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Examining the illusion of safety (and its risks)

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By Rob Witwer

Most Americans over the age of 40 grew up with an omnipresent fear of nuclear war. Fear might be too weak a word — terror is more like it.

I remember when “The Day After” aired on ABC-TV in 1983. I didn’t see it, probably because my mom didn’t want me to, but I do recall the talk about the show on the news and at school. The truth is, I didn’t need a made-for-TV movie to scare the heck out of me — my own imagination was more than sufficient. Once, a vivid dream born in the recesses of my 12-year-old mind treated me to a view of mushroom clouds consuming Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs. I’ve never forgotten that.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the United States was left as the sole survivor of the Cold War. With those momentous events, fear of a nuclear exchange slowly subsided, and a new generation of kids was born. And although they were not terrified of ICBMs, they faced new fears: school shootings and terror attacks.
I suppose fear is a natural part of the human condition, perhaps a vestigial survival instinct left over from the time humans huddled in caves to escape four-legged predators with large fangs. But it’s also a powerful motivator, and much of our public policy is driven by what we fear.
During the Cold War, the public policy manifestation of our fear faced outward. Our government busied itself with foreign policy, strategic alliances, propaganda, weapons development and proxy warfare in “domino” nations. Some of that carried over after 9/11, with the “War on Terror” and our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Increasingly, however, our fears are turning inward. While the threat of terrorism originates from overseas, our response to that fear has increasingly come at the expense of Americans. Airport security lines, increased federal surveillance on U.S. citizens, drones (which are now showing up on our own soil), and closed-circuit cameras are the result.
Much closer to home, we fear the lone gunman in a school or theater with enough firepower to take dozens of lives before law enforcement can react. As Coloradans, we have felt this fear too many times. The response of our government is heightened security, more cameras, and gun control. After the fear created by Boston, there’s reason to believe that more rules, restrictions and protective measures will be enacted to prevent bomb attacks in public places.
The truth is, we are not 100 percent safe. We can and should take reasonable precautions, but our society is large, complex and, yes, free enough that risks will always be there. We can mitigate one risk, but another will inevitably take its place.
The chances of any of us being victimized by the things we fear most are incredibly small. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the top five leading causes of death in America are, in order, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, strokes and accidents. Acts of violence are not in the top 10, but they tend to preoccupy the public and, by extension, lawmakers.
If our greatest fears are other humans, then the most logical way to mitigate those fears (or at least feel like it) is to make government more powerful and restrict individual liberties. If that’s the choice we’re making, we should at least be aware of what we’re giving up. Because what I see is a society that is becoming progressively less free, and more accustomed to being monitored by the government, in exchange for what amounts to an illusion of safety.
If longer life is what we desire, we’d be far better served by going outside and taking a walk.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”