Sunday, September 23 , 2018, 3:24 pm | Fair 68º

 
 
 
 
Advice

Tam Hunt: In Era of Terrorism, Remember the Antidote to Going Crazy from Fear

We are going through some strange times, with some presidential candidates calling for denying entry to the United States for new immigrants if they are Muslim, and others calling for carpet bombing of the Middle East until “the sand glows in the dark.”

Let’s call a spade a spade: this is crazy talk and let’s laugh at it, but please don’t take it seriously. Let’s all instead take a deep breath and look at some data, which is the cure for the urge toward crazy thoughts and crazy talk.

We have the luxury now of having abundant data at our fingertips for all sorts of issues. And when it comes to the harm from terrorism we have very clear data showing that the actual harm is extremely minimal.

» More people die from lightning strikes each year in the United States than die from terrorism.

» More people die from bee stings each year in the United States than die from terrorism.

» And, way, way more people die from suicide and homicide than from terrorism.

Nearby is a chart showing the major causes of death in the United States, topped by heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease, all of which kill literally thousands of times more people each year than terrorism. Terrorism doesn’t even come close to making the list.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures for leading causes of death in 2013.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures for leading causes of death in 2013.

We spend 50,000 times more per victim on terrorism prevention than any other cause of death. That’s crazy.

Even when we were hit by the mother all terrorist attacks, the 9/11 attacks, the deaths caused by the terrorists were still a tiny proportion of deaths each year from disease, accidents and homicides totally unrelated to terrorism.

This look at the data does not diminish the tragedy of each one of these deaths. We need to take terrorism seriously, of course.

But we also need to keep it in context, and gauge our responses appropriately — both individually and as a country — to the level of harm.

Since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has received far too much media attention and it occupies far too much of our collective “mind share.”

This is an area in which an unholy confluence of misaligned incentives conspire to make terrorism seem like far more of a threat than it is.

Politicians have a large incentive to hype the threat from terrorism, particularly when they’re in opposition or running for president, because it’s an easy area to score political points by accusing the current administration of not being tough enough.

The mainstream media, which is a business that runs on advertising revenue, which requires more ads and more eyeballs to make more revenue, also has a large incentive to hype the threat because discussion of threats to our way of life will gain more attention than otherwise.

The New York Times ran an irresponsible article hyping the fear that some people have felt since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, quoting David Gergen, a respected political commentator, on his anecdotal conversations with people who were feeling extremely fearful in their day-to-day life now because of the threat of terrorism in their neighborhoods:

“I talk to people who worry that they will be shot on the streets of New York. I had one friend say it’s worse than 9/11. It just seems like all of us are vulnerable.”

This is nuts. If you don’t agree, please look again at the data on the actual harm from terrorism in the United States.

President Barack Obama, to his credit, has not yet given in to the easy urge to up the scale of our engagement against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq beyond the strategy his administration is already pursuing.

He has pledged to help France as it seeks to prevent any further attacks like the attacks in Paris in November. Obama has ordered literally thousands of air strikes in Syria and Iraq since last year, leading a coalition of nations combating the threat of the Islamic State.

Obama has also ordered more than 100 Special Forces troops into battle in Syria.

In my last column, I looked in detail at the origins of the Islamic State and how the threat of blowback to the United States’ and allied nations’ over-reactions to perceived threats have been the major causes in the creation of the Islamic State.

It is very clear that the far larger threat than terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the near future is the risk of igniting yet more decades of blowback by over-reacting to perceived threats today. Let’s not make the same mistakes we’ve been making for the last three decades.

But this column is not about the foreign policy response to the Islamic State and its terrorist actions around the world. Rather, it’s about how we, individually, should think about and respond to terrorism.

The San Bernardino shootings were horrific, and any such plots like it should be rooted out and stopped. That’s simple common sense.

But let’s not allow ourselves to descend into a police state, or a new era of McCarthyism by targeting Muslims merely for being Muslim, or treating anyone who looks Arabic or Middle Eastern as suspicious. That’s crazy.

And let’s not allow the threat of terrorism to change our way of life or reduce our quality of life. That’s even crazier.

The power of terrorism is highlighted well in its name: it’s designed to induce terror. And that terror only works if people in general give in to it.

By keeping the actual harm from terrorism at the forefront of our minds we combat terrorists most effectively, by not letting their actions sow fear among our communities.

Data is your friend. Use it.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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