Americans cherish their freedom. They enjoy a degree of personal, social and political freedom nearly unrivalled in human history. So it is ironic and even tragic that they willingly forfeit so much of that freedom in pursuit of another value: safety. Safety from what? In a word, crime. Too often, we needlessly sacrifice freedom for safety.
It’s true that stories of violent crime surround us, from the recent Houston house party where two men were shot and killed to the rape of a 13-year-old hearing-impaired girl at a Dallas park, or the terrible mass shooting at Fort Hood on April 2, these all-too-real stories and images have conditioned Americans to fear crime in their daily lives.
According to data from the Gallup Organization and the National Opinion Research Center, two-fifths of adult Americans say they are afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods, and two-thirds believe the national crime problem is getting worse. One in seven U.S. households now lies behind locked gates, and millions of residents are afraid to answer their front doors. Our children no longer ride their bikes to school or for play, and parents drive their children to school or the bus stop. One-third of American men have purchased a firearm for protection. One in five women carries pepper spray or Mace.
So what exactly is the problem? The problem is that the world is actually a good deal safer than most Americans realize or appreciate, and the freedoms they sacrifice are often surrendered unnecessarily. Americans, naturally enough, long for safety for themselves and those they care about, and they take actions to secure that safety. However, crime rates in the U.S. have been declining for more than 20 years; the murder rate dropped by half during the past decade alone, and it has been dropping relentlessly for centuries. Research shows that Americans exaggerate their chances of being murdered, raped or robbed, as well as their chances of dying in a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or other rare event. And they seriously underestimate the hazards that pose genuine risk to them, such as heart disease or cancer.
Americans are not stupid or uninformed. Their conception of the world as a dangerous place is one that is depicted to them and reinforced day after day in the mass media. That is where the disconnect between reality and perception takes place. On television, crime is the No. 1 topic in dramas, news programs and movies. The world on television, in newspapers and on the Web is populated by serial killers, child molesters, robbers and rapists. In this media world, the rare appears commonplace, and the commonplace is rarely seen. The resemblance between the dangerous, upside-down world depicted by the media and public perceptions of crime and other hazards is so close that it is difficult to deny a causal influence of the media. In fact, research shows that the more individuals view television, the more likely they are to subscribe to the dangerous-world idea.
Adding to this message are companies and industries that make it their business to scare Americans into buying their products — home security systems, car alarms, child-tracking systems, insurance or firearms, to name a few. Their commercials fill the airwaves on any particular day or night.
Newspaper publishers in London discovered almost two centuries ago that placing local crime stories in prominent locations in the paper drove up readership, and the race was on. The public does seem drawn to crime and violence, but that is at least partly because we are naturally attracted to information that is potentially life-saving or life-threatening. In a rationalistic, scientific age, media depictions of death and dying are often the only place in which death is openly discussed or confronted.
The media will continue down this path, but we should not let them determine how safe we feel. Instead, we should always bear in mind that what we encounter in the media is a selective depiction of the world and is often merely the daydreams of script writers and producers. We must also remember that freedom is profoundly precious, too precious to be cast off needlessly or lightly. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would sacrifice liberty in the name of safety deserve neither. So unless you have sound reasons not to, let your kids out to play. Walk to the park. Talk to your neighbors. Seize the freedom that is your heritage.
Mark Warr is a criminologist and a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. He is an expert on social reactions to crime and peer influence. He has served on numerous federal commissions and panels for such agencies as the National Institute of Justice, the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Statistical Association.