Monday, June 10, 2013

Wolves at the Doors

Conor Friedersdorf takes a little time to tackle the numbers, and concludes that our willingness to cede freedoms, civil liberties and privacy in the War on Terror is wholly irrational. Even in 2001, the absolute peak year for American deaths due to terrorism, nearly ten times the number of people killed by terrorists died due to gun violence in the United States. And that number doesn't get you to half the number of fatalities from diabetes in that same year. And if you take the period from 1999 to 2010, if you round the number of gun deaths to the nearest ten thousand, you drop more deaths than the total deaths due to terrorism in that period. By the time you move down the list to something that kills about as many Americans annually as "peak terror" did in 2001, you're talking about food poisoning.

Mr. Friedersdorf accurately points out that we "would never welcome a secret surveillance state" simply to deal with threats to life and limb such as "the sober incompetents and irresponsible drunks" that we have to contend with every time we get in the car to go somewhere. But terrorism produces "exaggerated fears and emotions." We find terrorism to be much more frightening than the automobile accidents, bathtubs, building fires and lightning strikes that are much more effective killers. While there are exceptions, most of us wouldn't tolerate programs like the NSA's PRISM to deal with street gangs or the mafia. These groups are scary to many people, yet terrorists are even more so.

But I think that there is more at work than just a scariness quotient. Time and again we're told that the secret surveillance state is being put in place to protect us from unsavory non-Americans and their traitorous allies. Americans who kill other Americans for reasons unrelated to violent Islamic extremism may be murderous thugs, but they're our murderous thugs, and as a result simply can't be the same level of existential threat that an angry young Afghan represents.

We, as the collective American public, have more or less given up on the idea of imposing restraints on ourselves/each other in the service of saving lives. Run rights advocates have managed to completely deep-six the very notion of the government even knowing who owns some remarkable deadly weapons, via the threat of effectively mobilizing their supporters to the polls, out of what often seems to be little more than tinfoil-hat paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. But in our terrified rush to control others, we've constructed the tools that would make a dictator's job a walk in the park. And for what?

The notion that the United States, simply by being it's wonderful, freedom-loving self, has somehow earned the enmity of the bad people on planet Earth is comforting, and provides truly effective stroking to our national ego. But that egotism is blinding us to the fact that we're just as capable as anyone else of making grievously bad choices. Our need to see ourselves as better than the world around us, and under threat from those who are not like us, is prompting us to surrender our autonomy and both the right and responsibility to hold our government accountable. History tells us that this hasn't worked out well for society upon society that's embarked on that path. It's doubtful that, exceptional as we see ourselves, that we're special enough to avoid a similar fate. I wonder if we think that we are. Or are we as individuals, not wanting to upset the apple cart, simply betting that the Grim Reaper catches up to us before the corrupting influence of power does?

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