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.
- 29,573 were killed by guns.
- 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.