Bombs went off in New York and New Jersey. This has become an occasion for our leaders and candidates to say what they are going to do to keep us safe.
The thing is, there is no way for them to keep us safe. That’s scary as hell, but it’s incontrovertibly true.
Here’s what kept this week from being filled with mass killings: random chance.
The bomb at the road race in New Jersey didn’t hurt anyone because the start of the race had been delayed.
The bomb in Chelsea injured 29 people but didn’t kill anyone because a trash bin absorbed much of the explosion.
Thieves who took a nice-looking suitcase in Manhattan apparently disarmed the pressure-cooker bomb inside accidentally.
And the pipe bombs in a backpack in a New Jersey train station? Guys trying to steal the backpack noticed them and alerted police.
Donald Trump says “I will make you safe again.” He can’t. He can promise to expand surveillance, prevent Muslims and people from countries that have terrorists in them (Belgium? France?) from entering the country, and waterboard people we don’t like. But there are plenty of people who wish us harm already here, and there are plenty of ways for people like that to enter our country. Sealing off America from terrorists and expelling all those who might commit acts of terror is not possible. It’s not like you can just spot them all. They even run fried chicken restaurants.
Hillary Clinton’s plan to stop terrorism isn’t going to work either. Her desire to discredit radical ideologies and work with allies on intelligence might slow down or stop some attacks, or they might not. But she can’t keep you safe either.
Does this scare you? It shouldn’t. It’s pretty far from the biggest risk you face.
I’m more scared of the epidemic of type-2 diabetes that will result as we all get older and fatter.
I’m scared of getting run over as I’m biking somewhere and somebody is drunk or texting or just hates cyclists.
I’m even scared that large swaths of America will end up underwater, and the resulting turmoil will create riots.
What risks scare you? And what are you doing about them?
There are two ways to react to this lack of safety.
In one, you rationally assess risks. You personally avoid proven risky behaviors like letting the batteries run out in your smoke detectors, drinking a case of beer every weekend, or playing professional football. You vote for politicians who assess societal and national risks (unsafe roads, food poisoning, nuclear North Korea) and take actions proportional to the risks. And you accept that while you and your family will never be “safe,” you can be safer.
In the other, you react emotionally. You try to wall yourself off from risks outside yourself, rather than mitigating the ones you are responsible for. You embrace politicians who want to take immediate, radical action without thinking through the second- and third-order consequences of those actions. This is a deeply satisfying action to take — it feels like you’re actually doing something useful.
But it will not keep you safe. Nothing will.