Just when the shock of the Boston Marathon attack was beginning to settle a bit (I was less than two blocks from the infamous boat on the Thursday afternoon), the horror story out of Cleveland again shatters our sense of safety and human decency. Everyone will make their own moral story out of each event, and I’ve been thinking about mine.
Of the facts that have come out so far, the description of the homeowner’s way of living struck me most. He was a man who, according to neighbors, never used his front door, but drove into his back yard, locked the gate, and entered from the rear. People said he was friendly when outside, but that he never had company and never visited anyone else.
What occurred to me was my own childhood in a lower-middle to middle class neighborhood in Queens in the 1950s and 1960s. There were about ten houses on each side of our street, and I can still recall at least eight of the families on my side, and about half those on the other (there was more movement on the other side, so a few families changed over in my six years before college). Every family interacted with every other over the backyard fences, on the front lawns, and in each other’s houses. A few families didn’t have kids, but they were as connected to the rest of the block as all those with school-age children.
Before that I lived in a far more urban part of Brooklyn, where three-story and somewhat taller apartments were the norm. Every day from first through sixth grade I walked 8 blocks to school, often four times a day, since we could go home from lunch. I was at the outer edge of the school catchment area, and I often heard from my mother that another mom had seen me doing something like wandering up one of the streets between school and home at the end of the day. My wife lived in suburb of Providence, and recalls how the five-year-olds and up would walk to school, picking up members of their little crew on the way.
Today we live on a block with 16 houses. We have exactly one friend on the block (two others moved away), and perhaps two others with whom we have a cordial acquaintance. The rest are total strangers to us, and I think, to each other.
Beyond anecdotes, numerous studies report that parents are far more fearful for their children’s safety than at any time in the past. The distance even older children are allowed to travel unsupervised has shrunk from miles to backyards. Yet there is no evidence that events like that in Cleveland are any more common than in the past.
The problem, it seems to me, is twofold. First, we know about every incident immediately, no matter where it happens. That means we have a collection of frightening events that covers at least all 300+ million Americans, plus occasional major abominations abroad. But one evolutionary biologist has suggested that we take in these events as if they had occurred in the small, local social unit that was what our ancestors knew: a hundred people or somewhat more. So our calculation of odds is inevitably warped. (I know one person who is fanatical about locking the back door to her well-fenced yard in a very safe neighborhood. Why: because she can list three home invasions leading to murder that appeared on the local news: one in Massachusetts, one in Connecticut, and one in New Hampshire over a period of six years.)
But the paradox is that the more we shut down in order to feel safe, the less safe we are. On my current block there are no block parties, the yards are larger and farther apart, and most people spend their time indoors. Everyone has a garage, so no one comes home, parks on the street, and chats with another neighbor arriving at the same time. In fact, 15 of the 16 homes on my street have attached garages, so hidden movement between car and house would be even easier than in Cleveland (the 16th had a garage but converted in into added living space).
So we follow the reverse strategy of what many living creatures have developed to protect themselves against predators. Instead of flocking together, watching out for the whole herd, or circling around the young, we do exactly what predators hope for: we carve ourselves out from the herd and so have no one but ourselves around when the predator comes stalking. And we put our faith in security cameras, while complaining that these are an invasion of privacy when put up by government to protect us, but not when installed by businesses to protect themselves. (And even though they helped capture the perpetrators in Boston, they aren’t very good at the “See Something, Say Something” model, except in tightly monitored circumstances.) No wonder a frightening number of us want assault rifles by our bedsides.