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January 03. 2013 9:05PM

Fergus Cullen: Life amid the grand illusion of genuine safety

I drove through Newtown, Conn., the other day, as you have if you've ever driven I-84 through Connecticut. There were roadside memorials along the highway. A wreath hung on an exit sign. Someone had lit up an American flag surrounded by smaller ones, presumably 26 of them.

In the days after the tragedy, I saw our third grader off to the bus and thought about how Newtown parents had performed the same ritual a few days before, never imagining that they would never see their child alive again. As we wrapped Christmas presents, I thought about the toys those parents purchased for their children that must be sitting in closets, unwrapped, not given, never opened with the Christmas morning glee of a child.

Yesterday I attended two memorial services. At the first I was sad in the way one is sad at the passing of anyone who reaches 90. He lived a simple life representing the New Hampshire of another time. One of 14 siblings raised on a farm in Gilford where French was spoken, he received a basic education, served his country in World War II, worked at the same Laconia manufacturer for 41 years, and grew his own vegetables in an expansive garden. He lived all but the last months of his life within walking distance of his birthplace. He acted as my surrogate grandfather when I was a boy, teaching me to fish and to shoot a BB gun and letting me explore his old barns for hours.

At the second service I was sad in the way one is sad whenever a high schooler decides he's not interested in finding out what the rest of life has in store, not interested in seeing 18, never mind 90. There will never be an adequate explanation.

Life requires a little suspension of disbelief. We have to believe in the illusion of safety, that everything will be fine, that bad events only happen to people we don't know who live in places that are far away. Reality interrupts when you least expect it.

The illusion of safety makes some think that a law or regulation could have prevented Newtown. The illusion of safety is one of the most effective sales pitches ever invented, a Roger Clemons fastball on the outside corner, a salesman's old reliable. Buy a bigger (more expensive) car because it's safer, when even the most basic cars of today are many times safer than the best cars were a short time ago. Just a decade ago cell phones used to be sold for security in case you got into an emergency. Going beyond planned obsolescence, child car seats come with safety expiration dates. What sort of reckless parent would buckle their youngest into an unsafe hand-me-down car seat? You need to buy a new one.

Last fall our kids' elementary school took down a big metal slide. It was presumably too tall, too steep, too slick, too fast, too dangerous. It was probably too much fun as well. It looked like it had been enjoyed by kids for decades before it was uprooted by a tractor. Those surviving children are lucky to be alive! They could have been victims! Maybe one of the reasons kids like video games so much today is because playgrounds aren't as much fun as they used to be, back when they menaced kids with the threat of boo-boos, tears, or even the occasional broken arm.

By adopting extraordinary security precautions, we have effectively eliminated the possibility of a plane being hijacked in the United States. There have been no U.S. hijackings since four took place on the same September morning in 2001. Even though there has never been a documented plane crash caused by interference from a cell phone, we comply with orders to turn off our mobile devices before takeoff to preserve the illusion that we are contributing to safety. The most dangerous thing about flying today is driving to the airport.

We've given up a lot of freedom in travel to achieve this level of safety. I wouldn't want to give up a comparable amount of freedom in our schools or every other aspect of daily life to achieve the same effect.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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