Earlier this month, a woman in Arlington, Virginia, saw a man taking pictures of kids and suspected the worst: a creep on the prowl with his camera. Disgusting.
She quickly alerted a security guard and, according to a subsequent police report, told him she believed the man was photographing children he didn't know, for presumably nefarious purposes.
The security guard went to investigate and made contact with the man. As it turns out, the guy was taking pictures of his own children: He was a dad on an outing with his kids. The guard went back to report this reassuring news to the lady. Case closed?
Not quite. As the Arlington police reported:
The suspect then intervened, deployed pepper spray and sprayed the victim, before fleeing the scene on foot.
So the suspect is a woman in her 20s or 30s—a pepper-spraying maniac—and the victim is the man taking the pictures. (The dad sustained non-life threatening injuries, which were treated at the scene by medics.) The suspect was so obsessed with the idea there are predators everywhere that she literally couldn't accept reality when confronted by it.
Security guru Bruce Schneier coined a term for this leap from mundane reality to thrilling depravity. He calls it the "movie-plot threat." The more something resembles a movie-plot threat, the less likely it is to happen in real life, hence the less time and money we have to spend preventing it.
Thinking that way is the equivalent of seeing a small bruise and automatically assuming child abuse, or seeing a child alone and automatically assuming neglect, which also happens: Watch dad Ashley Smith testify in favor of Let Grow's "reasonable childhood independence" bill in the South Carolina Judiciary committee. His family was investigated for child abuse and neglect because someone saw his daughter doing her homework on the front lawn and called 911.
How much better off we'd all be—saner, smarter, safer, nicer—if instead of assuming the very worst anytime we see a child, or an adult with a child, or an adult near a child or photographing a child, we gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.
In the meantime, the police investigation is ongoing.
Correction: The headline of this article has been updated.