It is undoubtedly true that Americans are far more likely to die from “bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer” than terrorism, but so what? ... This statistical argument implicitly equates deaths from bee stings, lightning or close encounters with marauding deer with deaths from terrorism.They should be equated. It doesn’t make sense to spend a billion dollars to prevent one death by terrorism if the same billion dollars could prevent ten or a hundred deaths by other causes. Death is death. It can be sensible to give different treatment to deaths by different causes, but only if there’s some reason to think one cause of death is more easily deterred than another. More on that later.
But, a moment’s reflection should be more than sufficient to show why this is fallacious.Yup, it’s true: we react differently to terrorism than to other threats. But is the different reaction justified? Ervin is begging the question here. Mueller and others have argued persuasively that we have overreacted to terrorism. Pointing to evidence of the overreaction only strengthens the point.
First of all, tragic as it may be, we instinctively feel less bad about someone’s dying from a bee sting than about someone’s dying from a terror attack. Why? Well, a bee sting is an act of nature, not an act of man. A bee, presumably anyway, does not intend to cause the death of whomever he stings. A bee does not, presumably, have an “agenda” when he stings someone. There is no intention to affect public policy, and no intention to terrorize or otherwise discomfort anyone other than the person stung. These distinctions account for why, though every single day, significantly more people die from car accidents or cancer than terrorism, any deaths any day from another terror attack here at home would surely engender bold face, round-the-clock headline news coverage, while a greater number of deaths on that day by car accidents, bee stings, or cancer would not.
Ervin’s right that intentions matter. We instinctively get angrier at a murderer than at a killer bee. But when does it make sense to indulge our instincts? A hypothetical: If you had to choose between (a) stopping a single murder in progress and (b) moving a station wagon full of children out of the path of a falling tree, which would you choose? The only sensible reason to choose the former would be that allowing the murder would encourage more murders, by this villain or others. So the justification of our instinct to treat intentional deaths differently is that intentional deaths are often more easily deterred, because a person can choose not to kill while a killer bee cannot. But when that ceases to be the case – when our prevention efforts generate severely diminishing returns – it’s time for us to let reason trump our instincts.
Furthermore, though we tend to take such deaths in stride, we still do everything we reasonably can to minimize deaths from car accidents (mandatory speed limits, seat belts, air bags, and kiddie car seats, for example), bee stings (sensible people don’t stick their heads or hands in bee hives!) and cancer (the FDA warning on cigarette packs, the ban on smoking in public places, the anti-smoking advertising campaign on TV, etc.). If we do everything we reasonably can to prevent deaths that, in the scheme of things, are far more natural and ordinary, shouldn’t we do everything we reasonably can do to prevent deaths by the unnatural and extraordinary means of terrorism?“Reasonable” is too vague a term. We certainly don’t do everything conceivable to prevent bee stings, drownings, cancer, etc. There’s always more we could do, but some efforts aren’t worth it. A better rule is to do everything cost-effective to prevent deaths. That means asking hard questions about the both the severity of the problem and the costliness of prevention. These are just the kind of calculations that fear-mongering discourages.
Second, the statistical argument misses the fact that, though the chances of a terrorist attack are, indeed, relatively small, the consequences are larger than they would be if the same number of people were killed in some natural way or by means of “garden variety” murder. The economic toll of 9/11 numbered in the billions. The psychic toll was incalculable. As Mueller points out, the impact on civil rights and civil liberties, which he rightly values highly, has likewise been huge.This isn’t just begging the question; it could be a textbook illustration of the fallacy. The economic toll of 9/11 was in the billions of dollars in large part because of our reaction to it. And the impact on our civil liberties was entirely because of our reaction to it. Remember, the whole question in this debate is whether we should continue to sacrifice money and freedom to the cause of preventing terrorism – so it’s circular reasoning of the highest order to use those very sacrifices as justification for doing more.
And, by showing that the world’s lone superpower can be brought low by 19 guys armed with box cutters, the success of the 9/11 plot can be said to have imperiled our national security by emboldening individual terrorists and nation states who previously regarded us as all but invulnerable.I’m not sure the terrorists ever thought we were invulnerable. But if they did, then America was benefiting from an illusion; we were never invulnerable, we only appeared to be. Now the genie’s out of the bottle. Actual invulnerability is not an option and never was. Sensible policy now requires weighing benefits and costs of enforcement at the margin. The first step in that process is putting the real magnitude of terrorist threats in perspective.