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Even though I learned in first grade not to call people stupid, I wish they would stop saying such stupid things about terrorism and mass shootings (present company excepted, of course). Things that, when not stupid, are often puerile and pusillanimous. Coverage and comments pertaining to recent events in Beirut, Paris, and now San Bernardino tend to fall into one of those categories. It’s pusillanimous to demand stricter police protection, puerile to call for Uncle Sam to finish off the bad guys, and stupid not to reflect on how the West got into this mess in the first place. The obtuseness boggles and depresses me. It’s stupefying, if not just plain stupid.
So many of the thoughts and prayers deploring shootings and bombings of “innocents” strike me as shallow, callow, or hollow. I put “innocents” in quotes because, while bystanders suffer, victims often represent people who assailants feel have wronged them. Terrorists will go after symbolic targets when ones they want to destroy are unavailable to them. Their logic and motives are often hard to tease out, but they surely run much deeper than “mental illness” or “hating our freedom.” And after any attack, the intense focus on stories of shattered lives that the media obsessively pursues pulls oxygen away from attempts to understand the events and mindsets that trigger atrocities, making them seem beside the point. (“People are suffering; who cares why these a-holes did it.”) Lack of curiosity about why haters do what they do reinforces a sense of innocent victimhood, unencumbered—as the Car Guys on NPR liked to say—by the thought process.
Media focus on personal tragedies wrought by mass violence or other disasters pushes fear buttons we all have, impairing our ability to evaluate danger (“There but for God’s grace go I”). For whatever reasons, most human beings are remarkably inept at estimating and weighing risks. Psychologists and behavioral economists have long pointed out that people make poor decisions and choices when seeking desired outcomes that are unlikely (like gambling or buying lottery tickets) or wanting to avoid bad outcomes that are unlikely (like being killed by a Syrian refugee). Misapprehending risks causes one to devote much energy—and often blood and treasure—to achieving little or nothing. Even when on some level we are aware of the futility of pursuing bad odds, we do so anyway. Why don’t we learn how to distinguish between probable and improbable events and outcomes, and act accordingly?
“Economic man” is supposed to respond to challenges and opportunities rationally—to “maximize utility” as they say—but of course real men and women rarely do. Their decisions are skewed by how they frame choices, and those frames are subject to conditioning and manipulation by advertising, news media, laws, politics, and social pressure. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Americans were rightly scared, because the scope of the threat was unknown. As time went on and nothing like that happened again, many people did not recalibrate their perceptions of risk, thanks to unrelenting propaganda campaigns such as Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Sporadic incidents of would-be terrorism like the “shoe” and “underwear” bombers—even though thwarted—reinforced fears of improbable events. Government parlayed those fears to sensitize us to the miniscule risks of being harmed by foreign terrorists and desensitize us to militarizing police and surveillance of citizens. An objective observer might rightly conclude that our own government hates our freedom more than terrorists do.
Few people can be objective when their sense of security is eroding. But the objective truth is that foreign terrorism sharply declined in America after 9/11, while domestic terrorism and police violence exploded and have yet to peak. Regardless, if you ask random Americans whether they are more concerned about events like the Boston Marathon bombing or those like the Newtown school massacre, I will wager that most will worry more about the jihadists. Somehow, my compatriots’ perceptions have been framed to stir loathing only foreign-born haters (read Muslims) with weapons, while the firepower in the hands of unstable homegrown haters (read Christians) is conveniently overlooked.
So, after Paris (but not after Beirut), we had 30 governors pledging to deny refuge to Syrians fleeing war zones (but not other nationals), which amplified paranoia and legitimated irrational fears. And now, in the aftermath of the San Bernardino rampage, all eyes will be upon finding connections between the (Muslim) shooters and ISIS more than events and experiences that fanned their enmity. And of course, we never hear mainstream commentators pontificate on potential blowback from, say, America’s tacit support of Israel’s apartheid Palestine policies or our indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims by remote control and proxy militias. They hew to the party line that no one who has suffered collateral damage has any right to strike back at our innocents.
And our political leaders can provoke blowback with impunity, just as Wall Street banks can crash the economy and emerge unscathed. Financial sophisticates understand that greater rewards need not entail greater risks if they can offload them to their counterparties or third parties (such as taxpayers). The warfare state understands this too, and behaves with similar abandon. Thus, because they are essentially untouchable, political leaders simply transfer the risks of retaliation from foreign adventures to the populace (including, of course, taxpayers). But unlike financial risks, which are kept well hidden, terrorism risks are trumped up to keep us in constant anxiety, which of course justifies them taking more risks.
For some strange reason, some people call terrorists “cowards,” even ones who blow themselves up. The name-callers should put themselves in the shoes of an “evildoer” whose neighborhood was just razed by a one-ton bomb made in America. Then consider which is the more courageous and rational response to being terrorized—to demand protection, or to go forth to avenge wrongs that nobody seems interested in or capable of righting? And all of us should ask ourselves which is the greater risk—that terrorists will come to strike us or our loved ones, or acquiescing to ever more draconian security measures that will make us less free but still fearful? Weigh them well, encumbered by the thought process.