Friday, September 02, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg's Heavy Breathing

Jeffrey Goldberg claims that comparing the numbers of deaths caused by terrorists to deaths by drowning in the bathtub misses the point that the societal impact of deaths caused by terrorists is quite different from the societal impact of deaths by drowning in the bathtub.

And he is, somewhat, correct. Newspapers do not howl about bathtub deaths. Politicians do not insist that we end them; some of them even advocate such things for the government. The TSA cannot use them to justify the indignities they inflict on us. But terrorists, real or imagined, provide fodder for those refrains.

So it could be argued that terrorists are good for the economy, stimulating so many areas of activity. Whoops, no, sorry, let me get back to Goldberg's contentions and try to be serious about such a serious subject.
Deaths caused by terrorism, on the other hand, can have a profound effect on society and the economy. The deaths of ten people in bathtub accidents won't cause people to fear leaving their homes; but imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater. And imagine if it happens more than once. The economic impact could be devastating; the impact on the emotional health of parents and children would be profound. Bathtub deaths are preventable through individual action and self-awareness. The average citizen, on the other hand, is relatively helpless in the face of a car-bombing, mass shooting, or hijacking (yes, the passengers rose up on one of the four airplanes hijacked on September 11th, and they prevented mass death below, but they still died themselves).

And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights. Bathtub deaths have no such ramifications. Terrorism places terrible stress on intergroup relations; bathtub deaths do no such thing. And an effective terrorist, in this age of easy access to chemical and biological agents, could cause death on a scale much larger than 9/11. We will never see a dramatic spike in the number of bathtub drownings, but we could very well see such a spike in terror-caused deaths. Most people intuitively understand the difference between a bathtub's ability to cause mass mayhem, and a terrorist's ability to destablize society.
But all the heavy breathing here is Goldberg's. He neglects to consider that we have a choice in how we react to acts of terror.

The incompetent SUV bomb placed near Times Square has not kept people from that destination. In fact, how many of us barely recall it? We recall the underwear bomber because of the lascivious or painful thoughts he evokes, but we continue to fly on airplanes. It's the TSA that feels it needs to peek into our panties. And maybe Goldberg.

It's that peeking that is damaging "our collective self-conception as an open and free society." So let us "imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater."

There are, in fact, several ways the response can go. The press and politicians can get hysterical and call for panty-screeners at every movie theater and shopping mall, and the TSA, like any growing bureaucracy, will be glad to oblige. The rest of us will avoid shopping malls and movie theaters.

Or we could respond as the Norwegians did to the terrorist deaths of several score of their citizens this summer: with calls to avoid fear and to continue to respect the country's support of human rights. If a politican cared to make himself look small in contrast, citizens could urge him to grow up.

Goldberg is in fact quite wrong about this, and his wrongness contributes to fear:
Bathtub deaths are preventable through individual action and self-awareness. The average citizen, on the other hand, is relatively helpless in the face of a car-bombing, mass shooting, or hijacking
It was average citizens who reported the smoking SUV near Times Square and average citizens who subdued the underpants bomber. Perhaps Goldberg feels powerless in such things, but I can assure him that others of us don't.

It's possible that Goldberg sees the response of uncontrolled fear as being likely from the great unwashed outside of the enlightened capital where he and his peers live (is that what he means by "average citizens"?). But I would suggest that he spend some time among us unwashed. We're looking forward to the day when we don't have to hear heavy breathing like that in his post any more.


helmut said...

"Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11."

That's hilarious.

Goldberg: "I was so afraid of Al-Qaeda that I wet my pants and had to go to the store to buy new ones, but the only store at which I could find something for the "healthy gentleman" was the Armani outlet store where, despite the discount, I paid like $300 for a pair of new pants (black rather than white, this time), which was all I had in my wallet and which meant I didn't have money to buy food for my cat on the way home, which made the cat very angry and I had to chase him around the house because he was shredding the furniture, but when I caught him I had no place to put the screaming cat so I stuck him in the fridge, but when the maid came she thought it was weird but that I wanted cat for dinner, so my cat is now there on the table with an apple in its mouth and I've got a 1958 Chateau Margaux open in front of me, which is a really expensive wine and you can't drink wine like this without a superb meal so I tried the cat and it was surprisingly delicious and I developed a real taste for cat so I went on a tour to North Korea because I had heard they sometimes make cat but I learned too late that cat-eating is illegal there, so here I sit in a North Korean prison convicted of soliciting cat meat from someone I met on the street who only sold me his farm daughter, yet here I am having scratched out on the prison cell wall (my fingernails are all bloody) a children's book about loving cats that no publisher has yet accepted, which makes me really sad that we live in a world in which cat books are difficult to sell, which must be because children today are addicted to video games about stealing cars (bad) and shooting people (okay), games I've often thought about playing but which my maladroit thumbs rendered impossible, so I took up writing about all the various threats to the existence of Israel, which I'm now prevented from communicating to the public by these four North Korean cell walls. Therefore,... Al Qaeda is attacking my freedom of speech and attempting to weaken the defenses of the state of Israel."

helmut said...

Um, okayyyy.

Cheryl Rofer said...

The fear thing is kind of interesting, but also kind of weird. Andrew Sullivan was also afraid. He and Goldberg were on the East Coast, I will admit, and I was three-quarters of a continent away, but I don't recall anything like this paralyzing fear.

My neighbor was frightened, but both of us were more concerned about practicalities, like whether she should go pick her kids up from school right away or wait to hear from the school.

And, after that first morning, what fear I may have had subsided rather quickly.

But, as I say, I recognized that I wasn't a high-priority target.