Kevin Drum likes the idea of not getting hysterical over every terrorist incident, but he’s got practical and theoretical objections to an approach that emphasizes the risk from terrorism is statistically negligible:
This line of argument — that terrorism is statistically harmless compared to lots of other activities — will never work. For better or worse, it just won’t. So we should knock it off.
Second, even in the realm of pure logic it really doesn’t hold water. The fundamental fear of terrorism is that it’s not just random or unintentional, like car accidents or (for most of us) the threat of homicide. It’s carried out by people with a purpose. The panic caused by the underwear bomber wasn’t so much over the prospect of a planeload of casualties, it was over the reminder that al-Qaeda is still out there and still eager to expand its reach and kill thousands if we ever decide to let our guard down a little bit.
So even if you agree with Campos, as I do, that overreaction to al-Qaeda’s efforts is dumb and counterproductive, it’s perfectly reasonable to be more afraid of a highly motivated group with malign ideology and murderous intent than of things like traffic accidents or hurricanes. Suggesting otherwise, in some kind of hyperlogical a-death-is-a-death sense, strikes most people as naive and clueless. It’s an argument that probably hurts the cause of common sense more than it helps.
Whether statistically-based arguments help or hurt on the whole in this context seems largely unknown (we don’t have good stats on that). I concede they’re not nearly as effective as people who have a preference for evidence-based arguments — pointy-headed professors etc., — often imagine they are. As Drum points out, most people consider those sorts of arguments naive, and prefer “common sense.”
Unfortunately in this context Drum seems to be one of those people. His common sense argument is that it makes more sense to be afraid of terrorists than hurricanes because death by hurricane is random and death by terrorism is a product of malign ideology and murderous intent. Even ordinary homicide, he says, is not like that for most of us.
As to the homicide point it’s clearly wrong. The percentage of homicide victims whose killers were random strangers — serial killers, mass murderers, and the like — is quite small. Indeed if you’re a woman (which statistically includes most of us), the odds are far higher that you will murdered by a current or former intimate partner — as I point out in the WSJ piece there are several such murders in the US every single day — than by any other single class of killer.
But even when it comes to things like hurricanes and traffic accidents I think Drum is off track. If anything, getting blown up by a terrorist on a plane is about as impersonal a death as a person can suffer. It’s comparable, in this regard, to getting blown up by Predator drone while attending a wedding in a Pakistani village.
The notion that terrorists want to kill “us” — me and you specifically, or even Americans as a class — because they hate us personally, or if you prefer “hate our freedoms,” is pure narcissism. It’s very much like imagining the the US military actually wants to kill Iraqi or Afghani civilians. From a logistical and political standpoint killing civilians is a pain in the ass for the US military and I’m quite sure they would very much prefer to avoid it altogether if they could, all ethical considerations aside. From a logistical and political standpoint trying to kill US civilians by blowing yourself and the plane you’re on is a pain in the ass (sometimes literally) for terrorists and they no doubt would prefer to pursue their goals in a less unpleasant manner, again all ethical considerations aside.
I also think Drum should be a little more cautious about making arguments framed around the idea that “al Qaeda is still out there and eager to expand its reach and kill thousands.” Whether al Qaeda even exists as a coherent organization any more is far from clear. Naturally Islamic terrorists in Iraq and on the Arabian peninsula are eager to engage in geopolitical equivalent of knock-off branding, but that hardly means we should assume that the Jihadist equivalent of Emanuel Goldstein is still lurking behind every conspiracy.
I’m not drawing a moral equivalence here between terrorism and “collateral damage” in arguably legitimate military operations. What I’d like to insist on is that both kinds of death are highly impersonal and essentially random.
Now this doesn’t mean that the loved ones of the victims of these sorts of death will consider the deaths impersonal and random. Civilian deaths due to terrorism and warfare both fill people with rage and a thirst for revenge. But there’s nothing personal about either one.
Update: The increasingly unhinged Maureen Dowd, by contrast, is annoyed with Obama for not recognizing that “we” are really scared right now, and therefore need a big strong daddy to make the bad guys go away:
No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding — whether it’s in a debate or after a debacle. But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.
Our professorial president is no feckless W., biking through Katrina. He is no doubt on top of the crisis in terms of studying it top to bottom. But his inner certainty creates an outer disconnect.
He’s so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he misses the moment to be president — to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and instructs the public at traumatic moments.
He’s more like the aloof father who’s turned the Situation Room into a Seminar Room.
You really can’t make this stuff up.