Friday, August 01, 2008
Paranoia to the People
Earlier this year, on this very blog, I bemoaned the fact that all of the danger and thrill in life is being stripped away from us by do-gooders and legislators (See Welcome to Vandaland). Since then I've come across any number of other ridiculous attempts to sanitise the art of living; everything from banning the playing of conkers in schools to legislating against smokers. It's starting to feel as if all responsibility for our own actions is being taken away from us: if we trip over, we're not clumsy. It's the pavement. It was too slippery or too rugged or the paving slab was broken. And, what's more, because it's not our fault, we can sue the real culprit. We're not even allowed to voluntarily damage ourselves anymore- in this past week, a self-employed painter and decorator was given a £30 on-the-spot fine for smoking in his own van because it is classified as a workplace. Absolutely true. What the Hell is going on? Has the world gone mad? How has this ridiculous state of affairs come to be? It's something that has puzzled me for a while but, thankfully, no more because I've just finished reading Warwick Cairns' new book How to live dangerously.
His last book, About the size of it, was a heartfelt cry for common sense in the confused and frankly ridiculous world of weights and measures. This new book is again a call for sanity in a world gone mad. Did you know that in 1970, the average female child was allowed to walk a mile from her home unaccompanied while in 2008, the average distance is the garden gate? What's changed? Are there really hordes of paedophiles and child catchers prowling the streets in pervy packs attempting to nab our toddlers? Of course not. Statistically, you'd need to lock your kids outside unminded for 200, 000 years to be in with an evens chance of them being abducted. And then, even if the worst happened, you'd in all likelihood get them back alive within 24 hours. It's simple maths. How many children, when compared to the total population of children in the UK, are abducted per year? Divide one by the other. How many children besides poor little Maddie McCann can you remember being abducted in the past 12 months?
Part of the problem is that we just hear about it now. We hear about everything. I know more about what's happening in Zimbabwe than I do about what's happening in the nearest town to me. When I was a kid growing up in Cornwall, there were no mobile phones, no emails, no websites, blogs or digital news channels. The news was reported responsibly by people we trusted. We didn't hear what happened in a neighbouring town unless it made the national news or unless it was such a big deal that it made the following week's local papers. Ignorance really was bliss. Nowadays, if an elderly chicken keels over in Kyoto, within minutes the media is screaming possible bird flu. We have more newspapers, TV channels and on-line reporting than ever before ... but it's not as reliable as I'd like it to be, sadly. Just a couple of weeks ago, a leading tabloid reported that there was 'a stabbing every 4 minutes in the UK' ... or something like that anyway. It's a complete and utter lie. They based their headline on national knife crime statistics. Scary though they may be, the vast majority of knife crimes are NOT stabbings. They are mostly robberies at knife point. In some, the knife isn't even seen, just threatened. They are not stabbings. Gross misreporting like this just causes public panic. The fact is (and bear in mind that I've been a police officer for nearly 30 years), life is not as scary as it is painted. It really isn't. I'm not suggesting for a minute that you go traipsing through life all la-la-la without taking appropriate and proportionate precautions. That would be foolish. But I chose the words appropriate and proportionate carefully. Neither should we live in a state of fear and siege.
The first thing I read upon getting into my hotel room in America last week was the leaflet reproduced at the top of this blog (Click on it for a larger version and have a read). Where was the 'Welcome to the USA! Enjoy your stay!'? What I got was don't do this, that or the other because if I do, nasty things might happen. How would an already insecure person feel upon reading this? It exercises me, it really does.
Three years ago, the police service in the UK went through a radical shift in structure. It's still going on. The idea was to take a proportion of officers away from 'chase the bad guy' responsive policing and put them back on the beat in designated residential areas. They're called Neighbourhood Policing or Safer Neighbourhoods Teams. And why did this shift occur? Because of fear. The public's fear of crime far outstrips reality - there's no correlation at all. Plot actual crime against fear of crime on a graph and the lines are further apart than Amy Winehouse's remaining healthy liver cells. So putting 'Bobbies back on the beat' is an attempt to rectify this; to reassure the public that all is, if not well, at least better than they realise.
Warwick's book isn't the first book I've read about risk and danger. Recently, there's been Jeffrey Rosenthal's Struck by Lightning and Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams' Panicology to name just a couple. But How to live dangerously is much more down-to-Earth; much more rooted in the common experiences of the reader. Talk of children being driven to school or fear of flying or buying hygienic handle wipes for shopping trolleys is easier to grasp and appropriately ridicule than the epidemiology of SARS or an in-depth analysis of the shares markets.
Warwick's book is a sensible, no-nonsense breath of fresh air.
Just be careful that the draught doesn't give you a crick in the neck. I don't want to be sued.