May 9, 2011

Stranger danger -- real or fake?

One day after school in I can't remember what grade (it seems like 2nd), I was standing on the sidewalk in front waiting to be picked up, when a dark sedan crept slowly toward me and stopped. The passenger-side window rolled down, and some strange middle-aged woman, whose eyes I could not even see behind her sunglasses, told me that my mom would be staying late at work, and that she was there to take me home -- so c'mon, get in the car.

If I had had a weapon, I would have been more brave, but she was in a car and I was not, so I bolted like a bat out of hell, screaming "Heeeeelp! Heeeelp! Kidnapper! It's a kidnapperrrr!!!" I doubt I've ever run so fast in all my life before or since, not even to impress a girl. This twisted bitch had picked the wrong target -- I was going to find the nearest grown-up and have her ass busted. She'd have no time to race back to her house and hide the bodies of all the other kids she'd abducted, and then the cops would have all the evidence they needed to slam her in jail for life, hopefully send her to the chair.

I couldn't believe that she wouldn't give up and try to get lost in traffic before I told someone. She just kept cruising along at my running speed, repeating herself over and over. She'd have to be awfully stupid to risk getting caught after I'd already broken off in flight. Then she tried to convince me that she knew my mother by saying her name, where she went to college, or some other kind of personal information like that. I think she also told me things about my dad, my brothers, where I lived, and so on. Well, either she had really done her homework -- perhaps obtaining this information in the course of killing off the rest of my family earlier in the day -- or maybe she did know my mom after all.

I stopped and let her repeat herself all over again, checking her face and tone-of-voice for signs of sketchiness, and she passed. She seemed flustered and a little embarrassed rather than angry and demanding that I do as told. So I walked over, got in the car, and the nice lady drove me home without binding my hands or duct-taping my mouth shut. When my mother got home that night, she and I had a good long laugh about the whole thing.

Why would a second-grader have been so quick to assume that such a person was a kidnapper? Because I learned what to do from numerous safety lessons in school, and every day during the public service announcements that interrupted my stream of afternoon cartoons. Here are some typical ones from McGruff the Crime Dog, G.I. Joe, and Jem. Young people, and even some old people, today look back on those PSAs and snicker at how fear-mongering and propagandistic the campaign was. It's not hard to find condescending and sarcastic videos like this one on YouTube about how silly the idea of "stranger danger" is. Yeah right, like you can really get kidnapped.

And yet, back before the decline in child abuse that's been going for 15 to 20 years, it was real. Sure, my case turned out to be nothing serious, and so it looks like the preparation and the act itself of sprinting away from a nice lady was just a waste. Still, add up the costs and benefits from all instances where a kid burst off in that situation -- there were many false positives, where the kid decided that the person was a kidnapper and they really weren't, a cost to themselves and to their ride. But this minimizes false negatives, where the kid decides the person is OK despite truly being a kidnapper. The avoided costs of false negatives are immensely greater than costs incurred from false positives: while a large number of kids blow a harmless event out of proportion, a small number of kids evade a rapist and live to see another day.

The smug attitude of those YouTube teenagers making fun of "stranger danger" is what will eventually drive up the crime rate. As the violence level begins to fall, it becomes easier to believe that kidnapping is not much of a problem, and so nothing to worry much about. In fact, anyone who tells you otherwise is just some scare-monger trying to restrict your freedom, so you might as well openly flout the so-called rules about being suspicious of creepy strangers. Once a critical mass of a local group has this unguarded attitude, the criminals will detect the shift and come out of hibernation, now that their prospects for exploiting others have suddenly shot up. And so the cycle of violence will go into its upward phase all over again.

Worse is the complacency that "it can't happen here," a belief that can only flourish in falling-crime times. I read this occasionally from people who like to emphasize that black and Hispanic neighborhoods have higher crime rates than white ones. True enough. But then their simple minds go further by believing that white areas are safe in some absolute sense (rather than in a relative one), while black and Hispanic ones are dangerous. Dismissing the threat of violence in their own neck of the woods -- since it only happens over there in the ghetto -- they have now set themselves up to be taken over by criminals from within their own boundaries. Their self-assured attitude goes so far that they won't even bother looking up crime statistics, which show that the last crime wave struck the country broadly -- including non-urbanized and uber-white states like Alaska, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia, not just the Bronx and Compton. Or that it was indeed an international wave of violence, striking the sparsely populated and lily white country of Sweden.

Could it have happened in my mostly-white, middle-class suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where I fled (as we can only see in hindsight) for no good reason? Yes -- and it did. About five years before we moved there, a girl at a nearby elementary school had been taken out of plain sight, choked so hard that she lost consciousness and burst a blood vessel in her eye, and had her shirt taken off. Luckily something scared off her attacker, and she was not harmed further. However, a few weeks later a similar attacker (possibly the same one) followed an 8 year-old girl, Asenath Dukat, from another nearby elementary school on her way home, then abducted her, raped her, and killed her. The two main suspects were not drug-addled dark-skins invading from the ghetto, but young white loser kids from the very neighborhood where the crimes occurred.

Here is a brief local news report following up on the rape and murder 30 years afterward. And here is an online discussion forum for alumni of the nearby high school, where many of them independently began searching for information on the case more than 25 years later. It must have burned its shape forever onto the minds of every young person in the area. Some of them are even still trying to do research and detective work on this cold case, that's how real it was.

That thread is also worth reading for details of other aspects of life that haven't made it into the history books, and so ones that kids today don't appreciate -- a shady guy trailing elementary school kids home in a dirty car, a separate creepo handing out illegal porn to small children at the public pool (right next to an elementary school), and yet a third weirdo disguising himself as an Ohio State University scientist who waltzes into the school restroom and gets the little boys there to urinate into plastic bags to provide him with research samples. Then again, maybe these were the same deranged person.

Whatever the case may be, against that background, you bet your ass there's such a thing as stranger danger, and thank god the schools and our cartoons helped us prepare for the inevitable time when we'd find ourselves right in the middle of it and have to get out. They never told us to stay locked inside, though, or to trust no one -- that only came to pass during the '90s heyday of paranoia and the current reign of helicopter parents. The message was instead that we should have a life and be out and about, but to recognize a threat and deal with it when we saw one.

1 comment:

  1. What are your feelings towards the Garbage Pail Kids film?


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