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Stranger in a strange land

Published: October 3, 2008
Section: Opinions


“No! Stop! Back away!” the girl yelled over the in the gym at the Waltham Health Club, as her Karate instructor came toward her.

“I don’t know you! You’re a stranger!”

“Good job,” the instructor said, turning to the 25 kids in the gym learning about “stranger danger.”

“Now, what’s a stranger?” he asked them.

“Somebody you don’t know,” one girl replied.

“Yeah!” another one agreed. “And you can punch a stranger!”

This was the scene this past Saturday when, as part of my work for Waltham’s Daily News Tribune, I went to the city’s “Child Safety Day.”

It was a small affair with a cute, carnival-like atmosphere. It had loud music, free toys and a stuffed animal, interactive fire safety dog to boot.

But this was not the Child Safety Day of my childhood, where you were told to stomp on a stranger’s foot if they came up to you, never lean over a lit candle, and always ride your bike with a helmet on.

This—in case the remote-controlled, interactive fire safety dog didn’t tip you off—was the Child Safety Day of the twenty first century.

It wasn’t of the twenty-first century just because the child identification cards (cards with children’s photographs and fingerprints which can be used to help identify them if they get abducted or hurt) were done electronically—though if you’re a CSI fan, you’d probably have recognized the technology that they used. It was a day of the twenty-first century because it was a day founded on fear.

At the same time that parents were lining up to have their children finger printed for their ID cards, in case they got abducted, they were being approached by agents from New York Life (a life insurance agency which sponsored the day in honor of National Life Insurance Awareness Month) asking them if they have thought of how their children would be cared for in the event of their own death.

At the Fire Department’s booth, the theme was how to stop home fires. Instead of the booth’s display showing any information about how to stop home fires, it was a collage of photographs depicting burning homes.

The police were urging parents to register their children’s bikes not in case the bikes got stolen, but in case the bikes were stolen along with their kids.

This, despite the fact that while 33,000 children are abducted by non-family members in the United States per year, more than 310,000 bicycles are stolen in the country per year (according to missingkids.com and an the FBI Uniform Crime Report of 2000).

And if you say that preventing child abduction is more important because human life is at stake, consider this:

The entire day was devoted to “Stranger Danger”—what to do if a stranger comes up to you. Only once did anyone at the bicycle booth mention that you should always ride your bike with a helmet on, even though of the 540,000 bicyclists who visit emergency rooms with injuries every year, 67,000 of them have head injuries, and 27,000 of them have head injuries serious enough to be hospitalized.

So why do we tell our children more about how to avoid strangers while on our bikes than how to safely ride our bikes period?

Because the twenty-first century isn’t simply one based on fear—it’s based on irrational, intangible fear.

Between terrorism and child abduction, our society is completely enamored with why bad things happen to good people. And when the bad things happening are caused by other people—instead of falling off your bike and hitting your head—the fear becomes even more irrational, as it’s source is even more inconceivable.

This century isn’t the first one in which the American people harbored irrational fears. In my American Studies class, Classic Texts of 1609 to 1900, we just finished reading Reverend Jonothan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The sermon, written in 1735 as part of the Great Awakening (a period of renewed religious fervor in America), basically outlines why and how people can be overcome by evil, even if they follow all of God’s commandments.

If you read it, you’ll see that the twenty first century’s stranger looks a hell of a lot like the eighteenth century’s Satan.

The cries of “no, stop, back away,” could just as easily be those of a eighteenth century girl renouncing Satan in order to save herself from a fiery damnation as they could be of 25 four to ten-year-olds learning karate-based self-defense moves in front of a poster-board plastered with homes going up in smoke.

Edwards explains why bad things happen to good, God fearing people in the following way:

“The foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow,” he writes.

In Edwards’ time, this quotation meant that, in order to save themselves from an inconceivable danger, the Puritans wrapped themselves in a tangible solution, which further damned them.

For Edwards, the act of praying to God simply for the sake of praying, as opposed to belief, is what damns people.

In the 21st century, it gets a bit more complicated.

It’s not that we don’t believe it when we tell our kids how to protect themselves from strangers, it’s that sometimes even the best intended plans only serve to leave us oblivious to other evils, even as we feel more secure.

At the Child Safety Day event, which was held inside of a gym, the kids were given candy and potato chips in an effort to make the event more fun—in effect teaching them to stay safe, except for their arteries.

Arteries which, if the kids can’t go outside and play without an adult home and so go inside, play video games and gouge on junk food, will be worse for the wear.

And while it’s entirely possible that I’m taking the Puritan analogy too far—that my American Studies reading has gone to my head—it could also be that I have experienced the twenty-first century version of another one of Edwards’ teachings first hand.

As a believer in predestination, Edwards believed that from birth, certain people were damned, and certain people were saved. No matter what anyone did in search of redemption, his fate was sealed. The only trick was that you would never know if you were damned or saved until you died.

Basically, anyone and everyone was at risk of being possessed by Satan, and of being just as evil as the Devil himself.

And, as the kids on Saturday were quick to point out at the beginning of the Karate demonstration, anyone can be a stranger.

On Saturday the kids learned that often, a stranger will observe his target before making contact. The stranger is someone who appears safe. The stranger will try and make themselves seem to have something in common with a child before trying to take them.

The only real way to tell if someone is a stranger, is if they are suspiciously loitering around playing children, with no personal connection to the kids.

And me, I was the only adult not accompanied by either a uniform, or children of my own. I was the one standing in the background, watching the kids learn karate, writing down their every move in my notebook. I was the one smiling at them while they played, trying to seem friendly so that when I finally crouched down to be at their eye-level and asked them questions, they would talk to me without being afraid.

Me, I was the stranger.