Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What does "safe" mean?

I stopped by the local AM/PM this morning and saw the headline, "Is New York Really Safer Than San Jose?" This question caused a stirring of thoughts and I decided to ponder the question, "What does 'safe' mean?"

Let's take a closer look at the original headline. According to the most recent FBI crime statistics, New York is the safest big city in America, for the second year running. San Jose finished second this year. A look on wikipedia, however, proclaims San Jose to be the safest big city in the U.S. So, who's safer?

Well, what is "safe?" The following thought occurred to me: It depends. "Safer" from what?

Clearly, if 9/11 says anything, New York is certainly less safe than San Jose, where a terrorist attack is concerned. I mean, to my knowledge, San Jose has never suffered a terrorist incident, whereas New York has been attacked at least twice (again, WTC in '93).

Perhaps where crime, other than terrorist crime, is concerned, New York City is safer than San Jose. But overall? I don't think so.

The problem is that the FBI looks at statistics. Stats only occur in the past. Nobody can foretell future stats. If they could, they'd own fantasy leagues. So I conclude that a component of safety is what may happen. And what determines what may happen is "targetability."

Clearly, New York City, and specifically the World Trade Center, was the most visible target available to Al Qaeda. Those towers represented the financial strength of America. The symbolism that those falling towers represented was vital to the terrorist plot to bring us to our collective knees.

San Jose has no such "targetability." New York still does, what with Wall Street, the Empire State Building, even Yankee stadium. An unfortunate message that may be derived from this conclusion is that if a city wants to remain safe, it builds no structures that attract the attention of people who want to do us harm. No offense to San Jose, but the city has no status symbols. The only thing resembling material success is HP Pavillion, better known as "The Shark Tank," where the NHL's San Jose Sharks call home.

Safety, then, has at least two components and comes in variousl flavors. The two components are local and global crime. That is to say that San Jose may have more crime, per capita, than New York, from a local perspective: More criminals live in San Jose, there are more attractive targets on a personal level (more affluence, more diversity, more gangs, etc.), the police forces may not be as up to snuff as New York, etc. Who knows? It's just that statistics show that New York is safer.

But where would you rather be? Hovering over a vat of boiling oil or seated next to a nuke? Both will surely kill you -- one if you fall in, one if it's detonated. The vat of boiling oil is inherently dangerous. The nuclear bomb is completely harmless unless detonated.

Therefore, I conclude that on a daily basis, San Jose is more dangerous, per capita, than New York City. However, since New York exhibits infinitely more targets, it is much more attractive to a terrorist plot and is consequently more dangerous than San Jose.

Where would you feel safer?