science-of-fearAs hideous as the Columbine massacre was, it didn’t change the fact that most schools, and most students in them, were perfectly safe—a fact that politicians could have hammered home but did not. Instead, there were endless speeches blaming bad parenting, violent movies, or Goth music for leading youth astray. In part, that’s because of a calculation every political adviser makes in crises like these: The politician who says the event is tragic but doesn’t change the fact that we remain safe will be hit by his opponents with the accusation that he does the s not understand how serious the situation is, or worse, that he does not care. It’s a huge political risk, with no reward for those who take it. Few do. And so politicians do not struggle to quell the “unreasoning fear” Roosevelt warned against. They embrace and amplify it.

The furor after Columbine faded eventually, but in the fall of 2006, the whole terrible scenario—from tragedy to panic—was revisited. On September 13, a former student entered Dawson College in Montreal with a rifle. One student was killed, nineteen injured. On September 27, a fifty-three-year-old man entered a high school in Colorado, took six girls hostage and killed one. Two days later, a ninth grader in Wisconsin shot his principal to death. And on October 2, a thirty-two-year-old man entered a primary school in Pennsylvania and shot to death five girls. “This week’s school shootings in Amish country, in which five children died, are just the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of spectacular mass murders to hit the headlines of the United States,” a breathless correspondent reported in Britain’s The Independent.

The feedback loop cranked up, and once again it looked as if American schools were under siege. The Bush administration responded by convening a high-profile conference to discuss school safety on October 10, which may have been an effective political move but only added to the sense of crisis. Schools across the United States reviewed emergency response plans, barred their doors, and ran lockdown drills.

On December 4, the latest version of the government’s report on school crime and safety was released. It was no different than all the earlier reports. Kids are far safer inside school walls than outside, it showed. Violence was 50 percent lower than a decade earlier, and the rate of serious violent crime was down by more than two-thirds. The report also showed yet again that a student’s risk of being murdered in school was de minimis—so tiny it was effectively zero. This report, like those that preceded it, went virtually unreported.


The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain by Daniel Gardner