December 15, 2010

The United States of Fear

There is no question that the current level of fear of terrorist attacks is highly irrational. I should make it clear that I am not saying that terrorist attacks within the US are unlikely. Quite the contrary. It is very likely that there will be repeated attempts at bombings targeting innocent people within the US and that some of these will undoubtedly be successful and result in casualties. Given that the US is engaging in warfare in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and bombing those countries and killing civilians in the process, there is no doubt that some people there, or people here who have sympathies with those being killed, are going to be enraged enough to seek revenge and use groups like al Qaeda or its proxies as vehicles to do so.

What I am saying is that being obsessed with taking extreme measures to prevent such attempts is irrational. The US is a big country that is still fairly open. It is impossible to prevent people who are willing to martyr themselves for a cause from harming other people. This is the reality we have to learn to live with if we are to maintain our sanity, let alone the freedoms and civil liberties that make life worth living.

As Evan DeFilippis writes:

The odds of dying on an airplane as a result of a terrorist hijacking are less than 1 in 25 million — which, for all intents and purposes, is effectively zero — according to Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. By comparison, the odds of dying in a normal airplane crash, according to the OAG Aviation Database, are 1 in 9.2 million. This means that, on average, pilots are responsible for more deaths than terrorists.

In the same vein, the average American is 87 times more likely to drown than die by a terrorist attack; 50 times more likely to die by lightning; and 8 times more likely to die by a police officer, according to the National Safety Council's 2004 estimates. I can go on, the point is this: the risk of a terrorist attack is so infinitesimal and its impact so relatively insignificant that it doesn't make rational sense to accept the suspension of liberty for the sake of avoiding a statistical anomaly.

Would it be appropriate for the TSA to populate public parks, restaurants, casinos, zoos and public transit, all in the name of security? After all, in 2006 the Department of Homeland Security listed those places as "top terrorist targets." And if we were to use the same logic forwarded by TSA-proponents, we would say that because people aren't required to go to these places, it's okay to coerce them into abridging their rights. It's their choice, after all. Yet, we obviously wouldn't accept such a system if it were implemented, so why do we accept the same humiliating system at airports?

Over at Mother Jones Kevin Drum argues that such comparisons are meaningless because people fear death from terrorism more than deaths from other routine causes and thus want their governments to take extreme measures to prevent it.

If, for example, I hear one more person compare the number of deaths from terrorism to the number of deaths from car accidents, I think I'm going to scream. Human beings react differently to accidental death than they do to deliberate attacks from other human beings. This is human nature 101. If you honestly think that the car-terrorism comparison is persuasive to anyone, you are so wildly out of touch with your fellow humans that there's probably no hope for you.

I disagree. I think it is Drum who is out of touch. We live with the possibility of 'deliberate attacks from other human beings' all the time, in the form of muggings and assaults and murders. Even people living in high crime areas do not lock themselves up in their homes or demand the setting up of bomb detection equipment at every intersection. Drum has bought into the government propaganda that there is nothing worse than dying from a terrorist attack. If you look at countries that have had had long periods of random and deadly terrorist activity (Peru, Sri Lanka, Spain, Northern Ireland, India, etc.), you find that people just factor it in as a slightly elevated risk in their lives. They know that it is just bad luck if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you are in a crowded place or at some big ceremonial function or somewhere where some major political figure is present, the odds of being harmed go up slightly. People gauge for themselves if the trade-off is worth it. Some avoid such places and events, others don't. But for the most part people just go about their normal lives not worrying about being killed by explosives. That was the attitude of everyone I knew during the extremely long and violent period in Sri Lanka.

It is preposterous to think that people in America are intrinsically more fearful than the people in those other countries. What has happened is that they have been beaten down. Rather than appealing to people's bravery and resilience, appeals that uplift and ennoble the human spirit, the US government seems to go out of its way to demoralize Americans by portraying them as weak and helpless and fearful, needing the protective arm of the government to go about even their normal daily routine.

The US national anthem correctly pairs the phrase 'the home of the brave' with 'the land of the free' because it is only brave people who are truly free. Shakespeare put it even better in Julius Caesar (Act 2, Scene II) saying "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

Those who are fearful are only too willing to trade away their freedoms. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."


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The rate of death by car accidents argument persuaded me. Since then I have been making similar arguments in addition to absurd logical conclusion arguments (such as check points on all roads near crowded places and govt. buildings) and the inevitable "Butt Bomber." However, I mostly communicate these to people who are aware of the value of critical thinking.

People rarely change their mind from one discussion with someone, but if exposed many times to many arguments, they may change.

Flying is *not* optional for most people. I read a survey that found 80% of flyers are flying for business. Is it reasonable to ask them to all quit and change careers?

I was planning on having a honeymoon in July combining TAM9, the skeptic's convention with a tour around the South West. My fiance is saddened that I no longer want to go. I do not want to allow my rights to be violated nor subjected to feelings of humiliation.

Posted by G on December 15, 2010 10:08 AM

Drum has bought into the government propaganda that there is nothing worse than dying from a terrorist attack.

I don't see how you can get that from what he wrote. It seems very clear to me that he accepts the statistical argument and its conclusion. His criticism is that this argument is not convincing to most people, and so we need a different argument to bring them to the same conclusion.

Posted by Paul Jarc on December 15, 2010 02:45 PM

The statistical argument is clearly significant, but it is also clear that we (and I'm using "we", etc. in the general sense) are willing to swallow a lot in the name of countering "terrorism". So we need to understand what's going on, the physics of our seemingly irrational response. I hypothesize that what is really going on is that we hate that someone else hates us. We view ourselves as the greatest—or perhaps just a great—nation or people, and anyone who existentially contradicts that assumption must be fought with the most extreme prejudice.

Derrick Jensen itemizes this principle as the fourth of his premises:

Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. ... Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

Sound familiar? We see this hierarchy clearly in any media that champions the fundamental goodness of our state and our culture. Oppressive regimes (that would be us) cannot tolerate significant threats to even the idea that their rule is bad. Thus do we also see that anyone who pushes back against anything that might handicap "terrorism" risks censure or even worse punishment. Thus do we see that anyone who wants to apply a rational set of principles consistently (such as due process under the law), even to those merely accused of "terrorism", risk being labeled terrorists themselves[1, 2]. Thus do we see what the word "terrorist" actually means.

Posted by John L. Clark on December 16, 2010 12:52 PM