What Should We Be Afraid Of?

May 26, 2002

by John K. Bates

Walter Shapiro in USA Today on May 15 (“We’re so complacent, it’s almost scary”) scolded Americans for being too complacent concerning the ongoing war on terror. Specifically, Mr. Shapiro condemns both the “American credo” that bad things generally do not happen here and also the view (expressed here and elsewhere) that September 11 was an “isolated day of infamy.” Even though - or perhaps especially because - no further terror attacks have happened in eight months, we are supposed to remain in some sort of a “permanent state of alert” in order to deal with what we are told is a permanent terror threat.

As proof of our non-serious ways, Shapiro cites two separate poll questions, from a poll conducted by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics. The first question finds 76% of Americans believing that the nation is either likely or somewhat likely to endure a catastrophic terror attack in the near future. The second question, however, shows that 65% of those same Americans are little concerned about the threat against their own person or family. Shapiro thinks this is contradictory, a case of “it can happen but not to me” attitude that in general permeates American society.

Looking back upon the last week or so, one has to wonder if Mr. Shapiro had advance notice of the then-upcoming Bush administration fear campaign. Starting last Sunday and continuing through Tuesday at least, there was a daily procession of senior-level Bush staffers on TV and elsewhere parroting Shapiro and telling Americans that the threat to this nation is ongoing and dire. Indeed, if we put them all together, we are at risk from a large attack (Dick Cheney), a nuclear attack (Donald Rumsfeld), as well as small attacks like the kind prevalent in Israel for the last year (FBI Director Robert Mueller). It seems that our leaders believe that disaster lurks round every corner and that we ought to think twice before venturing out into this new, dangerous world.

Mercy. Perhaps someone should ask Mr. Shapiro - and Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and Robert Mueller and Donald Rumsfeld and even George W. Bush - to take a reality check. For if they did, they would quickly discover that Americans instinctively are much more intelligent than they give them credit for.

The first thing they need to remember is that September 11 was not a new event. We must never forget that in 1993 Muslim fanatics tried to blow up the same World Trade Center, and indeed were so confident of success that they rented an apartment across the Hudson River in order to watch the towers fall. Had they been successful, the towers would have collapsed then with a much larger loss of life, and the “war on terror” would have begun eight years earlier. September 11 likely still would have happened, but with different targets. The point here is that these attacks occurred eight years - not eight months - apart. It takes terror, especially the sophisticated, coordinated terror of both WTC attacks, time to organize itself. To insist that we live in fear of a daily, ongoing campaign of terror such that is happening in Israel promotes nothing but apprehension and acceptance of a security state. The threat is surely there, but it has been there for many years. It is simply too infrequent a threat to matter to most Americans.

Just how large is the threat? Most Americans would flatly deny making the following analysis, but they surely do it subconsciously. Consider the actual risk of “another September 11.” On that fateful day, approximately 3,700 Americans lost their lives. This is out of 280 million or so Americans, a percentage of .0013, or slightly greater than 1 in 100,000. Presuming one attack per year (as opposed to the one per eight years, which is the rate of Al Qaeda attacks in this country) the odds drop to 0.0000036 percent. In other words, on any given day, there is less than a 4 in 100 million chance of being killed by a terrorist. Compare this to the normal, accepted risks of American life, such as driving, eating (choking to death on food kills many more Americans than terror) or even crossing the street. The fact is, despite the risks, Americans do plenty of dangerous activities because they have decided somewhere along the line that the risk of those activities is worth what they will gain from participating in them. The reason Americans - while acknowledging the threat of terror - refuse to cower in the face of it is that they have decided in their hearts the risk is too small to worry about.

So why the fear campaign, and why the tut-tutting from elitists like Mr. Shapiro? This writer believes it may a distraction away from the supposed pre-September-11 intelligence bungling the Bushies found themselves enmeshed in last week. But even if that decidedly cynical viewpoint is utterly false, there are other disturbing reasons why this may be so. The first is the old liberal standby - dependency. A fearful populace is more apt to be dependent on the government to take care of them. In some ways the fear promoted during this time - especially by those on the left and in the media - is no different than the usual “welfare/environment/old age” fear the left always peddles. You cannot exist without our help, let us save you is this mantra. Nothing new under that sun.

The other take is much more ominous, especially coming from those who have told us they are the champions of freedom. The basic premise of the fear tactics used by Cheney et al in the past week or so is that we are in severe danger and therefore we must take severe measures. Think about it. If we really are at risk of daily “personal” bombings as the director of the FBI has claimed, the only plausible defense (other than arming the general populace, a good idea that will not see the light of day) is drastically increased government supervision of our lives. There is no other way to defend against so pervasive an enemy. And while the threat of a nuclear device is less pervasive, the resources needed to counter such a terrifying threat are no less massive. Hence, what the administration really seems to be doing is making a continuing case for great expansion of government, both in size and in power. And the only way to effectively do this is to continue to generate fear and crisis, week after week, month after month, and probably year after year.

Unfortunately, these terror alerts are a fact of life and there appears to be no end to them anytime soon. Only over time is there a chance that they will cease. By that time, the government is likely to be such a part of our everyday life that it may be too difficult to extricate it from that life. And that is a far scarier thought than all the terror warnings put forth to date.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on CheyenneNetwork.com.

Send the author an E mail at Bates@ConservativeTruth.org.

For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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