I’ll start out this post with a story from when we were living in Ireland a couple of years ago. We had taken the children to the park down the street, and while we were watching them play, we struck up a conversation with a fellow parent. We never did get down the Irish accent, so as always, it came up pretty quickly that we were American. He remarked that he had considered visiting the United States. We smiled and nodded, since most people responded to our nationality with either an account of their visit to America, or an expressed desire for such a visit. But our new acquaintance went on to say that he’d decided against a trip to the United States, because he was worried about how dangerous it was.
We tried not to gape. Our country, dangerous? What could he mean? After all, it’s not like we were talking about Colombia, or Somalia, or Afghanistan. This was the United States of America. He went on to say something vague about violent crime, and then the conversation drifted to other topics.
Since that day, I’ve mulled that conversation over in my mind quite a few times. For some reason, it made a disproportionate impression on me. It was the very first time in my life that someone had described my home country as dangerous, and it gave me a weird feeling to think about it.
I’d heard plenty on the other side of the question. When I was preparing to go on a study abroad to Syria during college, the news was met with nearly universal shock and concern. Let alone when we moved to Tunisia last year with our two small children. Such places are so far outside most Americans’ experience, and get such awful coverage in the media, that going there struck many of my well-meaning compatriots as some kind of eccentric death-wish.
But America dangerous? No way. Before my Irish friend suggested it, the thought would never have occurred to me. I think we all view home as a safe place. It’s a natural and healthy human tendency. Living in a place that you believe is unsafe plays with your mind. My friend Annie, who recently moved to Kenya with an NGO to work in the largest slum in Africa, just wrote a great account of what it feels like to live in that kind of constant fear. We function much better when we can convince ourselves that even though bad things can happen anywhere, home is an intrinsically safe place.
My Irish conversation was brought back to me yesterday when I read the following passage in Jason Elliot’s travel memoir about Iran, of all places. The author is talking to an Iranian man who spent five years living with his family in the United States and working as an engineer. They have just moved back to Iran. Elliot recounts:
I wondered why he had given up the obvious benefits of life there and come back.
‘For the children,’ he said.
‘You wanted an Iranian education for them.’
‘It wasn’t that,’ he said. ‘Every week, someone would go crazy and start shooting kids in a playground. In LA people shoot each other for fun. At least here you know the worst that will happen in an argument is that someone will punch you in the face.’ He shook his head. ‘We couldn’t live like that.’
Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, page 90
In the wake of the recent Aurora shooting, I confess that I’ve had some similar thoughts. It was a shocking tragedy. Shocking like the tragedy last year in Norway, where Anders Breivik went on a shooting rampage that killed dozens of teenagers. However, there’s one thing that really sticks out as distinguishing the two. No event even remotely similar has happened in Norway within living memory. In the United States, on the other hand, a similar tragedy happened just last year. And the year before. And the year before that. And so on, back to 1984, according to this report.
When I perused the “International comparison” section of Wikipedia’s article on Crime in the United States, I could see what my Irish friend was talking about. Our homicide rate is among the highest in the developed world, at 4.8 per 100,000. Norway, by comparison, is 0.5. Even more heartbreaking, we also have the developed world’s very highest rate for deaths from child abuse and neglect: 2.4 per 100,000 in the country at large, and 4.05 in the state of Texas. And is it a little frightening that we have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world?
Putting aside all the statistics and the question of why they are so high (except I will include the lovely and eloquent photo above, also courtesy of the state of Texas), I’m interested to know how you, my readers feel. If you live in the United States, do you feel safe? If you’re an international reader, do you think of the United States as a safe or dangerous place?