It’s been noted for years now, by Ohio State professor John Mueller among others, that statistically speaking terrorism just isn’t that big of a threat. Seasonal flu, for instance, is a much bigger killer, as are car accidents, and for years more people were killed by lightning than by terrorism. Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, was the most recent person to make this case, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
The response to Campos’ piece, as the response to all these arguments usually is, is that a risk-aware approach to terrorism is not possible. “This line of argument — that terrorism is statistically harmless compared to lots of other activities — will never work,” Kevin Drum wrote. “For better or worse, it just won’t.” Amanda Marcotte makes a compelling case that it, in fact, might:
1) Don’t be a pants pisser! Conservatives gain a lot of power by playing like they’re Big, Powerful Men. But the problem is that this directly conflicts with panicking over what are relatively marginal threats, no matter what Maureen Dowd says. The statistical arguments can and should be coupled with a cool bravery, of the sort that has sold 90% of action movies since they started making action movies. The hero (and sometimes heroine, finally) stares the scary monster in the eye, shrugs coolly, and dispatches with them without pissing their pants or showing fear. (We’ve been rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” at my house, and I can tell you that the show really took a turn for the better when they started to portray Buffy as cool and invincible at times, like when she blew The Judge up with a bazooka.) Even W. knew that he had to act resolute and unafraid in the days after 9/11. What the Republicans were smart about doing was insisting that everyone else act like panicked children, but I think it’s as appealing, probably more appealing, to act like an intelligent, courageous adult. And the stats can back you up.
The other emotion that we can put into play is shame. Those who panic, especially in light of these damning statistics, are pants-pissing infants, afraid of the dark. Using the statistics, this argument shaming conservatives is very helpful, especially since most of them have a big thing about seeming like big, powerful men (and their stalwart ladies). That they are anything but is a powerful point to make, and we shouldn’t shy away from making it, armed with statistical proof.
2) Airport security is a joke. Right now, the zeitgeist is more about annoyance at security hassles than it is fear of terrorism. After 9/11, that calculation may have been different, but right now, everyone’s sick and tired of the bullshit. The diaper bomber’s failed attempts to start a fire on a plane were meant to hurt Americans not just due to the symbolism of attacking on a cherished holiday, but also to strike fear by maximizing the number of people tied up in security headaches at the airport. My sense is that it did the opposite; it made people even more annoyed at how pointless and silly the whole security theater thing is. The contrast between the very real danger that you would miss a flight because of all the nonsense (and then be stuck in Holiday Traveling Hell) and the very distant, unlikely danger of a dangerous terrorist attack was heightened. Everyone I spoke to about the situation, no matter where they fell on the political spectrum, focused entirely on the silliness of it all. The horror stories were not of terrorism, but of relatives that were nearly prevented from going home after a dog died because of security theater, relatives that were erroneously put on no fly lists because someone with a similar name once called a flight attendant a nasty name, things like that.
I’ll admit to some hesitance about the first option, given as it explicitly plays into unhelpful gender roles, but attacking security theater is both doable and wise. Liberals interested in a common-sense conversation about terrorism would do well to try that line of attack.