Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Risk Assessment

The indescribably grim news coming out of Haiti should at least help Americans to put their own problems in perspective, but it probably won't.

Really folks, a small group of religious fanatics somewhere in remote mountains with no indoor plumbing, who every once in a while persuade some mixed up young man to make a lame attempt to blow himself up on an airliner, are not an "existential," "transcendental," or even particularly important threat to the United States or to you and your loved ones in particular. They do not constitute a reason to repeal the Bill of Rights and repudiate the Geneva Conventions. I heard a young woman quoted on NPR saying she voted for Scott Brown because she was outraged by the prospect of trying terrorists in civilian courts. Really -- for her, the fear that someone accused of attempting a terrorist attack might get a trial and have to be convicted based on evidence and the rule of law trumps everything else that government might do, for better or for worse.

The British endured a campaign of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army for 30 years. More recently, of course, they have endured one horrifically successful attack on London mass transit and additional failed attempts. British politicians never labeled these campaigns -- which were much more effective than anything we have experienced since September 2001 -- as "existential" threats, never advocated torturing prisoners (although abuses did take place, they were ultimately acknowledged and were never officially authorized), did not suspend civil liberties, and dealt with the problem through law enforcement and the judiciary. Britain is still around, and the IRA has been defeated.

We should be far more terrorized by ordinary crime, domestic violence, motor vehicle crashes, house fires, floods -- events which happen continually and kill tens of thousands of Americans every year, many due to human intention. Our problem with La Cosa Nostra didn't lead us to bomb Sicily or ship Italian-Americans off to secret dungeons for indefinite confinement without legal recourse. Today we are afflicted by Colombian and Mexican drug gangs, rural methamphetamine labs, sex slavery -- all sorts of truly dangerous, egregious, and harmful activities going on within our borders that far exceed in their actually existing and continual harm anything al Qaeda can even contemplate.

So why do we have this irrational panic? In part, of course, it's because politicians, mostly Republicans, demagogue about this issue. In part it's because the government has set up the illusion that we are at war and lots of people just have a gut instinct that if we're at war, we need to do whatever it takes to "win," and they interpret that very crudely. If there is a war, of course, it's a war of ideas and values, and what we are doing is precisely what the enemy wants us to do and constitutes nothing but reflexive, cowardly surrender.

The smart thing would be for some political leaders -- say, the president? -- to stand up and say exactly that. But they're all too chickenshit.


Anonymous said...

It is very odd indeed.

For ex. Janet Napolitano was here yesterday, meeting with IATA officials - The US apparently wants to rule airline security worldwide! What she said about the panty bomber was literally insane - a threat to world security! rogue elements from rogue states who want to bring down the West! (I quote approximately)...One can imagine the airlines types sitting there poker faced.

An ordinary person saying such things about a neighbor who blew up a garbage bin or set a Mercedes on fire would find themselves facing men in white coats in short order, unless they kept their rants very private indeed.

Part of the oddity is that no possible advantage, no possible gain, can possible be gleaned for the US. (Down the road, some security cos. benefit, but imagining that Neapolito is actually selling body-scanners is bizarre. Air travel has already been impacted negatively, and the US Gvmt. had to bail out airlines after 9/11..)

Moreover, all this madness does the US a lot of harm. You guys are absolute laughing stocks world wide. And the people laughing (or cursing) are not just Jane and Joe, but Gvmts. and secret services everywhere.


Anonymous said...

Right on!
We are governed by Chicken Littles.