Unsafe and Sound

By Robby Soave

On a sunny, frigid Saturday in March, some 200,000 protesters swarmed Pennsylvania Avenue. They called it the March for Our Lives: a rally organized by the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting for the purposes of promoting gun control and safety in schools.

Protest marches invariably have a collection of odd and striking political signs, but one in particular caught the eye. It read: “Is ‘freedom’ more important than safety.”

The bearer of this message—more of an assertion than a question, given the lack of a question mark—looked like she was in her 20s or 30s. But many of the protesters were younger: I spoke with kids as young as 11. They seemed to agree that freedom was much less important than safety. “I don’t feel safe,” a high school girl from Maryland told me. Another student, a 13-year-old, said guns were for the government and police. Her friend, another 13-year-old, said she worried she would die in a massacre. (The lifetime odds of dying in a mass shooting are 1 in 11,125; the odds of choking to death on food are 1 in 3,461.) Elsewhere, an even younger girl sitting on her father’s shoulders held a sign that read: “Am I next?”

According to the event’s website, its central idea was this: “Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear.”

Whether such fears are justified is an important public policy question. Despite the reality (and horror) of tragedies like Parkland, Newtown, and Columbine, criminologists tell us that school shootings are no more common than they used to be. In fact, the gun homicide rate has collapsed since the early 1990s, which means today’s teenagers are significantly safer than the young people of previous generations.

Try telling them that: it’s difficult. They feel unsafe. Safety is their cause célèbre, and they are working tirelessly to expand the concept’s boundaries—no longer does it mean protection from physical violence, but protection from emotional discomfort as well. The offended, particularly on college campuses, see themselves as victims, even survivors, of violence. They contend that they have a right to feel safe—to inhabit safe spaces—and that this right trumps most others, including speech.

This is why student activists and their allies at Berkeley, Middlebury, Yale, Mizzou, the Claremont colleges, Reed, and elsewhere have shut down discussions, assaulted controversial speakers, smashed windows, and set fires. To the casual observers, they look like the aggressors. But the would-be speaker started it, they say, when he opened his mouth and said something with which they disagreed. His words are violence; their violence is self-defense. Nobody gets to make them feel unsafe.

Young people today are hardly the first to question whether freedom is worth preserving, of course: American history is filled with such examples, from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror. What’s striking about this latest activist push for safety—and accompanying willingness to trust the authorities—is that it flies in the face of a significant cultural trend: the recent ascendancy of a brand of science fiction–themed television that depicts mankind’s struggle for freedom within a futuristic, high-tech, authoritarian dystopia.

In fact, no work of narrative fiction is raising timelier and more interesting questions about the sacrifices a paranoid, safety-obsessed nation will make than Netflix’s Black Mirror and Amazon’s Electric Dreams. Both are anthology series; the latter is based on the works of famed sci fi author Philip K. Dick, while the former, better-known series was created by producer Charlie Booker and is original for television.

Black Mirror debuted its Emmy-nominated fourth season on December 29 last year. The show is a millennial addiction, and constantly discussed on social media. Every episode features a new premise, though the drama is often supplied by the characters making some unwise trade-off between liberty and safety. The season-four episode “Arkangel,” for instance, concerns a mother who is able to implant in her daughter’s brain a chip that blocks out offensive images and experiences. (Think parental controls but for real life.) Mom thinks she’s protecting her daughter from uncomfortable experiences—an angry dog in a neighboring yard, school bullies—but it soon becomes clear that these blocks prevent her daughter from developing resiliency. Worse, Mom becomes overreliant on the technology, an obvious metaphor for the ever-expanding U.S. surveillance state.

Another episode, season three’s “Hated in the Nation,” finds Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men) in a desperate quest to catch a social media killer. The villain is able to commandeer a ubiquitous drone system that was initially designed to resolve environmental problems. The government didn’t actually care very much about saving the environment, but quickly realized that funding the project would mean equipping themselves with the ability to watch people—everywhere. What could go wrong?

At the risk of spoiling the episodes, they both end in considerable tragedy for the characters who chose comfort and security over freedom and civil liberties—an unsubtle lesson for Generation Safe Space, if ever there was one.

Electric Dreams is less subtle still. “Safe and Sound,” one of the best episodes of the series, takes place in the not-too-distant future, in a major U.S. city supposedly besieged by terrorism. Like in “Arkangel,” the main characters are a single mother and her daughter—in this case Irene and Foster, respectively. Irene is a libertarian of sorts who’s skeptical that the city’s security measures are necessary, while Foster simply wants to fit in at her new school, where metal detectors, guards, and random searches are the norm. In order to be popular, she has to purchase a bracelet that lets the government track her whereabouts and even monitor her for negative emotional spikes. All the cool kids have one.

Irene and Foster fight over the bracelet. Irene doesn’t want her daughter to surrender “what little freedom they allow you to have” in school. Foster responds, “It’s not a surrender, it’s security. People need to know I’m safe.”

It turns out everybody is probably a lot safer from terrorism than the government is letting on, since the government is actually faking the terrorist attacks in order to trick the populace into accepting greater limitations on their freedoms. Irene is right, Foster is wrong.

Vulture gave “Safe and Sound” just one star out of five; its reviewer castigated the episode for daring to indulge in an explicitly right-wing, false-flag plotline. Gizmodo was more positive, hailing it as the best of the ten episodes. “The scariest thing about ‘Safe and Sound’ is how utterly plausible it all is,” wrote reviewer Evan Narcisse. Bafflingly, Narcisse then proceeded to complain that our apathy about gun violence is what’s leading us to a “Safe and Sound”–type world. This is exactly backward: overestimating the threat of gun violence, and compromising our liberties as a result, is the path to dystopia.

In May, HBO plans to debut a movie version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, starring Michael B. Jordan, the much-celebrated antagonist of the blockbuster Black Panther movie. If the film is remotely faithful to the book, it will touch upon many of these same themes: the dangerous complacency of a population that has turned its back on freedom, the tendency of authoritarians to trample the individual and destroy knowledge, the sacrifices made in the name of safety, and so on. The demand for these kinds of stories seems as great as ever.

Perhaps that’s because good fiction serves as a warning—a check on our worst impulses. Not a command, not an angry screed, but an unsettling reminder that things could be different. In a neighboring universe, in a dimension where people make slightly different choices, they are different. Fiction reminds us to zealously guard our liberties, in these purportedly unsafe times.

Robby Soave is an associate editor at Reason magazine and author of a forthcoming book about young activists.