Rick Holmes: How TV and politics fuel ‘mean world syndrome’
If you watch enough TV, you can’t help but be afraid.
You see the demolished airport lobby, the smoke-filled subway tunnel, the people covered in blood and tears, and you think, “that could be my airport, my train, my loved ones.”
Yes, it could happen to you. You could also win the Powerball, which is actually a lot more likely. Around 15 people a year win more than $1 million on the Powerball game. Since 9/11, jihadi terrorists have killed just 45 people on American soil.
At the risk of trivializing the danger of terrorist attacks, but in the interest of putting it in perspective, writers have tallied the odds. You are more likely to be crushed to death by furniture than killed by a terrorist, the Washington Post reports, or die from an accident in a bathtub. One investigation found that more Americans were killed last year by toddlers than by terrorists.
You’d be less safe if you were in Brussels, to be sure, though even abroad, Americans are more likely to die in car crashes than at the hands of terrorists. Intelligence officials estimate ISIS has as many as 400 recruits operating in Europe, and we’ve seen the damage they can do. Still, that’s not a very large army, and it’s much smaller on this side of the Atlantic.
“There are 6 million Muslims in America,” homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem told Boston Public Radio on March 22, and “maybe 30 are participants in ISIS. That is a pretty good ratio.”
What are the chances the extra police patrols Sen. Ted Cruz wants to put in Muslim neighborhoods will catch one of those 30 terrorists wheeling an explosive-filled suitcase out to a cab on his way to the airport? Must we really subvert the First Amendment to put a religious test on travel to America, as Donald Trump proposes, because we are frozen in fear of those 30 ISIS sympathizers?
Politics and fear-mongering go hand in hand. Between politicians wanting to scare up votes and television networks looking to scare up ratings, no wonder Americans are seeing terrorists under their beds.
It’s not just the threat of terrorism that’s been grossly exaggerated. We think crime is everywhere because we see it on every TV. A convenience store robbery in Sacramento, California, appears on the local news in Boston, Massachusetts, because the security cam footage is more exciting than anything truly local.
Newspapers aren’t immune to the “if it bleeds, it leads” syndrome, of course. If all you read is the police coverage, you’re likely to think you community is far more dangerous than it really is.
The truth is, violent crime has been falling steadily in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Gun homicides are down nearly 50 percent since 1993. Crime is lower today – and children are safer today – than when most of today’s parents and grandparents were growing up.
But 20 or 30 years ago, parents were traumatized by news coverage of a handful of stranger kidnappings, and the rules of parenting changed overnight. Today, even in the most tranquil communities, parents don’t let kids go to the park by themselves or wait for the school bus without an adult standing guard. I suspect the loss of childhood independence may have long-term psychological consequences.
Even consuming fictional violence on TV makes us feel less safe. Purdue University researchers found that people who watch a lot of crime dramas on TV estimate the incidence of real-life murder at 2.5 times what it really is.
“This kind of television viewing can lead to ‘mean world syndrome,’ where people start to think about the world as a scary place,” said Glenn Sparks, one of the researchers. “Some people develop a fear of victimization, and this belief can affect their feelings of comfort and security.”
For the longest view, there is ample reassurance in the pages of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” a comprehensive historical study of violence. Pinker finds in the work of anthropologists and historians proof that there was nothing peaceful about humanity’s past. War and murder were common among hunter-gatherer societies, anthropologists have concluded. Ancient Greek histories are replete with kidnappings, rapes and murder. One Biblical scholar tallied the references to mass killings in the Bible, including genocides ordered by Israeli prophets, kings and God himself, and came up with a body count of 1.2 million. Torture was commonly accepted — and often done in the name of religion — from the early days of Christianity, through Europe’s Middle Ages, right up to Colonial New England.
But humankind has steadily become kinder. Customs involving violence — duels, spanking, fistfights, executions – have fallen out of style, in real life if not on TV. Pinker concludes that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
That conclusion is not negated by the birth of a small tribe in the Middle East that mixes medieval forms of violence with modern communications technology. The beheadings ISIS streams online are just another way to spread fear for the sake of political gain.
But we don’t have to buy what they are selling. Be not afraid. Tune out the TV and the fear-mongering politicians. You are safer than you think.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the Metrowest Daily News, and can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.