Friedersdorf: Stop Using Terrorism to Diminish Freedom, Privacy

Conor Friedersdorf expresses my own thoughts on the question of our obsessive focus on terrorism far better than I could. He points out that in the real world Americans have very little to fear from terrorists and far more to fear from other things that we would never use to justify such a massive growth in government surveillance.

Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism. But consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack — by far the biggest in its history — roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S.

Let’s put that in context. That same year in the United States:

  • 71,372 died of diabetes.
  • 13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.

That’s what things looked like at the all-time peak for deaths by terrorism

Measured in lives lost, during an interval that includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history, guns posed a threat to American lives that wasmore than 100 times greater than the threat of terrorism. Over the same interval, drunk driving threatened our safety 50 times more than terrorism.

Those aren’t the only threats many times more deadly than terrorism, either.

The CDC estimates that food poisoning kills roughly 3,000 Americans every year. Every year, food-borne illness takes as many lives in the U.S. as were lost during the high outlier of terrorism deaths. It’s a killer more deadly than terrorism. Should we cede a significant amount of liberty to fight it?…

The U.S. should certainly try to prevent terrorist attacks, and there is a lot that government can and has done since 9/11 to improve security in ways that are totally unobjectionable. But it is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute. In 2011*, 32,367 Americans died in traffic fatalities. Terrorism killed 17 U.S. civilians that year. How many Americans feared dying in their vehicles more than dying in a terrorist attack?

He’s right. We have allowed our vastly exaggerated fear of terrorism make us compliant, which is nearly always the fuel for oppression. As HL Mencken said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” For crying out loud, Hitler even managed to sell the invasion of Poland as a necessary preemption of an imminent attack on Germany.

Here’s why the public doesn’t really care about illegal government surveillance: Because we are conditioned to respond to fear and insecurity. From the earliest age, we are taught to be perpetually insecure and afraid of nearly everything. Half our economy is based upon selling us shit we don’t need to cover up our insecurities. We buy everything from toothpaste to shampoo to sports cars because they soothe our insecurities. And the government has always been very adept at making us afraid. For crying out loud, they managed to convince most of us that the invasion of Vietnam (and later Iraq) was necessary for our national security. Because we are conditioned to be afraid and to buy whatever product they’re selling us to make it go away, whether that product is Axe body spray or a war. It’s all the same thing.

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  • Lofty

    When I first heard the news of the 9/11 attacks my first thought was “here comes the end of civil rights as we know it” and I was right, the spooks have used it as an excuse for prying into our lives ever since. Never mind that Henry Ford’s invention of the mass produced automobile has resulted in millions more deaths, 9/11 was and is a bonanza for the grey suited goons.

  • karmacat

    For a lot of people giving up one’s privacy is too abstract a concept. Giving up concrete objects likes guns, sugar, etc makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Government watching us doesn’t directly affect most people’s lives in concrete ways. People are more afraid of their credit card numbers being stolen. And most people don’t expect to be subject to injustice. People who look “muslim” often know what injustice is like whenever they go to the airport

  • Anneliese

    This year more Americans were killed by toddlers than terrorists.

  • How many people support NSA spying, but throw fits about Bloomberg’s efforts to restrict guns and large, sugary drinks?

  • To be fair, you could argue that the NSA monitoring isn’t a significant restriction on freedom, but the things done about those other problems tend to be.

  • “For crying out loud, Hitler even managed to sell the invasion of Poland as a necessary preemption of an imminent attack on Germany.”

    To be fair, Poland was mobilizing jokes about light bulb changing.

  • Michael Heath

    Lofty writes:

    . . . my first thought was “here comes the end of civil rights as we know it” and I was right.

    Wow, just wow. That’s some dreamworld you live in there; if I was wrong, you and others wouldn’t be reading this. So I suggest toning down the hyperbole and keep your assertions in the context of what’s actually true. Of course that’ll have a significantly negative impact on your perception of your ability to make predictions; but it will better reconcile you with what reasonable people observe regarding those predictions.

    While we are unfortunately seeing a degradation of some our rights due to terrorism, many of our rights are better protected now than they’ve ever been. For example, females who suffer from domestic abuse are now better protected then they were in the 18th century through the mid-20th century. Another is the improved protection of rights towards gays and their families, the rate of that improvement is increasing at increasing rates, and already far faster than what black people suffered and continue to suffer from.

    And our collective ability to exercise our rights of speech, conscience, and association is increasing at a mind-boggling rate since the advent of the Internet. Yes there are threats and areas of loss which demand we remain vigilant and politically active; but we’re winning the ‘just governance’ argument.

  • typecaster

    While I understand the point Friedersdorf is making, I’m gonna have to call bullshit on his math. Last time I looked, 29,573 was just under 10 times 3,000, not 100 times. The latter number is certainly more impressive, but it really isn’t, y’know, correct. We natter the right for playing fast and loose with the numbers, so we really shouldn’t do it ourselves.

  • typecaster

    And 13,290 killed by drunk drivers isn’t 50 times 3,000, either. It’s just over 4 times. I thought that this might refer to some period longer that just the one year of 2001, but the quoted article is quite clear that the only interval under discussion, and the only numbers being compared, are for the year 2001. And the math just doesn’t work out the way he says it does.

  • anthrosciguy

    Conor: “Now let’s take a longer view. We’ll choose an interval that still includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history: 1999 to 2010.

    Again, terrorists killed roughly 3,000 people in the United States. And in that interval…”

    Sometimes, actually reading what the guy wrote before complaining that it wasn’t accurate is a good thing to do. 🙂