A significant majority of Americans, polls repeatedly tell us, list terrorism as one of their greatest fears. Like most of our media-inspired interests and worries, however, this one has little basis in reality.
In actual fact, unless you’re serving in a war zone, the most dangerous person you’re ever likely to encounter – by several orders of magnitude – is the one you see in the mirror every morning.
Not some shadowy arms dealer peddling second hand nukes. Not some dusky Jihadi with a song on his lips and a suicide belt around his middle. Not some mad scientist, bribed by the forces of evil to cook up a bio-bug capable of ending life as we know it.
Here are the hard facts.
The single greatest killer of Americans is the so-called “lifestyle disease”. Somewhere between half a million and a million of us get a short ride in a long hearse every year because of smoking, lousy diets, parking our bodies in front of the TV instead of operating them, and downing yet another six pack and / or tequila popper.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, between 310,000 and 580,000 of us will commit suicide by cigarette this year. Another 260,000 to 470,000 will go in the ground due to poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. And some 85,000 of us will drink to our own departure.
After the person in the mirror, the next most dangerous individual we’re ever likely to encounter is one in a white coat. Something like 200,000 of us will experience “cessation of life” due to medical errors – botched procedures, mis-prescribed drugs and “nosocomial infections”. (The really nasty ones you get from treatment in a hospital or healthcare service unit.)
The next most dangerous encounter the average American is likely to have is with a co-worker with an infection. Or a doorknob, stair railing or restaurant utensil touched by someone with the crud. “Microbial Agents” (read bugs like flu and pneumonia) will send 75,000 of us to meet the Reaper this year.
If we live through those social encounters, the next greatest danger is “Toxic Agents” – asbestos in our ceiling, lead in our pipes, the stuff we spray on our lawns or pour down our clogged drains. Annual body count from these handy consumer products is around 55,000.
After that, the most dangerous person in our lives is the one behind the wheel. About 42,000 of us will cash our chips in our rides this year. More than half will do so because we didn’t wear a seat belt. (Lest it wrinkle our suit.)
Some 31,000 of us will commit suicide by intention this year. (As opposed to not fastening our seat belts or smoking, by which we didn’t really mean to kill ourselves.)
About 30,000 of us will die due to our sexual behaviors, through which we’ll contract AIDS or Hepatitis C. Another 20,000 of us will pop off due to illicit drug use.
The next scariest person in our lives is someone we know who’s having a really bad day. Over 16,000 Americans will be murdered this year, most often by a relative or friend.
After that, it’s an overdose on “non-steroidal anti-inflammatories”, acetaminophen or aspirin. About 7,600 hundred a year, perhaps due to the aftermath of those tequila poppers.
Next most dangerous thing is going to work. About 5,500 of us will buy the farm due to “occupational trauma”.
If that’s scary enough to skip work, we might want to skip lunch, too. Next most dangerous thing is the food we eat. About 5,200 of us will hurl our lives away due to “foodborne agents”.
Another 4,000 of us will drown. A significant percentage will be fishermen found floating with a high blood alcohol content and an unzipped fly.
As the data clearly shows, the things that genuinely threaten us are the ones we are most likely to ignore or simply accept. (We’re statistically far more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by an action of Al Qaeda, for example.) The ones that we’re scared witless of – and spend trillions of increasingly scarce dollars to avert in our boundless paranoia – are less likely to harm us than a bag of peanuts. (Deaths in America due to peanut allergies average 50 – 100 per year.)
Deaths of Americans due to terrorist activities, according to the US State Department, have averaged less than 15 per year since 2002. And all of those occurred abroad. The majority were in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (Civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were not counted due to the fact those occurred in war zones.)
The things we fear most may be least likely to occur, which means the time, trauma and treasure we invest in them is a complete waste.
Security itself is an illusion. It is a perception that exists only between our ears. No army, insurance policy, hazmat team, video surveillance or explosive sniffer can protect us from our own immune system, a well-intentioned but clumsy surgeon, failing to look before crossing the street, an asteroid randomly hurtling through space or someone willing to die in order to do others harm.
In this sense, the only things that can truly make us more “secure” are not things. They are the courage to face whatever comes with dignity and intention, and the strong relationships that assure we will face the future together, and find comfort and meaning in doing so.
Imagine, then, what might happen if we simply quit listening to the scaremongers and those who profit from our paranoia. Imagine what the world could look like if we made a conscious choice to live out whatever time we have with courage, compassion, service and joy.
Terrorism is an act of the weak. But so is walking through the airport in our socks.
We can make better choices.
JOHN GOEKLER uses imagination, agitation and applied complexity science to help organizations act with greater coherence, effectiveness and joy. He works primarily through Change Factors.