A few days back, John Scalzi posted a piece celebrating YA books and authors, which included some reading recommendations. In the comments, a few people said that as childless adults they were reluctant to go into the YA section of the store, lest people think they were creeps looking for kids to prey upon.
I can honestly say that that would just never occur to me. I can’t really imagine how skeevey somebody would need to look before I thought “Gee, I wonder if that guy is really a pedophile creep?” rather than “There’s a guy looking for books for his kid.”
Of course, the sad thing is that the people saying that might almost have a point, given the preposterous level of paranoia we have about evil creepy people stalking children.
A few weeks ago, when we toured the local hospital where FutureBaby will be delivered, a surprisingly large part of the tour was devoted to detailing the security precautions in place– only certain nurses with special ID badges are allowed to transport babies from one place to another, and babies in the nursery have rings put around their ankles that will trigger a complete lockdown of the hospital if they come too close to any of the exit doors.
This, in spite of the fact that, as Slate points out, in 2002 there were a total of 115 “stereotypical kidnappings,” which are the sort of thing that you think of when you think of creepy people hanging around in hospitals or bookstores: “a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.” That’s 115 in a nation of 300 million, for any child under 18. That hardly seems like a threat significant enough to require the indignity of fitting FutureBaby with a theft deterrent device like a discount CD at Best Buy.
(I half wanted to ask whether we could forgo the theft deterrent anklet, as FutureBaby, being a Baby of the Future, will be GPS-enabled from birth. I decided it probably required a little too much background information to get the joke, and would probably end up with me being put on a List somewhere…)
Also, before people jump on it, the Slate essay does note that “a 1997 study estimated that only 5 percent of nonfamily abductions (in which a nonfamily member detains a child using force for more than an hour) get reported to police,” but even that would only bring the total to about 2,300, out of more that 73 million children under 18, meaning that the chance of a stranger abduction is really less than 1 in 30,000 for any given child. That’s roughly comparable to your lifetime odds of dying in an accident involving electric power lines, and only a little better than your lifetime odds of being executed for a capital crime, according to this entertaining list of odds. Even in the worst case, we’re not talking about a significant danger.
Of course, the theft deterrent anklets are really like the flight insurance mentioned in John Tierney’s column in today’s New York Times. The chances of anything actually happening are ridiculously small, but the consequences are sufficiently bad that it completely destroys our ability to gauge risk. This is a well-documented phenomenon:
Even people who consciously reject superstitions seem to have these gut feelings, says Orit Tykocinski, a professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. She found that rationalists were just as likely as superstitious people to believe that insurance would ward off accidents.
In one of her experiments, players drew colored balls out of an urn and lost all their money if they picked a blue one. Some players were randomly forced to buy insurance policies that let them keep half their money if they drew a blue one. These policies didn’t diminish their risk of drawing a blue ball — but the insured players rated their risk lower than the uninsured players rated theirs.
That same magical thinking was evident when Dr. Tykocinski asked some people to imagine buying travel insurance before getting on a plane, and others to imagine not buying it because they ran out of time at the airport. Sure enough, the ones with insurance figured they were less likely to lose their bags, get sick or have an accident.
Putting electronic merchandise protection tags on babies is silly and unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference in anything. It’s also pretty harmless and unobtrusive, relative to a lot of other things in our post-2001 culture of security theater.
Still, I can’t help thinking that it’s yet another example of a way in which life would be better if people could maintain some perspective about risks. If we could stop seeing terrorists at every ticket counter, pedophiles in every YA section, and baby-snatchers in every hospital, we’d be much happier and healthier as a society.