June 27, 2009
Land of the paranoid
Lenore Skenazy (she who let her 9-year-old ride the subway alone) writes about raising "Free-Range Kids":
We all want to raise children who are self-confident and independent. And we all want them to be safe. What's happened in the past generation is that our fear for their safety has overwhelmed any old-fashioned notion of the benefits of letting them knock around and make their own fun. Even make their own mistakes.
When I was growing up, my parents' two unbreakable rules were: "Go outside and play!" and "Be home in time for dinner!" What we did in the meantime was pretty much up to us. Perish that thought nowadays! Skenazy goes on to point out that
since its peak in the early '90s, the crime level has plummeted by about 50 percent. Crimes against kids and adults are back to the levels of 1970. Here in New York, they're back to the levels of about 1963. So if you were growing up and playing outside in the '70s or '80s, your children are actually safer than you were.
To be honest, I am a little surprised that none of my adventures sent me to the ER (like some weird, medieval curse, my younger brother seemed to be the designated injuree, though he's still alive and kicking). Except that the general public hasn't processed these facts because
when you go to CNN, there's another wide-eyed child staring out at you--a cold case they'll plaster on the screen if it's a slow news day (i.e., a day when no white girls were abducted). Leave CNN and you're back to CSI or Law & Order SVU, where it's the same story, served up with a bow of duct tape.
This isn't only a U.S. phenomenon. NHK recently ran a time-filling news story about two teenage girls who stole a scooter and snatched a purse. It included a CSI-type photo of the neatly-arranged evidence (the scooter, the purse, some junk they bought with the money in the purse).
This being a national news broadcast, I waited for the other shoe to drop. Something like: "Teenage girl admits killing dad with ax." But no. That was it. The crime spree lasted all of an afternoon. As it turned out, the police didn't even bother pressing charges.
This kind of paranoia gets Japanese in as big a tizzy as it does Americans. Scowling juvenile delinquents currently populate Japanese TV dramas like castoffs from a West Side Story revival. As Peter Payne puts it, "Once the Japanese people decide they're going to freak out about something, everyone gets on board."
Except that Koichi Hamai, professor of law at Ryukoku University, found that "rates for crimes by juveniles are not increasing as a percentage of overall crimes; nor do they show any tendency to occur from an earlier age." Moreover, there's "no evidence that Japan's law and order situation is deteriorating."
Of course, we don't really believe the world is ending in our own back yard. It's always the fault of those bums in Shelbyville.
According to Hamai's research, fifty percent of his respondents believed that "crime has increased nationwide over the previous two years." But only four percent thought it had increased in their own neighborhood. Americans say the same thing about the politicians they elect (well, maybe not if they're from Illinois).