We live in an age of imagined terror that threatens to surpass the paranoia that drove both Red Scares (following WWI and WWII), the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry after Pearl Harbor, as well as the reaction to 9/11/2001. A scientist addresses the Great Fear of the 21st Century and does what a scientist does best: crunches the numbers and finds that we are no less safe after 9/11 and San Bernardino than we were before those attacks. If this is (fair & balanced) rational thinking, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Thinking Rationally About Terror
By Lawrence M. Krauss
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Earlier this winter, in the first week of December, I set sail for Antarctica. During the cruise, which was arranged by the Origins Project, an academic institute that I run, I was to give a series of lectures about cosmology and other topics. As a physicist, I’ve always found cosmology to be a rational elixir; it distances me from ordinary concerns. In Antarctica, moreover, I looked forward to experiencing an otherworldly place where the presence of humanity seems to fade in the face of nature’s vastness—climate change notwithstanding, of course.
As it happened, however, it was on that day—December 2nd—that a young couple decided to open fire at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. That terrible event gave the isolation of Antarctica a different character. From that distant vantage, the shooting was still terrifying—but the panic about terrorism that ensued appeared at least as frightening as the violence itself.
“Panic” is not too strong a word. According to a New York Times poll conducted earlier this month, people are as terrified about terrorism today as at any time since September 11, 2001. Donald Trump called for the closing of borders to Muslims; John McCain said, in response to the President’s address on the San Bernardino shooting, that “this is the war of our time.” As that shooting shows, we react to terrorism with far more intensity than we do to an ordinary crime. These days, gun violence can strike anywhere, from a church hall in Charleston to a movie theatre or a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado. But our response to it depends on whether that violence is understood to be terrorism. Immediately after the San Bernardino shooting, when it was unclear whether Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were motivated by a terroristic ideology, the focus of the conversation was on gun laws. After the religious extremism of the young couple had been established, the anxiety level skyrocketed. Nothing had changed about the substance of the crime. Still, one minute, we were debating legislation; the next, we were talking about war.
Indeed, all around the world, when violence is perpetrated by terrorists instead of by other criminals, governments respond in extraordinary ways. Following the most recent terror attack in France, the French government declared a state of emergency and launched new air strikes in Syria while restricting civil liberties at home. The Belgian government closed down Brussels for three days during a terrorist manhunt, in a move reminiscent of the briefer “lockdown” in Boston following the Boston Marathon bombings. Here in the U.S., governors have tried to stop Syrian refugees from entering their states; Jeb Bush has proclaimed that we are at war with ISIS; and other candidates have proposed harsh, warlike emergency measures. There’s no question that terrorism is alarming. But are we too alarmed?
Exactly how much more dangerous has terrorism made our lives? To answer this question, it helps to run the numbers. There are about two and a quarter million people in Paris. This means that, if you were living in Paris on the day of the recent attacks, there was roughly a one-in-twenty-thousand chance of being a victim. While that may seem high, the annual likelihood of getting killed by a car in France is almost exactly the same. (Last year, there were three thousand two hundred and fifty traffic fatalities in a population of sixty-four million.)
Murder rates offer another window onto the question. In France as a whole, the annual murder rate over the past five years peaked at around eight hundred and forty—which means that the recent terrorist attacks raised the national murder rate by about fifteen per cent. In Paris, the annual murder rate in previous years has been has high as 2.6 per hundred thousand people; by that measure, the terrorist attacks this year were a significant perturbation, more than doubling the average murder rate. Even so, it’s worth noting that this makes Paris about as dangerous as New York City, where the murder rate has been as high as seven per hundred thousand in recent years. New York is generally considered a very safe city. So, while terrorism has made life in France more dangerous, the new level of danger is one we tolerate—even celebrate—in the United States.
