Given my line of work, I’m often asked questions such as “Is it safe to travel by planes these days?” Or more recent ones such as “Which city do you think the terrorists will target next?”
Such questions illustrate the subtle peculiarity of human behaviour—that we focus on risks that are distant and out of our immediate influence rather than those that constantly threaten us and our loved ones. There is no doubt that the unpredictability of terrorist attacks and the media fixation on them have contributed to terror getting such high mindshare. Nevertheless, you or your loved ones are exposed to far greater risk from more mundane everyday deliberate attacks such as rape, mugging, robbery, assault and molestation—often times by those whom you personally know—than being involved in a terrorist strike.
One could argue that such social crimes are a feature of banana republics or poorer countries which cannot afford to spend on security of their society. So let us consider the example of a country which lost more lives to gunshot wounds in the last two years than the total casualties during the Vietnam War (around 65,000). Where 75 women are raped every hour and around 70 children are killed by parents—every week! And around four million children abused last year (that is around 11,000 every day). A country where more women go to the casualty ward of hospitals because of injuries caused by their husbands or partners—than car accidents, robberies and rape combined.
Also Read Raghu Raman’s earlier columns
I could go on, but you get the point. The country being discussed is the US—unarguably a nation that spends more on defence and security than any other in the world.
I make this observation to point out a simple fact. Violence and threats are closer than we think and you are far more likely to be exposed to a life-threatening situation from everyday circumstances than high-voltage events such as plane bombings or terrorist shootouts. As Gavin Becker, an expert on violent behaviour points out, modern society spends far more resources and time improving its capabilities for rare conflicts than avoiding everyday dangerous situations.
So we check several million individuals each year for weapons on a flight, in cinemas and hotels, but we neglect the credentials of servants who work in our homes, security guards who are on our premises or staff who are supposed to care for aged parents. We trust complete strangers with our homes and our children with relatives and friends, despite the fact that almost all child molestation is done by relatives or known people. And as the recent scandals rocking the Catholic world show, sometimes by the very people supposed to be protecting them.
As parents and citizens, we are making the mistake of focusing on “our sphere of interest” rather than our “sphere of influence”.
This attitude towards security has two disadvantages, one obvious and the other subtle, but equally devastating. The obvious one is that the resources, be it in the form of deployment of assets, education or awareness, start focusing on the wrong things. Learning about the Mumbai attacks is unlikely to be of much use to your daughter, but knowledge about date rape modus operandi could possibly save her life. And yet, the average teenager is bombarded with information about the former, but has no clue about the latter. Similarly armchair “experts” comment authoritatively about the flaws of security frameworks in public places such as hotels and airports, but don’t bother heeding signs that their children are hooked on narcotics or being sexually abused. In both such instances, parents are invariably the last to know and are often shocked by how long it took them to discover it.
The subtler disadvantage of this obsessive global focus on security is that the pattern of threats to your immediate family is entirely different from that of, say, a bomb explosion or a plane hijack. For instance, no terrorist announces a bomb attack or his intention to assassinate an important person, but almost all cases of domestic violence, peer abuse, sexual assaults and premeditated murder are preceded by verbal and even written threats or warnings. As are suicides—to which we lose more people every day—than all the deaths of the Mumbai attack. And this is what I find ironic that parents who ask me concerned questions about the safety of a city, very rarely instil a sense of the need to wear helmets (or use contraceptives) in their children.
Personally, I believe a sense of security starts at home and in the immediate circles of influence. Our children are entering a world where school, college and workplace violence, stalkers, aggressive bullies, traffic accidents, peer-pressured dangerous behaviour and sexual risks are far more likely to be encountered than a terrorist attack. And while there is no doubt that we ought to be actively interested in the security environment in our sphere of interest, it must not be at the cost of ignoring the enemy at the gates.
Raghu Raman is an expert and commentator on internal security. These are the author’s personal views. Respond to this fortnightly column at firstname.lastname@example.org