There’s still blood on the ground in Brussels, a city I’ve spent time in with people I’ve befriended. I’d rather not look. But I must. Because this is when we make the worst mistakes.
A friend sent me this observation yesterday:
The optimal level of terrorist attacks is probably small, but not zero, just like the optimal level of crime, pollution, car crashes, and all sorts of other horrible things is not zero. You have to weigh the benefits against the costs (both financial and nonfinancial such as lost civil liberties, hassle at airports, etc.). We do this all the time in our personal lives. We take risks—driving, bicycling, eating fatty foods, etc.—because we think the benefits exceed the costs. The idea that some things are so horrible that we should eradicate them regardless of cost is a prescription for bad policy (and likely futility). Even if we thought that we could eradicate terrorism by spending $1 trillion per year, it’s surely true that we could save many more lives by devoting some of that money to other activities (like safer roads and bridges).
Some part of you is reading that and saying “That’s absurd. What could be more important than safety from terror?” Another part is saying “That’s a balanced perspective. Perhaps losing one life to terror isn’t as bad as losing 100 to something preventable, like plane crashes.” So now your reasoning brain can have an argument with your lizard brain about how you’re supposed to think about this.
Let’s look this in the eye. Why does a terrorist act terrify us as Americans?
- It’s sudden. There’s no warning. Not like global warming.
- It’s personal. Not like a plane crash.
- It’s not comprehensible. We understand soldiers at war. We don’t understand angry bombers.
- It’s not over. It can happen again at at any time.
- The victims are people like “us” (that is, white western people). It’s not fair, but if 30 people lose their lives in a car bomb in Iraq or Syria, Americans pay less attention.
It’s amazing what we’ve gotten used to. We’ve gotten used to deadly violence in the Middle East. We’ve gotten used to random Americans getting shot by accident. We’ve gotten used to fat people dying too soon. We’ve gotten used to police shooting unarmed black people. We’ve even gotten used to going to war. It sickens and dismays me that we have gotten used to these things — it’s horrible — but we have.
But we can’t get used to random terrorism, so we demand somebody to do something to stop it.
If a politician promised to spend whatever it took and take away whatever freedoms were necessary to stop people from dying in earthquakes, or from gun accidents, that politician would lose.
But if a politician promises to spend whatever it takes and take away whatever freedoms are necessary to stop people from dying in terror attacks, that politician may well win. Even though such a solution is impossible, we want someone to promise to take care of us.
It’s hard when the wounds are still fresh, but I just wish people would look forward a few years. Whatever promises you hear, ask what they will do to your own privacy, to our sense of honor about ourselves, and to the terrorists’ ability to continue to threaten us. Ask yourself that. How did bombing the Iraqi countryside and waterboarding terrorists in Afghanistan work out for us — are we safer now? Ask your candidates that, and do not let them off the hook until they answer. Because this is a time that Americans really want someone to take care of them and protect them, and are vulnerable to false promises. And during an election in a democracy, that’s a dangerous time time indeed.