Posture of fear

I heard an example this morning of how our culture has surrendered to fear. NPR reported on the recall of a soccer net, spurred by the death of a toddler. The child became tangled in the net after sticking its head through one of the holes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission drives recalls like these. One line of the story really got me:

Pamela Gilbert, the commission’s executive director during the Clinton administration, says the manufacturer and retailers should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to sell a product for so many months after learning it could strangle American children.

The death of a child is tragic beyond description, the accidental death is even more so. Still, the illogic of this statement borders on the extreme. Never mind that virtually anything on the market can kill a child, particularly if it is used improperly. A plastic spork could cost a child an eye, yet no one is clamoring to have these insidious devices recalled, or announcing a national “Spoons Save Lives” safety initiative. I imagine trees kill more children every year than we’d like to admit. It doesn’t get national news coverage because it’s not sensational enough, and doesn’t provide an opportunity for political puffery.

The willingness to hear this kind of talk and trumpet along is part of a posture of fear that has developed in our culture, particularly with regard to children. I recently bought a copy of The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel C. Beard. There is some element of danger in most of the activities, from fishing (fishhooks!), to building a small boat, to trapping and taxidermy. Naturally, most of these activities are not encouraged these days for anyone, much less for boys, except in more rural areas. Two generations ago, however, this was boyhood. (The recent best-seller The Dangerous Book for Boys attempts to recapture some of that.)

Some of the fear makes sense; after all, a hundred years ago (even 25 years ago), the disappearance of children was a much rarer occurrence. I spent a lot of my boyhood outside, sometimes within shouting distance of my house, sometimes not. On the other hand, our 24-hour media has turned every event (regardless of its import) into an endless orgy of words and opinions. Not only do we get to hear about every tragedy on endless news shows, we also get to hear Greta and Nancy and Anderson and countless other pundits revisit it, poke it, prod it, and get mileage out of it. But that’s another post.

As with so many other things in our society, we’d rather rush to blame manufacturers for not anticipating every possible danger from their product, even those clearly warned against on the box, than simply mourn the tragedy and mind our own children.

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