The Illusion of Security and Our Diverted Attention

My wife and I just returned from a week of vacation on a beach in Mexico. We travel as often as possible (well…as often as we can afford) because there are so many wonderful places yet to see and too few years in a lifetime to see them. Every time we tell friends that we are planning another trip someone (often several someones) will say “be careful, its a dangerous world out there”. Well…yeah, but getting behind the wheel of my truck is dangerous and I do so without thinking twice.

From the time we become self-aware we build a cocoon of invincibility around ourselves. Even when we see others die in automobile crashes, die from alcoholism, or die at the hands of a deranged 64-year old Las Vegas gambler, we convince ourselves that we, on the other hand, are secure. We aren’t. However, the things we tend to fear most are likely our least worries.

Here is my favorite example. About 84% of Americans consider terrorism a critical threat to our safety, and we become even more  focused on terrorism after attacks occur in France or other Western nations. I doubt most people know that in 2015 about 78% of deaths caused by terrorists resulted from attacks in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  It is easy to forget about the rest of the world. If you take out the 9/11 attacks, only 0.5% of terrorist attacks occurred in ANY Western nation between 2000-2015. In a ranked index of 39 countries suffering serious terrorist attacks the United States comes in at…drum roll…#35!.

And only 20% of terrorist attacks in the West were carried out by Muslim extremists meaning about 80% were perpetuated by other extremist groups. You might be interested to know that between 2008 and 2016 right-wing extremist groups were responsible for almost twice the number of American terrorist attacks as were Muslim groups, and they were often more deadly.  And yes, there were also left-wing terrorist attacks perpetrated by ecoterrorists and animal rights groups, but these were much more infrequent. Yet the only terrorist attacks our President or other governing officials ever acknowledge is the Islamic variety. And they use that incomplete information to justify public policy decisions such as “enhanced vetting” of refugees, building border walls, or banning certain people from our country.

Interestingly, research by the libertarian (ultra conservative) Cato Institute concludes that the number of terrorist attacks from people coming from the seven countries on which President Drumpf originally imposed a travel band was a whopping…zero! Cato also concluded that there was almost no national security benefit to the ban.  In fact, we are 253 times more likely to be killed by someone other than a foreign-born terrorist.

This focus on Muslim terrorists is another good example of politicians misdirecting or diverting our attention, a topic about which I posted several weeks ago. They keep us from focusing on  things that really matter by throwing red-meat (though often insubstantial) issues our way.

So what are the threats to our secure lives about which we should be worried? What are the ways we are likely to pass on into the next world? Here are a few interesting odds:

  • Heart disease: 1 in 7
  • Cancer: 1 in 7
  • Influenza/pneumonia: 1 in 70
  • Motor Vehicle Accident: 1 in 113
  • Assault by Gun: 1 in 358
  • Complications from medical procedure or surgery: 1 in 1,523
  • Force of Nature: 1 in 3,122
  • Choking on Food: 1 in 3,409
  • Bicycling: 1 in 4,337
  • Fall From a Building: 1 in 6,115
  • Exposure to Excessive Natural Cold: 1 in 7,399
  • Airplane or Spaceship Accident: 1 in 9,738
  • Heat Wave: 1 in 10,785
  • Animal Attack: 1 in 30,167
  • Death by Foreign Born Terrorist: 1 in 45,808
  • Shark Attack: 1 in 8,000,000
  • Death by a refugee terrorist:  1 in 46,192,893
  • Death by illegal immigrant terrorist: 1 in 138, 324, 873

In other words there are lots of things more likely to kill us than terrorists. Does that mean we should let down our guard and not worry about terrorist attacks? Absolutely not! If we can minimize ANY cause of death we should do so. However, it also seems reasonable to focus on other causes and try to minimize those as well, especially since they are more likely to result in our death. And it is time for politicians to dial back the rhetoric and focus on issues that have a greater impact on our lives than does terrorism.

  • The likelihood of dying by heart disease and cancer can at least be reduced by changing our exercise, eating, smoking, and other habits. Governmental policies reducing pollution, limiting smoking in public places, and requiring truthful labeling of food content can also have an impact.
  • We could reduce the number of motor vehicle deaths by increasing funding for infrastructure improvements (highways, rail systems, airports, bus systems)
  • We can impose reasonable restrictions on gun sales that might reduce the statistical likelihood of dying by gun shot. ( I read interesting research recently that argues otherwise, by the way).
  • We could protect folks from heatwave death by providing cooling centers for those capable of leaving their homes and air conditioners for those who cannot.
  • We minimize the likelihood of dying in plane (or spaceship) crashes by imposing safety regulations.

You get the idea. There are ways to prevent many unnecessary deaths although the chances are pretty darn good that something will eventually get us. However, it is easier for politicians to direct our attention toward terrorists or other less important issues than it is for them to, you know, actually GOVERN!