’ groups and camps, lots of choice for the religious family. I want more choices for the rest of us.

  9. Paula April 17, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    I’ve been teaching for 15 years and every school I’ve ever worked in has required background checks for volunteering parents. If someone is afraid to have a background check done, they don’t belong working with the kids and I’d say that any parent who can’t be bothered to have it done isn’t really all that eager to volunteer. I volunteered with Big Sister 20 years ago and it would never have occurred to me to find it intrusive to have a background check performed on me.

  10. Donna April 17, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Neither my school in the South Pacific or the one in the staates requires background checks for PARENTS. You know those people who have unlimited access to children outside if school, a vested interest in volunteering at the school and are never alone in secluded places with the students. Compare that to the same school district who does require background checks for mentors who are not parents and do have one-on-one contact with a specific child all year. Or Big Sisters which is the same.

    There are many reasons that someone may want to avoid a background check. The most obvious is that all former criminals are not horrible people who need to be kept away from children but they are probably going to be treated that way by many close-minded people if the criminal history is known. Or at least have a very reasonable fear that they will be and their children will be stigmatized.

    A son of a friend of my mother is about to be a convicted felon, and possibly even go to prison, at 19. He’s a good kid from a good family who made the colossally bad choice of driving a car after drinking and caused an accident seriously injuring someone. This conviction will follow him the rest of his life. Do you really think he’s going to be jumping up and down to volunteer at his kids’ schools (should he have kids) 20 years from now and out himself as a convicted felon? And does a stupid decision he made at 19 have any bearing on the man he is at 39, his parenting ability or the safety of kids?

  11. Warren April 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    Not judgemental of you at all. Wow! Is the oxygen thin up there on your high horse?

    I know what you mean. Here the background checks are done by the police, at the volunteer’s expense. All the school gets to see is a letter from the police stating that the volunteer is either eligible to volunteer or not.
    While the school does not see anything, the local cops all get a refresher on whatever past you have. Something you may have put behind you years ago, is now fresh to them.

    All for background checks, that do absolutely no good.

  12. mystic_eye_cda April 17, 2013 at 7:03 pm #
    “”If someone tells you they can do a nationwide computer search and come up with a good result, they’re talking out their ****. A nationwide criminal-records search does not exist,” Martin said. “In California, which is one of the states where it’s easier to get the information, there are 58 counties and only about 15 are all online. If you did a mass murder in Curran County, an employer is not going to find out about it.

    “Even on some of the good databases, ‘nationwide’ means every three or four states, and even those are not complete. You have to go to every county the person lived and check the courts in person.” Martin said.”

  13. Donald April 17, 2013 at 7:30 pm #


    I speak a lot about the Triune model and how the reptilian brain becomes dictator when we get really scared. We become ‘helpless’ and blindly follow instantaneous decisions that will make us feel safer. (even stupid ones)

    The way forward is to do EXACTLY what you’re doing. We need to see OFTEN about all the damage that occurs because of the overreactions.

    For more info, please see my website.

    The reptilian brain is very simple. It holds survival as TOP priority. Think of a set of scales. Imagine one saucer is full of worst first thinking. (side A) Now think of the other saucer that is starting to fill up with the pain caused by overreactions. (side B) When the two sides balance out then we are no longer helpless to a knee jerk reaction.

    You’re doing an excellent job of helping people to fill side B. Keep pointing out all the damage that we are causing due to overreaction

  14. Kathy April 17, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    Mystic_eye, I’d encourage you to take a look at either 4H or Boys & Girls Clubs. Both have published statements of inclusion and although they both strive to teach good character, as far as I know I don’t believe either has a religious affliation.

    To be clear, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts actually don’t either…their pledges make reference to “God” but not a specific religion…Although Boy Scouts don’t welcome atheists, Girl Scouts do…Girl Scout’s pledge says “To serve God and my country” but unlike Boy Scouts, we don’t require belief in God for a girl to join a troop.

  15. Katie April 17, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    In other things that are apparently also threats apparently now roomates in college should be banned too. Just came across this at another website:

    “i never understood why one would take the extra effort to raise a child in a protected enviorment then send them to college and they have to be in the same room with drunks and people bringing other people in to have sex ect college should have small single rooms a bad college roomate can cause a horrid year no sleep or peace awful and stupid practice”

  16. amy April 17, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Re: ˝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.”

    I wonder if Rumsfeld knew of specific potential attacks that his policies prevented, but that he was unable to divulge. Just a thought.

  17. Warren April 17, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    I am sure there are many incidents that have been prevented, without public disclosure. Probably alot of them dealt with overseas.

    Be thankful. If the public knew, can you imagine how it would feed thier paranoia. I don’t even want to think about it. I am quite happy to live in ignorance.

  18. amy April 17, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    Same here. I’m very thankful not to know. Remember when Cheney told Obama, during the election, that he was making statements that he wouldn’t make if he was privy to the same information as Bush? Obama was speaking of terrorism and denouncing Bush’s decisions. Regardless of political beliefs, I think he (Cheney) nailed it.

  19. John April 17, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    But you know something Lenore? It is a common American trait to OVER REACT to anything and everything. It’s as if over-reaction is an embedded quirk within American culture.

