Monday, January 30, 2017

The Monster You Expect

There is no point in expecting our political system to understand, and attempt to remedy, the "real" issues that affect our lives. Mainly because "real" is, in this case a subjective term. I may determine that something is a real issue while someone else determines otherwise. The issues that our political system is going put the work into understanding and remedying are those issues that we threaten punishment for not addressing, or that we respond with applause when they are dealt with.

This occurs to me in the context of the executive order from late last week that halted refugees and nationals of seven Middle-Eastern nations from entering the United States. The rationale for this maneuver was that it would "keep us safe." I'm going to examine that for a moment, and I'm going to leave aside my own understanding of what a "safe" life would look like.

“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever. You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”
Donald Trump
So what, one wonders, does now-President Trump plan to do about this? Because making a dent in have people being shot at as they're walking down the street would likely do a lot to "keep us safe." Because, pretty much no matter how you slice it, if you're going to be shot, stabbed or assaulted by someone, that someone is far more likely to be a fellow American that they are a refugee, or even an illegal migrant. After all, citizens have numbers on their side. And this is the issue with Chicago. Chicago does not have the highest murder rate in the nation. It simply has a fairly high murder rate and a very large population relative to other places. And even a small percentage of 3+ million people can generate from rather large numbers.

One can make the point that fixing the murder problem in the United States is going to have to be a long-term project. Keeping potentially dangerous people out of the country is something that can be done now. And in the end, that's the basic issue.

Terrorism is rare, at least for us here in the United States. There are places where it's a much more common occurrence than it is here. And to a degree, that's what makes it so frightening. For the person who is afraid of "inner city" violence in Chicago, there's a fairly simple solution. Don't go to Chicago - or at least stay away from the places where everyone is uneducated, unemployed and violent. (Actually, that's a very simple solution - in all of the times I've been in Chicago, either as a resident or a visitor, I never managed to end up in one of those places.) But terrorism seems more dangerous because it feels less contained. Who knows where the next radicalized jihadi might strike? Maybe the local mall. Maybe your child's school. Maybe the nearest coffee shop. It's this understanding that the danger is, potentially, literally everywhere that drives the fear of terrorism in the United States, and leads to a focus on that as the thing that stands between Americans and safety. Because that's what stands between Americans and a feeling of safety.

Safety is one of those things that isn't tightly linked to its perception.You can be perfectly safe and yet feel as though you are in grave danger, or be in grave danger while feeling perfectly safe. Because of this, the perceptions of danger and safety are just as, if not more, important than the actual situation. But more importantly, they're the only things that can be seen to shift. For a person who is, for whatever reason, unable to accurately gauge their relative safety or danger, actions (or inaction) that materially alter their levels of safety or danger may go unnoticed, or possibly be misinterpreted. On the other hand, materially altering their feeling of safety or danger directly has an effect, even if the underlying reality hasn't changed a bit.

I tend to characterize common criminality inflicted on Americans, by Americans, as a "more real" issue than terrorism for the simple fact that it does in more people every year. It's entirely possible that attacks on people by other members of their own families or their romantic partners kill as many people in the Unites States annually as the destruction of the World Trade Center did. (This conclusion, however, is based on the idea that unsolved murder cases are just as likely to be family members as ones where the relationship between the target and the perpetrator is known.)  But it seems to me that there is little political capital to be gained in tackling the issue, especially given the steps that would likely be needed to make it work. And this is because for most of us, the chances of being attacked and murdered by a family member are small enough that it's a newsworthy curiosity, rather than an actual threat, even for many people who have lost relatives to domestic violence. And that's because in our perceptions, it's less real.

This isn't a situation that we're ever really going to be able to solve until we have a government of benevolent technocrats with high social skills; taking care of the most pressing actual threats to life and limb while leaving to public to fret about the latest panic would be a test for any government. But we can be aware of it in ourselves. And maybe ask ourselves why, given all of the people who have died. we haven't gotten around to putting more effective resources towards the problem.

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