The old adage that many parents have taught their children has taken on more powerful form in the age of Terror Alerts and school shootings. Like those airport announcements about reporting any unattended baggage, these admonitions and attitudes generate fear that justifies increasing governmental surveillance and the appropriation of additional resources to the state’s security apparatuses (and the private companies who make surveillance equipment like the $120 million of full body scanners whose effectiveness is questionable). The troubling consequences from this creation of terror and fear extend further.
Repeatedly we have seen over-reactions to non-threats, such as a homemade clock taken to a school, a visitor from India walking through a neighborhood, or a teenager in a hoody walking home with a bag of Skittles. Unfortunately, these episodes have ended with a false arrest, bodily injury, and, most tragically, untimely death. What unites these examples, and many others, is that someone (or several someones), a teacher, a neighbor, an officer, a vigilante, identified the situation as posing a potential threat and adopted the adage “Better safe than sorry,” which is exactly what public safety discussions teach. Accentuating the problem is how society has placed on certain bodies, primarily those of people of color, an image of danger that fosters a misinterpretation of the existence of a potential threat. People can debate which identification of Ahmed Mohamed (religion, ethnicity, race) is the source of the reaction of fear, but the end result from any of those identifications is a negative stereotype generating fear and a significant, sometimes tragic, over-reaction.
These examples easily illustrate how any representation and analysis of the world is not a description of facts external to those making the representation but is their creation that reflects their own interests and assumptions. Whether the clock Ahmed made was a hoax bomb or a cool engineering experiment is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, engaging his/her assumptions about the world, its dangers, and the nature of different people. Recognizing this point highlights the pernicious problem of the “Better safe than sorry” philosophy. In an environment of fear, generated through media, government, and campaign representations, the philosophy of an abundance of caution discourages people, including officials, from dismissing certain fears as unfounded, as based on stereotypes that have nothing specific to do with the situation. I do not intend to diminish the difficulty that school officials and police officers can face in deciding, sometimes under pressure, what threats are serious, but the current environment in the United States and other places where fear of certain dangers is paramount disrupts sensible checks on unwarranted fears and removes reasonable limitations on the perception of danger. The fear and the attitude of extreme caution that it fosters are themselves real dangers, at least for some people in society.
Image credit: “HSAS-chart”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons