If you were to draw a single conclusion from the past six years, it might very well be this: Fear does not bring out the best in the United States of America.
A paranoid empire is not a pretty sight. When there’s always an imaginary ticking bomb somewhere the perverse ethics of urgency kick in: pre-emptive war, occupation, torture. And having witnessed these depravities, it’s not surprising that “fear” has gotten something of a bad rap, particularly in the progressive circles in which I tend to run. We long for the time when FDR asked us to reject the emotion: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But that’s not really true. The problem isn’t so much fear per se, though it can be debilitating to the health of a democracy. It’s fear of the wrong things.
There are threats out there, to the nation and its citizens; and if those threats are real, relatively likely and preventable, then it seems prudent to do something about it. The problem is that so much of our fear has been misdirected over the last six years, to disastrous effect.
We launched a massively expensive and deadly war to counter weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, while simultaneously underfunding the existing programs to decommission the stockpiles of nuclear fuel that have now spread through the former Soviet republics in largely unguarded facilities. All kinds of paranoid delusions have proliferated in the age of terror–like the day Boston ground to a halt because of a few infantile light-boxes–while deadly but mundane threats like the flu go about their grim work of killing thousands of Americans with almost no notice.
It may seem absurd to try to counter fear with facts, our dark imagination with actuarial computations of risk, but it’s what we do on an individual level all the time. There’s a part of me that feels a plummeting terror every time I sit in a plane taking off, but I can conquer it by clinging to objective knowledge of the remarkable safety record of air travel in the United States. Over the past ten years there have been just over 1,000 fatalities on United States airplanes, out of more than 100 million departures. That’s one fatality for every 100,000 flights, and that includes the deaths on 9/11.
Psychologists have long known that human beings do a fairly poor job of judging risk: We systematically overestimate the likelihood of rare events (plane crashes) and severely underestimate fairly routine hazards (getting nailed by luggage falling from overhead bins–last year, an estimated 4,000 people were injured this way). But whatever our inclinations and evolutionary disposition to misjudge the likelihood of bad things happening, all is not lost. We are able, with a certain degree of effort, to correct and recalibrate our risk assessments so that our broad societal judgments and media coverage more or less correspond to reality and not our dark imaginations.
Take cigarettes. When the medical profession first started raising alarm about cigarettes, there was a concerted effort by the tobacco industry to blow smoke. For a while it worked. But with a huge amount of effort and government involvement (taxes, health warnings, restrictions on advertising), people began to more accurately assess the risk of smoking and adjusted their behavior accordingly. A recent study found that the decline in smoking over the last three decades saved the lives of 146,000 men in the United States between 1991 and 2003. One hundred forty-six thousand.