10 July 2005

Nothing to panic about except panic itself

Terrorism works not so much by directly killing people, but by causing the target population to freak out. Mark A. R. Kleiman makes the point quite nicely.

.... the tendency of the U.S. media to whip up as much hysteria as possible, and the strong response that tendency finds within the public, does not serve us well, because hysteria magnifies the impact of any terrorist action when our interest is in minimizing that impact. (The greatest triumph of the Iranian hostage-takers in 1979 was ABC's decision to make the embassy takeover a running story under the tagline “America Held Hostage.”)

Cold-hearted as it sounds to say it with the rubble still smoking, if the London and Madrid attacks represent terrorists' best shot at Western capitals, it isn't really very impressive. Fewer than fifty dead in London, a year after fewer than two hundred dead in Madrid, is pretty good as mass murder but underwhelming as warfare.

Should we spare no effort to hunt down the killers and those who organized and financed them? Absolutely! But turn ourselves upside down, in a — probably vain — attempt to thwart the next attack? I don't think so.

More people will die in drunk-driving accidents in England this week than the bombers killed this morning.

Likewise, we could have a 9/11 every month and lose more Americans to automobile accidents every year. You probably don't know anyone killed on 9/11, but you certainly know at least one person who was killed or severely injured in a car accident. We haven't given up cars; we recognize that accidental deaths are an unhappy fact of life, we work hard to minimize them, and we live our lives. This is what John Kerry was talking about, back in the campaign, when he said that we should reduce terrorism to being a "nuisance."

As I've pointed out before, Americans' freaked-out-ness about terrorism is most often inversely proportional to the directness of their contact with it. New Yorkers, who saw 9/11 with their own eyes, are very matter-of-fact about it, and unimpressed by blather about the War on Terror. Likewise, urban technocrats like me, who are likely to know New Yorkers who had their lives disrupted ... who probably don't know anyone who was killed, but who probably have spoken at least a few times with someone who does ... and who have read big thick books about guys like Sayyid Qutb .... are the Blue Americans who are similarly skeptical of the current administration's constant beating of the terrorism drum. It's rural people who are most removed from New York and DC who are most exercised about terrorism.

Is it because all they know about it is what they see on TV?

1 comment:

Reya Mellicker said...

Hey Miniver, not all New Yorkers or we citizens of the District are "matter of fact" about 9/11. My friends in NYC who walked home to Brooklyn that day, for instance, are still ragged around the edges, though it's harder to notice since they're so stylishly dressed. Someone I know who catalogued body parts for almost two years is still seeing her therapist three times a week. My client - her father died at the Pentagon, her fiancee in NYC - will never ben matter of fact again.

As for us in DC, we get triggered but you can't tell because we're so self-repressed. But don't imagine we're calmly walking through our days in these cities, not all of us anyway.