When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

06 December 2006

The Case for Fear

Consider a few numbers. Fewer than three thousand people died in the attacks of September 11, but about forty thousand people die each year in automobile accidents. Even in 2001, Americans were fifteen times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than as a result of a terrorist attack; and seven times more likely to die of alcohol-related causes; and five times more likely to die of HIV; and five times more likely to die as a result of accidental poisoning or exposure to toxic substances. The terrorist attacks of 2001 increased the chance of dying in an air crash from a probability of 0.00000128 to a probability of 0.0000024. Since the 1960s, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism is about the same as the number killed by lightning or by accidents caused by deer. If an attack of the magnitude of September 11 occurred every three months for the next five years--an unlikely event, to say the least--the probability of being killed in such an attack would remain tiny: 0.02 percent, to be precise.

If people expressed the same level of concern about a similarly small risk in the environmental domain, it would be natural to wonder whether we were witnessing a grotesque overreaction. John Mueller believes that we are, and that the "terrorism industry" is responsible. In his view, that industry, which includes the American government, has essentially been doing the terrorists' business, because it has taken steps to scare people beyond all reason. In 2004, Osama bin Laden proclaimed that it is "easy for us to provoke and bait. ... All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen ... to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses." Mueller thinks that the American overreaction to September 11 supports bin Laden's prediction. Terrorists seek to make people believe that they "cannot be safe," even if their capacity to inflict harm is sharply limited. Mueller believes that it is not terrorism, but the terrorism industry, that has made Americans so fearful, and so willing to believe that they are engaged in fighting not a form of international crime but a never-ending "war."

The Case For Fear (The New Republic Online, Cass R. Sunstein, December, 5 2006)

Okay, we've all read articles like this one before, yes?

I'd like to urge you to click the article link and keep reading.

The author, reviewing two new books (Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, John Mueller, and What's Wrong With Terrorism, Robert E. Goodin) takes two approaches (one empirical - Mueller, the statistics hound, and one philosophical - Goodin, a political philosopher) and synthesizes them into a powerful argument for fighting terrorism without resorting to--indeed, actively combating--hysterical fearmongering.

Regular readers of this blog will know that in my estimation, the likelihood of WMD use by terrorists is almost inevitable; I think the current pattern of nuclear proliferation in the world makes it a done deal, in fact, and disagree with the two authors on this very important point.

I agree with the authors, however, that it's more important than ever that we consider terrorism, its goals and aims, and our responses to it, and that we do so with clear heads.

The Case For Fear (The New Republic Online, Cass R. Sunstein, December, 5 2006)

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