How to Create a Downward Spiral of Fear and Paranoia [Hub Debate]

Source: Boston Globe
Source: Boston Globe

If you spent your entire day hearing about how murderers are lurking behind every corner, you’d probably never even leave your house. If you had to, you’d probably be heavily armed and ready to shoot almost anything that moves. Of course, it would be silly to live like that. Violent crime in the US is at historic lows, even better than the time period we associate with the Mayberry ideal. Unfortunately, we all still seem to still think of life as a “Detroit in Robocop” kind of hellscape and the “it bleeds, it leads” news media hungry for eyeballs is all too happy to feed into that. And law enforcement is doing their part too.

What triggered me to make a second contribution to the debate topic is this post that popped up on Facebook. Read it very closely and tell me what message it’s sending. If you said “that policing is super duper dangerous and everyone wants to kill them,” give yourself a gold star. The data, however, doesn’t back it up. Law enforcement no longer even cracks the top 10 most dangerous professions. This is probably because of the aforementioned drop in violent crime rates, a rate that’s now about 1/3 of what it was around the 1994 peak. There’s a strong disconnect between the perceived danger and the actual danger.

That disconnect is dangerous. While the numbers are very fuzzy and hard to verify, the best guesses show that for every police officer killed, they kill almost four non-officers. You are, in fact, about 26 times more likely to be killed by a cop than in a terrorist act, the latter of which has served as justification for increasing sales of surplus military equipment to police departments around the country. I don’t think you need to be a professional psychologist to say that hammering home a message of paranoia disconnected from reality and then giving that person body armor and a big gun is going to end very, very badly.

The end result of this message is that police officers are much more likely to shoot at the slightest hint something might be up. This, in turn, leads everyone to treat interactions with the police as high-risk affairs. Once they start acting with a hair-trigger in a “fight or flight” reflex, cops dig in even further, and thus does the dangerous downward spiral of each party believing the other is very, very likely to kill them without warning. The messages of paranoia start warping reality.

As in any escalated conflict, it’s hard to figure out how to get both sides to put down their proverbial (and in this case, often literal) guns and start fresh. I hope we do before more Michael Browns happen.

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