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Are we safe?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 29 June 2009

“The tourists had insistent, unspoken questions and we just had to answer as best we could, with forged furniture. They were really asking, ‘Are we safe?’ and we were really replying, ‘No, but a barricade of useless goods may help block the view’.” Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish.

The climbing frames in the park at the end of my street, to which I take my grandchildren, are so safe our four-year-old is bored. There is an old steam roller that may be climbed upon which the council threatens to remove because it is not safe. Indeed our four-year-old has fallen off it and hurt himself, no permanent damage but a salutary lesson. Nevertheless, the council frets about duty of care. Uneven pavements represent potential law suits, as do falling tree limbs and unfenced lakes.

National defence used to be about the defence of the realm but has morphed into national security, a blank cheque written against future hazard that gives permission for pre-emptive strikes. National security chiefs must look into the crystal ball to predict who will become our enemy in the next 50 years and order the hardware to suit. It is not about our neighbours any more: any activity in any country may be seen as a security risk and has to be addressed, otherwise those in charge will be seen as negligent and lose their jobs. Quite a job description: accountability is an idol that will never be placated no matter how many sacrifices are offered.


Most of us oldies are now on statins to keep our cholesterol down and, or, ACE inhibitors to lower our blood pressure. We are not sick but we may become sick without the medication and who is brave enough to risk it? Not me. The government has decided that prevention is better than cure and spends millions promoting good health. It is not just diet and exercise that is now promoted but talking to each other as well. Meanwhile the poor smokers gather on a stretch of verge that is just outside the hospital’s area of jurisdiction.

The street that runs along the cemetery has become a maze of obstacles and speed bumps in order, I suppose, to slow us down, despite the fact there have been no accidents on that strip of road for years. We are told that speed kills and we are fined if we exceed the limit by only a fraction. Without speed we could go nowhere, which is the point of the motor car. What kills is recklessness, not speed.

Every idol, if it is to be a temptation, has to have an element of truth about it. Being safe has an element of truth. But who is going to draw the line and stand up and say that anything further is ridiculous? Are we going to fence in the edges of the ocean that meet our fair land so that toddlers will not drown? Are we really going to check the UV level before we let our children out to play?

The danger with attempting to over-manage risk is that it becomes the main game and distracts us from the life at hand. It may come to the point where our bureaucracies are so weighted down with keeping us all safe that they will become completely dysfunctional.

Risk management relies on the prediction of the future. Our obsession with risk management is an attempt to safeguard the future. The impossibility of this provokes more hysteria and increased efforts so that our lives in the present are robbed. It is, of course, death and the fear of death that reigns here. But nothing can keep us safe from the bad diagnosis, or the telephone call that changes our lives in an instant.

Barbara Kingsolver has remarked that parents may think their children are somehow a guarantee of their continuing to be in the world. But, she says, having children opens us to the most awful pain that human beings can suffer, the loss of a child. Despite all our efforts the world will have its way with us; our dream of control is just that and futurology is moonshine.


One of the reasons we are so shocked by the Air France jet disappearing over the Atlantic, is not just the loss of life but the realisation that the pinnacle of our technology, with all its safety systems could be ripped out of the sky by a storm, a mere storm! We are reminded of our hubris and that makes us uncomfortable. For we believe in the endless improvement of all things enshrined in our idea of progress that has no limits.

I am not saying that I do not value the technology, medical or otherwise that keep death at bay, or even the attempts at public safety, what I object to is the use of fear to support them. It is fear that makes us go to the extremes that will suffocate our lives. In the Bible, epiphanies, appearances of God or His messengers are usually accompanied by the words “Fear not”. When God appears all bets are off, all our preparations are useless, anything can happen, and so we are afraid.

While I do not subscribe to the idea of providence, that God controls all events, there is truth in the assertion that, for example, a high tech aircraft may be torn out of the sky or anyone of us may receive that diagnosis we all dread, is a reminder of our human reality and therefore the voice of God. For God takes away our arrogance and reminds us that we are creatures subject to hazard and death.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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