While everyone has vulnerabilities and many of us share the same vulnerabilities, they have different meanings to each of us as individuals. For instance, if you’re a single person, your approach to addressing and dealing with personal physical risk may be different than a person who has family responsibilities. A person with family responsibilities will have to take a slightly different approach if their family members are young children than would the same person if the children were significantly older and more mature. Parental responsibilities as they pertain to security will differ slightly – but only slightly – in a two parent household over the same responsibilities in a single parent household. No single approach works best for all people and all situations.
Our lives today seem so hectic and so fundamentally different from the lives our parents lived. So often our daily activities put us into positions that leave us more vulnerable to physical risk than our parents ever were. When I was young, the majority of parents worked in the community where they lived. Often, mothers stayed at home, or had part time jobs that allowed them to be available to their children when school dismissed. Crime “seemed” almost nonexistent in many close communities and everyone looked out for their neighbors. But life was not a Norman Rockwell painting. Risks were there, so that remains unchanged.
Our changing lifestyles have not necessarily increased the risks we face, but they have altered our perception and understanding of them. Now, professionally we often commute some distances from our homes and communities, we routinely fly, we take public transportation, we pass through high-crime areas, we encounter individuals such as panhandlers, the mentally ill or the homeless who leave us feeling uneasy, we park in dark and almost deserted parking garages and the list goes on and on. In order to function, we either ignore our feelings of vulnerability, or we soon develop a mild sense of either fatalism or denial. There is no denying our feelings of discomfiture, but we’ve learned to live with them because we’ve come to believe we can’t do anything about it.
Events often lead us to suppose we are less safe today than a generation ago. Is there any basis for this belief? The constant bombardment of sensational news helps to promote the feeling that there are rapists, pedophiles, murderers, violent street gangs, drive-by shooters and terrorists on every street corner and every airport. Yet, statistics show that the rates of murder and some other violent crimes have steadily declined throughout the mid 1990’s despite the best efforts of the news outlets to suggest otherwise. We are, for the most part back to the crime rates our parents experienced in the sixties. So, are we safer now or are we more vulnerable than our parents were? Well actually, we’re both! Many of our vulnerabilities have merely shifted a bit in manner or direction.
Crime has always had the most significant psychological impact in certain demographic areas. While some categories of crime – in particular, murder – have dropped in the last decade, other crimes have statistically increased dramatically or stayed fairly constant. I say statistically, because historically there had been an element of “under-reporting” certain crimes. Rape, child abuse, spousal abuse and robbery are four such categories. So, while the crime statistics might suggest some increases in those crime categories, it may be that the increase is not as dramatic as one would first assume.
We who live in small towns normally enjoy isolation from the crime rates of larger cities, but with the sprawl of urban growth, many small towns are now suburbs and with that growth have come increased crime rates. The improved efficiency of law enforcement to respond to and solve crimes in larger cities has also driven a more mobile form of criminal into areas where the police response or capabilities are lacking the same professional or technological sophistication. But while crime would seem to be our principal fear and victimization of crime our biggest vulnerability, it often depends largely on location and in most cases, pure chance. There are other, greater vulnerabilities that we should first address.
If we share anything at all with generations past, it’s that life is not safe. Everyday, we perform routine acts that place us in danger. For instance, if you drive or ride in motor vehicles, you face a dramatically increased risk of death or serious injury each and every time you meet an oncoming car on a two lane road. Think about it. Cars pass each other head-on approximately ten or fifteen feet apart at fifty-five miles per hour. Their combined speed would result in a collision force of one hundred and ten miles per hour and the only thing that stands between our safety and total calamity is the moral barrier of a broken white line! All it takes is an instant of inattention; reaching for a drink; answering a cell phone or adjusting the radio. These are all simple things many of us do dozens of times while we drive. How many cars do you suppose you encounter on a normal travel day in which the other driver is similarly distracted? Deadly car crashes caused by these distractions occur almost hourly in every state in America, yet hardly anyone considers each routine passing of two cars as a potential deadly encounter that was only narrowly avoided; sometimes by pure luck!
The rate of violent crime is statistically insignificant as it relates to its potential to adversely affect the “average” American’s life directly, yet in many cases it is the fear of such crime that has the largest influence on how we approach risk, ignoring potential accidents almost entirely! Accidents pose the major risk factors we daily face and they most often get the least attention, both by the media and consumers of media.
Let’s use the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as a comparison to illustrate this point. If you swim, you should know that drowning accounts for more deaths annually in America than those experienced on 9/11. Infections or other complications from sometimes minor medical procedures kill just as many. Almost four times as many people die each year from accidental poisoning than died in the Twin Towers! Over four times as many die from accidental falls on the job or in the home! It’s conservatively estimated that at least 100,000 people die as a result of medical negligence in our hospitals every year!
So, while it may sound harsh to say it, in the grand scheme of things the three thousand people who died on 9/11 barely made a statistical blip on the screen for the calendar year 2001, with regards to the annual death rate due to unnatural causes. Yet, the events on September 11th, 2001 impacted us in a way few living Americans have experienced since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years before. The drama and horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania consumed us emotionally; economically and left many of us feeling nearly paralyzed with fear and helplessness.
The senselessness of the human tragedy was almost overwhelming. The round-the-clock coverage of the event transfixed us for weeks. We instinctively realized what it was that we personally shared with the victims of that tragedy. Sheer randomness! They had simply gone to work one morning or visited a national landmark or boarded an air plane – things many of us have done or do routinely – and their innocent lives were agonizingly wiped out in the course of ninety terrifying minutes and nearly the entire country was allowed to intimately witness their agonies and their final moments!
Because of this one event, albeit huge, there was overnight, an almost illogically pathological focus on personal security. Personal Security became a watchword for many Americans, both collectively and individually. But, while 9/11 woke us up to the potential threat we face from terrorists, in many ways it took our attention away from other numerous and far more likely personal risks we face every day; risks with a much greater statistical probability of negatively or tragically affecting our lives.
The deaths of three thousand people lost on 9/11, while horrible and tragic, has no comparison to the annual death rate on our nation’s highways. In 1970 there were over 52,000 traffic fatalities. In 2002 the number had dropped to 43,354. Considering the improvements in roads, mechanical safety, stiffer penalties for drunk driving, lower speed limits and driver’s education, a drop of only 9000 fatalities per year in over thirty years of better safety application and awareness doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. Of course you have to factor in the veritable explosion of new drivers during that time frame in addition to the phenomenal increase in annual miles driven, to see that there has actually been a phenomenally huge reduction in the overall number of fatalities. Taken in this context, had nothing changed with regard to highway improvements, lower speed limits, enforcement, vehicle equipment, driver education and safety, our annual highway death rate in auto accidents would probably be in the vicinity of one hundred thousand souls, or even twice that!
So, why isn’t this chapter dedicated to personal safety as opposed to personal security? Believe me; I’m not trying to cheat. But, any discussion about personal security can’t ignore accidents as a major risk factor in our everyday lives. If the overall aim of security awareness is to keep us as safe as possible and still live a rich and rewarding life, personal security has to involve a mindset of personal safety. Without embracing a personal safety mindset, we can’t wrap our arms around the subject of personal security.
More to come.
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