Safety First?

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Safety First?

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have predictably resulted in demands that government “do something” to keep “our children” safe at school. And who but a monster doesn’t want to keep “our children” safe?

Let me say up front that I am in favor of safety. Look both ways before crossing. Never point a gun at others even when you know it’s not loaded. Always buckle up. See the doctor for regular physicals. Carefully handle power tools and kitchen knives. I obey safety rules and taught my son to do the same.

That being said, how safe is safe enough?

Years ago George Will commented that on the questions of safety we can quickly descend into absurdity. Take the question of traffic safety. “Do you believe in traffic safety?” If the answer is “Yes, absolutely,” then, Will suggested, we should ban all left-hand turns and change the maximum highway speed limit to 35. Think of how much safer we’ll be.

But who advocates a ban on left turns or driving down the Interstate at 35 miles an hour even if accidents would be prevented? Most of us were relieved when we got rid of the 55-mile an hour speed limit. Does this mean we don’t believe in traffic safety? No, we believe in traffic safety, but only up to a point. We accept some risk for ourselves — and our children — because when we drive, safety is only one consideration among many.

Safety at schools has to follow the same pattern. Do you believe in children being safe while at school? “Yes, absolutely!” Okay then let’s build 12-foot walls around every school and top them with razor wire. We could expand the reach of Homeland Security forming the SSA (School Safety Administration). Since TSA already knows how to keep us safe — or at least knows how to screen luggage — SSA will use airport security as the model. Schools will only have one entrance complete with X-ray machines, metal detectors, full-body scanners, and lots of SSA employees. Plan to arrive at least two hours before the fourth-grade band concert to beat the rush and leave your water, hand lotion, and two-inch Swiss Army Knife in the car.

I offer this facetious suggestion along with actual proposals for armed guards in every school and requiring teachers to pack heat. If safety is paramount, we can do no less and should probably do much more. How about a dress code that requires bulletproof vests?

Most of us find the prospect of giving elementary schools the look and feel of a federal prison to be at least distasteful. More than that, these proposals carry their own set of risks. What kind of people will our children become if their school looks and feels like jail and where everybody is a suspect? What will it do to their creativity, their sense of fun, their imaginations, and their mental health?

And besides, sooner or later the school day ends and our children will have to leave the barricades. What then?

The same day Adam Lanza shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School, in China, a country with exceedingly strict gun control laws, 36-year-old Min Yongjun ran into a school yard with a big knife, slashing and stabbing. At least 23 students and one elderly woman were wounded, some seriously. According to the Chinese news agency, police said, “He thought he was doomed and hoped to do something to impress his existence upon the world before he died;” that is, he was most probably mentally ill.

The incident is the latest in a series of attacks since 2010 in which someone wielding a knife, cleaver, box cutter, or hammer targeted school children.

My point is not about gun control, knife control, school security, how we treat the mentally ill, or how we breed mental illness when we lose a culture of marriage and family. My point is that safety cannot be our overarching value in decision-making.

We should be safe and we should keep our children safe. But in the process of making things safe, we need to ask ourselves two prudential questions. First question: “How safe is safe enough?” We live in an unsafe world in which we need to accept at least some risk. Second question: “How much freedom are we willing to give away for a little extra safety?” We may be giving up too much freedom for little safety or, worse yet, for the mere appearance of safety.

Struggling with these questions before we “do something” can keep us from the kinds of solutions that are even worse than the problems.

Publication date: January 9, 2013