In almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists anywhere in the world is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.
John Mueller, ‘A False Sense of Insecurity?’
Via WorldChanging.com, I just read this report (PDF) by John Mueller, just published by the “market libertarian” thinktank, The Cato Institute. The fact that it’s basically saying the same thing about our collective over-estimation of the “terrorist threat” as Michael Moore and Adam Curtis reveals how right/left political distinctions are often hazy, shows that people can acknowledge important common ground, and gives me a little hope.
Whether more people will pay attention just because someone who also thinks the free market is the bee’s knees is saying it, is another matter.
The report makes use of statistics such as that quoted above to highlight to trivial overall threat posed by terrorism. It may be the case—given that the Cato Institute “holds regular briefings on global warming with known ‘climate skeptics’ as panelists”—that Mueller thinks there’s nothing that warrants the level of concern we invest in this threat. However, in his post about the report, Alex Steffen makes the obvious point that our society’s lack of sustainability threatens all that is claimed for terrorism: the end of our “way of life”, high death tolls, political instability, etc. It seems to be an obvious large-scale irrational diversionary tactic, conscious or unconscious. Rather than face real threats, fantasy threats are obsessed over to the point of paralysis in facing reality.
Why did I call this post “Drugs and terrorism”? To be crassly sensationalist, of course. Still, it was interesting to read in Mueller’s report that “risk analyst Paul Slovic points out that people tend greatly to overestimate the chances of dramatic or sensational causes of death”. The classic comparison, used extensively by Mueller, is car deaths: 3 million in America in the 20th century, and no one mourns. Mueller refers to transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, from the University of Michigan, who analyzed “how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile.” The result? “There would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out.”
This strongly reminds me of the “drug war”. Between 1997 and 2001, how many died from alcohol and tobacco in England and Wales? Up to three-quarters of a million. Cocaine, speed and ecstasy combined? 857. Opiates? 5,188. No prizes for guessing the gruesome toll from cannabis, mushrooms and acid: zero.
All this seems to show—via truly, truly dispiriting distortions in our society—how powerful and unavoidable the imagination is. Has the gradual sidelining of imaginative activity in our culture pushed it down, and out, into places where it probably shouldn’t play too prominent a role, like national security and national health policy?
I recently spent some time looking into the single recent “mushroom death”. In 2005 a man in Manchester ate some mushrooms and—wait for it—leaped to his death out of his 23rd floor flat. Never mind that he had been out on the town drinking heavily as well—the story fed straight into the debate about the legal status of mushrooms.
The idea of someone getting really drunk and getting run over, or crashing their car—it doesn’t seem to bother people, even though it happens many times, every day. Yet the idea of taking mushrooms and being confused enough to jump out a window scares the shit out of people. There is the element of mushrooms generally being an unknown experience for most people, and hence surrounded by fear; but I’m not sure this explains it. Neither does the fact that they’re illegal, with all the fear that entails for many “normal” people (the mushrooms were legal when that guy died). I wonder if it’s people’s involuntary imaginations at work. Somewhere they are aware that the effects of mushrooms make you more aware, too aware sometimes. People involuntarily place themselves in the mind of the deceased, and find a painful consciousness of death (never mind what the deceased actually experienced—I’m speculating about the imaginations of the living here). This would also explain the relative lack of fear and hysteria in the face of alcohol deaths. Aside from “being used to them”, we know at the back of our minds that being pissed probably blunts the violence of death a little.
People not only “overestimate the chances of dramatic or sensational causes of death”, we respond to them differently when they happen. We’re unnerved by our conscious or unconscious imaginative participation in the death. Part of this is probably natural; but I wonder how much it’s exacerbated by our generally undramatic, numbed day-to-day lives.
As Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories said, “I don’t think people get many visceral experiences these days. Humans are made to have extreme experiences. They are landmarks in your life.” Cast adrift without these landmarks, their spectre looms for us in their most extreme, fearful form. They become barely imaginable; but imaginable enough to drive us collectively mad with fear.