Afraid of the wrong things…

People in the United States (and perhaps most of the world, I’m not sure) expend a lot of energy on fear. Generally speaking they’re usually afraid of the wrong things. They fear things which are either trivial or unlikely to happen and simultaneously ignore many things that not only may harm them, but will harm them precisely because they pay too little attention to them.

Let’s take terrorism as an example. Most Americans (and now, thanks to bombings in Spain and Britain, probably most Europeans as well) are terrified of terrorism. The subject occupies a primary place in the news on a daily basis. And if you talk to anyone about the subject long enough they’re bound to tell you that they’ve never felt this unsettled and fearful of what the future might bring in their lives.

That’s not a sentiment I agree with at all. I don’t like the prospect of religious fanatics flying planes into buildings or setting off bombs on subway trains. That’s scary stuff. The thing is though, even with the relatively massive scale of the 9/11/01 attacks on New York and Washington these were still relatively petty operations carried out by folks who were generally more lucky (in terms of their success) than good at what they were doing. The reason I’m not wrapped up in fear that myself or someone I love might one day be a victim of one of these events is that I think I understand the scale and the odds and I’ve already been desensitized by spending my entire childhood and adolescence in abject terror of massive nuclear devastation as the result of conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.

Here’s a section from an article by Charles Platt that ran yesterday on Boing Boing that sums up my feelings pretty darned well:

We have given up sitting around wondering what we will do if there’s a four-minute warning of armageddon. Instead, we have been induced to worry about primitive explosives in the hands of semi-literate fanatics who might kill perhaps a few thousand of us in tall buildings or a few dozen of us in public transit systems. Such numbers are utterly trivial compared with the mass annihilation that seemed plausible and imminent during the 1950s and 1960s. They are small even by comparison with highway traffic fatalities, yet the anxiety induced by the possibility of domestic terrorism has become comparable with bygone fears of communism. This makes no sense at all, but fears are seldom rational, especially when they are manipulated by elected representatives who somehow continue to command some trust and respect.

If you are so inclined I highly recommend you read the entire article. If you really want to frighten yourself you can note the section wherein he catalogs the real rationale for the continued popularity of war – it’s a function of old men sending the young men off to die so the old men can have all the young women to themselves.

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