The other day, a report of a sexual assault in our town’s recreation center came through on our discussion list. Despite its proximity to New York City, mine is a sleepy town of 8,000 people, where this sort of thing just doesn’t happen. It touched everyone a little too closely. Everyone goes to the rec center. Many people knew the young suspect, who was a local and a rec employee. My daughter knew the victim.
As is often the case when something out of the norm happens, a firestorm ignited on the discussion board. The crux of it was: why hadn’t this been prevented? It had happened in broad daylight in a facility in the middle of town. What about background checks? Why hadn’t the rec center been shut down until a full investigation was conducted? People started crying out for a blanket of surveillance cameras in town.
It turned out that a background check had been conducted, and that the alleged assailant had passed because he didn’t have a record. It was his first (alleged) offense. So the grim truth many people didn’t want to face was this: sometimes you can do everything right and a bad thing can still happen.
I was reminded of this again when watching a Frontline documentary about the massive, mostly unregulated security build-up after 9/11. It was the same human need writ large: we should be able to make ourselves completely safe. It’s perhaps one of the disservices that modern life has done us, to make death sanitized and removed, to make injury rarer and to reward some of our efforts at beating back the sabertoothed tigers in our reality. It has allowed the human hubris to run amok, giving us the illusion of control.
So what can be bad about making ourselves believe that we can inoculate against all threats? After all, isn’t it good to review security policies and procedures after a bad event? Shouldn’t we beef up security? Add cameras? The problem is one of scale, in my opinion. Of course we should do what we reasonably can. But, as the security build-up after 9/11 has taught us, throwing massive amounts of money at a problem doesn’t necessarily fix it. It’s interesting to note that most of the successes of preventing acts of terror post 9/11 have been attributable to the old-fashioned way of preventing crime: getting tips from civilians. The Times Square bombing was thwarted thanks to tips from observant vendors. Would-be airliner bombers have been jumped by fellow passengers after the massive databases have failed to flag them and prevent them from boarding. And even when it came time to find the Boston Marathon bombers, what did police do? (Besides ride around in their military vehicles in the streets of a major US city). They asked for the public’s help in identifying them. And caught them only when someone in the neighborhood saw blood on his boat and called about it.
So, yes, we should find out if there could have been more supervision that might have prevented the sad occurrence in my town. But what we shouldn’t do is let our fear fan a hysteria that proffers the blank check and reaches for draconian solutions that affect us all but won’t necessarily keep us safe the next time. And we should remember that, for all our technology and sophistication, we are not invincible. Sometimes, bad things happen. And there is nothing we can do.