While it’s natural to look at last week’s Newtown shooting as proof that the world has gone mad, the big-picture evidence suggests otherwise.
It’s been a tough week all around, but especially for parents of young children. There’s nothing scarier than handing your child over to someone else for the day—not because you don’t trust your daycare provider or elementary-school teacher, but simply because you’re not physically there in case the unthinkable were to happen.
So when the unthinkable does happen, even if in far off Newtown, Connecticut, it wracks you something fierce. And given the insane shootings that happened in Toronto last summer, we can’t even dismiss last Friday’s incident as some gun-crazy America thing that could never happen up here in Canada.
I tried to avoid the details of the shootings as much as I could though, nowadays, you absorb information like osmosis no matter how heartrending it is. Instead, I cuddled my three-year-old son Emile a bit more and a bit tighter, but the ache and dread still bubbled below the surface. So I decided to look up more details—on everything else. And this much became clear: Newtown was an anomaly.
It’s easy to give into fear, especially while mainlining the madness from your social-media feeds. But as this year comes to a tragic close, it’s important to remember that 2012 is actually an amazing time to be raising a child. And 2013 will no doubt be even better.
Emile was born in September 2009. That means he will never know a world in which a black man couldn’t be a U.S. President or a gay couple couldn’t get married here in Canada. And he’s never lived in a world where the War on Terror justified everything from torture to occupation. (Yes, Guantanamo Bay is still open and drones are dropping bombs, but the current situation hardly compares to the time when hundreds of thousands of civilians were being killed in Iraq, much less Vietnam and Cambodia.) The Great Recession has been tough, but when Emile learns about economics it will now bear the influence of the Occupy movement’s 99 per cent rallying cry.
Times could be better, of course, but they have been much, much worse. The specter of a school shooting is frightening, but it doesn’t quite compare to the fear that the entire world could blow up at any second, which was what I was led to believe growing up in the 1980s. I once found a school report I’d made on nuclear war in grade three or four—I had cut out maps of the U.S. and U.S.S.R and hand-drawn nuclear bombs flying between them for the cover page while the text, in my nine-year-old handwriting, described the detonation, mushroom cloud, firestorm, and eventual nuclear winter that would follow a “nuclear holocaust.”
Back then, I could imagine people wondering why they’d ever want to bring a child into such a horrifying world. And during the dark heights of 9/11’s national post-traumatic stress disorder, I thought the same. But even as we enter a new year in Newtown’s shadow, life is perhaps as good as it’s ever been.
Crime in Canada is at a 40-year low with gun homicides at their lowest in 50 years, including a 30 per cent decline in handgun murders since 2008 alone. Even in the United States, violent crime is nearly half of what it was in 1991 while murder alone is down 40 per cent. Life expectancy around the world has surged, with men living 11 years longer and women clocking a dozen more years than four decades ago. Infant mortality fell by half since 1990, while vaccination programs have annually saved the lives of more than three million children under the age of five in the developing world. Thanks to vaccines and other medical and nutritional efforts, deaths of children under five fell by two thirds between 1990 and 2011, from 12 million kids to less than seven million.
There remain terrible military conflicts, but nothing that comes close to the horrors of the last century’s two world wars. Up until 1968, mixed-race marriages were illegal in parts of America and now a mixed-race president is in favour of same-sex marriage, which U.S. voters just made legal for the first time in Washington and which the Supreme Court could legalize nationwide next year. Gay teens still have it tough, but they’re no longer locked in the closet like when I was in high school. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, and Obama has more than once repeated, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Corporate influence is far too pervasive nowadays, no question, but could you imagine a company these days forcing their female employees to either get sterilized or be fired? Less than 30 years ago, federal judge Robert Bork, who died earlier this week, upheld a chemical company’s right to do just that. Bork also argued women had no right to abortion, contraception, or any constitutional protection; supported bans on gay sex; and defended segregation, even describing the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “unsurpassed ugliness.” (None of these now-beyond-the-pale judicial positions prevented him from being nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 1987, even if the Senate ultimately rejected his nomination 58 to 42.)
Oh, and then there’s the internet, which has changed everyday life in still evolving ways and given the average person around the globe far more knowledge and influence than at any time in history. (And just wait until the impact of 3D-printing technology takes hold.)
One of the problems with the information age is that we get so much of it you can get caught up in the small horrors while missing the big picture. The atomic doomsday clock of the ’80s and Bush’s colour-coded terror alerts of 2000s are now things of the past, the AIDS epidemic has become a manageable disease, and even America is implementing universal health care.
Yes, our world still faces many grave challenges—like climate change and income inequality—just not as many and not as gravely as those we faced in the past. (Some perspective from less than 100 years ago: the 1918 flu pandemic killed as many as 50 million people, or 3 per cent of the world’s then-population; another 16 million died in WWI and 62-78 million more in WWII; and while 2008′s Great Recession saw the economy plummet to its worst levels since the Great Depression, the latter occurred pre-social safety net so, as one economist put it, “in terms of human suffering, [the 2008 recession] pales in magnitude.”)
So, as you bring your kids home from daycare and school for the holidays, hug ‘em more and hug ‘em tighter—but don’t wish that you were raising them back in the good ol’ days. Because those days are right now.