Safe in the United States

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?

photo credit

8 thoughts on “Safe in the United States

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  • August 14, 2012 at 10:06 am

    I grew up in the military (USAF), living behind a fence. When the US bombed Libya, I was stationed at the base the bombs flew out of, so I was accustomed to armed soldiers searching our school buses every morning. The people on the bases came from all over the nation, and they were the most terrifying of people – there were children lighting the seats on the bus on fire, our neighbor was in a butterfly knife fight on the base (deported from UK base), a young girl on my bus route back stateside later was raped. We lived two houses down from a stripper (yes, he was dishonorable discharged, but…) and our nearest neighbor used to stand with his feet apart in the back yard and throw knives up in the air, trying to get them to land point down between his feet – he wanted to be a mercenary when he was done with the military.

    When I ‘grew up’ and my dad took an early retirement (Clinton closed our base), I was terrified. It was one thing, living on a military base with police literally three minutes away or less at any given time. But out there where these people CAME from, with no fence to keep them out, and no machine guns nearby to protect? I was terrified. I’ve been terrified most of my adult life, because the discipline in the military kept those crazies (and their kids) in check, but out here? There’s nothing.

    I presently live between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The McCoys have five dogs that run loose (and innumerable cats), and Hatfield got sick of it, and shot a dog for getting into his trash for the umpteenth time, so McCoys fire rounds all thru the autumn to scare off Hatfield’s deer (he’s a hunter), and round and round it goes.

    McCoys come around regularly asking about this missing animal or other – last week it was ‘Cujo’ – a cat with a bullseye on its side (and no, I’m not making this stuff up). Last year she accused *ME* of shooting a(nother) cat, and she drove thru my garden for retribution. I was very afraid for this year’s garden when Cujo went missing, but they must’ve found it, because the ‘lost cat’ poster is now removed from their (very rural) mailbox. Not that anyone is going to slow down from 60mph country speed to read it.

    McCoy’s son is 18 and has confederate flags flying from his truck, has been thru three jobs already, dropped out of HS, and got a 16 year old with child, the dad hates them all and never comes home (over the road trucker), and the mom looks like Jon Bon Jovi circa 1987 – and is rarely sober. Hatfield burns aerosol cans in his woods and has tried to take a chainsaw to trees in my backyard.

    We had a $14K camper for sale in Brian’s grandparents yard all summer, because they live on one of the most high-traffic streets in rural outlying Grand Rapids, Michigan. The camper was stolen Saturday morning – someone hooked up to it with the pop-outs and slide-outs still open, and drug the tongue bar all the way down the drive and out to the street. It’s gone – luckily I take every precaution, and there was full coverage on it, but can you imagine? It’d take up TWO LANES with the pop-outs out!

    Safe? There IS no safe in America. There are just people who are oblivious to what’s around them. And it just keeps getting worse and worse.

    But I have to laugh – the reason our incarceration rate is higher is because other countries chop off the hands of thieves, put to death murderers, and we just take care of them for life. Not such a deterrent in comparison to the other nations’ punishments. And the reason crime is so high (and growing).

  • August 14, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Interesting impression of the Orlando area. I think you are the first person I have known who lived there. Sorry it’s not such a great place. Maybe one day you can move to an area where you feel safer.

    I read this article last night, and while it’s not exactly related to this post perhaps it is in a small way. It reminded me quite a bit of the book I just finished “American Nations” where the author talks about the reason the US is so divided. We have *always* been divided. Different people with different goals and culture settled in the various “nations” and that culture still influences us today.

    Here is the article if you are interested.

  • August 14, 2012 at 7:02 am

    I have always felt pretty safe until I moved to Florida. The month we moved here, Trayvon Martin was killed in one of the neighborhoods where we had considered living.

    For his job, Tony visits neighborhoods all around the Orlando area. There are people with No Trespassing signs, scary dogs, and guns all over the place. Add in all the racism around here, and I feel like I’m discovering a whole new facet of America that kind of does match those ugly stereotypes.

  • August 14, 2012 at 12:57 am

    I was terrified to move to the States–I seriously believed that everyone owned a gun and the place was overrun with gangs and drugs. But it turned out to be much safer than my imagination made it out to be. The movie industry hasn’t helped form a very positive image of the US, has it?

    People in the Middle East would often say how morally derelict the US is but I’d explain that real life isn’t like the movies…like Betty said, it’s a very large and diverse place. It’s not all guns and sex and violence. It’s full of decent, caring people.

    That said, I’m ready to expatriate it up again. I suppose I technically kind of am but have lived here so long that it hardly feels that way. 🙂

  • August 13, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Yes, I feel safe. I know bad things happen and people go crazy, but I just don’t fear those things happening to me. I figure if my life is in God’s hands then I’ll go when He wants me to (same with tornadoes and illnesses). I can’t worry about it or my life will be ruined.

    I see your point though, and for those who feel safer staying away, by all means don’t come!

  • August 13, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    I think of the United States as a very large and diverse place.


What do you think?