It’s possible, of course, to see the Paris and San Bernardino attacks as harbingers of a more dangerous future. Suppose that terrorist attacks become more common: Will life in Paris come to resemble life in Jerusalem? Will we be forced to sacrifice our freedoms to secure our streets? These are natural concerns—especially given the unhinged brutality of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In Israel, there ’s no question that the recent wave of violence has been significant, especially in the occupied territories, where Israeli soldiers have clashed with Palestinians, hundreds of whom have been injured or killed. All the same, as many of my friends and colleagues who have visited Israel report, on the whole, everyday life there continues. In fact, the murder rate in Israel, excluding the occupied territories, has been, on average, less than half the murder rate in the U.S.—even including terrorist attacks.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, it has been pointed out already—by the President, in fact—that about thirty-three thousand people die each year from gunshot wounds. That’s about four hundred thousand people since 2001. By contrast, setting aside 9/11, and even including the San Bernardino shootings, only fifty-four deaths have occurred because of domestic acts of terrorism during that time. Even if you include 9/11, the total death toll from terrorism amounts to less than one per cent of the death toll from gun violence. Just before San Bernardino, The Washington Post reported that, in the first three hundred and thirty-four days of 2015, there had been three hundred and fifty-one mass shootings in the United States—that is, shootings in which four or more people were killed or injured by gunfire. That is more than one per day. It is sobering to recognize that this month’s attack in California, as horrific as it was, does not skew the statistics at all; sadly, December 2nd in San Bernardino was just another average day in the United States. In fact, with over a hundred and eighty people shot each day in this country, even a mass killing like that which occurred in Paris would not significantly affect the death toll from guns in the U.S.
There are differences, of course, between death by terrorism and death by other causes. Driving a car carries with it a set of inevitable risks. Going to a concert or eating at a restaurant should not. Still, the risks of falling prey to terrorism are nevertheless very small for most Americans. Terrorists have forced us to accept that any activity associated with living in a free society now carries with it a finite, and microscopically small, chance of tragic horror. Still, it’s up to us to choose how to react to this minuscule possibility.
Needless to say, it is terrifying to know that there are individuals living among us with the express intent of killing randomly, for effect. But we must recognize that that’s the point of terrorism: it aims to scare us, thereby disrupting normal life. More than that, terrorism is designed drive a wedge between segments of a community which otherwise might have coexisted peacefully, both politically and socially. The attacks certainly had that effect in France, where the right wing has become increasingly strident and Muslims feel increasingly unwelcome. The San Bernardino attack has had the same effect in the U.S. Succumbing to the intended effects of terrorism means giving in to it. By contrast, responding in a way that is commensurate with the actual threat—recognizing that the average person living in France, for example, is living with a threat of murder of less than one in ten thousand, a threat equivalent to living in New York City—is more appropriate and healthy. We can be more vigilant without becoming irrational.
If we were more rational in the degree to which we’re alarmed about terrorism, we might become more rational in our responses to it. It’s hard to alter the mindset of a would-be terrorist, but it’s comparatively easy to introduce measures that could reduce gun-related fatalities in general. To date, Congress has shown no interest in discussing such a possibility. Instead, it has focussed on the doubtful question of whether denying refuge to Syrian families might increase public safety.
A cynical individual might wonder who benefits more from the terror induced by terrorism: the terrorists themselves or the politicians and governments who use the public reaction to acts of terror for political gain? Hermann Göring, interviewed during the Nuremberg Trials, said, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” We need to be vigilant against those who seek to manipulate us—whoever they are.
And, in the process, we need to distinguish policies that can realistically improve the safety of the public from those that only appear to do so. In this regard, the greatest loss arising from the nation’s fixation on terror may be the opportunity cost in time and energy that could instead be spent on developing policies that address other urgent national concerns and needs. Perhaps the biggest defense against terrorism isn’t just to demonstrate that we can go on with business as usual; it’s to use terrorism as an occasion for addressing actual safety concerns that we can control. Terrorism is designed to distract us and muddy our thinking. To fight it, we need to keep it in perspective. Ω
[Lawrence M. Krauss is the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His newest book, The Greatest Story Ever Told, So Far will appear next year and all 20 of his current books can be seen here. Krauss received two BS degrees (mathematics and physics) from Carleton University (Canada) as well as a PhD (physics) from MIT. See his 33-page C.V. [PDDF] here.]
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