    For example, I LOVE juicy, rare hamburgers and have been eating rare hamburgers for the past 47 years (of course not every night otherwise my cholesterol would be thru the roof). Despite of that, I’ve never even had as much as a stomach ache from eating those rare burgers. But in the early 90s when 4 people died of e-coli poisoning and 190 got sick and when they traced the bacterium back to under cooked ground beef, now all-of-a-sudden it became difficult to order a rare hamburger in most US based restaurants. Instead the restaurants had a policy of cooking ground beef no less than medium well. Even though, millions and millions of rare hamburgers have been consumed by Americans within the 50 years prior without any problems, now just because less than a handful of unfortunate people die from eating rare burgers, we’ve now got to over cook the meat and ruin the taste of the burger in my opinion!

    I know this is a little off topic but it falls in line with the same reasoning we use in over-reacting with useless laws anytime a child is hurt. When I asked one restaurant Manager why they only cook burgers medium well, he tried telling me that “eating rare burgers is very very dangerous” as if I was about to embark on a swimming expedition across the crocodile invested Lagunga River in the Congo!

  20. ifsogirl April 17, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    I have never had to have a background check to volunteer at my kids schools. They encourage classroom helpers as well as drivers for field trips. They do ask for a driver’s abstract but that does make sense, if you have a history of bad driving they may not want you to be responsible for other children. I have never had to do so for Girl Guides either, the Canadian equivelant of Scouts.

    I think it would make parents less agreeable to the idea of volunteering if you have to pay the fee every year. It’s $50 in my town and it changes from town to town. If you are a low income family that money has to come out of a tight budget and not everyone can make that sacrifice.

  21. Conor McCartney April 18, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    @ John, the hamburger thing isn’t off topic at all. A couple people died over the course of years. Then rare burgers are banned and no one has paid attention to dead kids from burgers (they still happen) and we convince ourselves (because we stop paying attention) that we’ve stopped this tragedy through more laws and intervention

  22. AW13 April 18, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    @Paula: I wouldn’t be worried about getting a background check, I’d be annoyed. I have a teaching license, which requires a background check and means that the state has already checked me out and says I’m OK to work with children. For me to have to pay for another background check in order to volunteer at my child’s school is asinine. I have nothing to hide, I just think it’s ridiculous.

    I just wanted to clarify that not wanting to pay for a background check does not mean that someone automatically has something to hide. That’s a nasty assumption to make. In any case, even if they did have something to “hide”, it is more than likely something not related to children/child abuse. Perhaps someone has a public intox from their college days. I understand why a person wouldn’t want that to be public knowledge.

  23. Yan Seiner April 18, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    @Paula: That’s the “if you have nothing to hide, then why worry about an invasion of privacy?” line of thinking.

    Hey, I have nothing to hide, do you? Then why are you afraid of my going through your personal stuff? You must have something to hide! Now I have to look, because you’ve made me suspicious.

    The whole point is that background checks have been shown to be security theater, largely ineffective as any sort of preventive measure. Sure, maybe in a small measure they work but at a guess they’re statistically insignificant from noise.

    The other problem is that background checks set up an expectation of guilt; you’re a man, you want to volunteer with kids, you must be a pedophile! Only a pedophile male would show interest in kids!

  24. CrazyCatLady April 18, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    Paula, have you seen Le Miz? Or read it? Yes, it is literature, but in my experience, it holds true – those who have a conviction, based on real fact or not, are very likely to be upstanding citizens after they serve their time.

  25. Matthew April 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    I’ve volunteered through my university and employer at schools where I am not a parent. The school accepts that my employer did the check, and counted volunteering through something as an adequate reference.

    I think differentiating between the random person that wanders in offering to volunteer and someone that is a teacher already, or is coming in through an existing organization is reasonable. Just ask for 3 references though. It’s free.

  26. Owen Allen April 19, 2013 at 12:01 am #

    Lenore, thanks for pulling these arguments together. When I look back over the incidences, most that have beset your country but some, like the Bali bombings that where closer to home, I can see a few processes that have been positive against terror / criminal / psychotic massacres. These are: improved intelligence work, increased public alertness, and general disarmament. I am more accepting of airport security but that may be just a case of habit. However, having recently been to a take-away in the devastated part of New Orleans to be confronted by bullet proof plastic encasing the counter, I guess some strategies are all about deterrence, rather than resolving criminality.

  27. Let_Her_Eat_Dirt April 19, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    Excellent post, Lenore. I had not heard of Bruce Shneier but will have to check him out — he seems to have maintained his common sense as well as his courage. In the wake of these kinds of tragedies, it can be hard not to fall into the collective “let’s do SOMETHING!” mindset. I find that even suggesting that we as a society cannot prevent all such things gets one branded as callous or fatalistic or even vaguely un-American. We obviously should learn from mistakes and seek to take smart steps to avoid obvious dangers, but we can’t have the hubris to imagine that we can legislate the danger out of life.

    Let Her Eat Dirt
    A dad’s take on raising tough, adventurous girls

  28. Julia April 19, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    CNN let’s a strangely rational commentary slip through:

    “Terrorists make us lose sight of the real dangers” by Dr. Charles Raison.