I know what you might be thinking - why would I make pickles when I can just buy them from the store?! Well for one, you will know exactly what is going in these ones - no preservatives in these! Secondly, how cool is it to say to someone ‘would you like a homemade pickle? I made them. From scratch. In my home. Pickles’. Yes, they might start calling you ‘pickle girl’ and avoid you at parties, but I think it’s worth it. Plus (here’s my catchphrase!) they would make awesome gifts, especially for new home owners!
As individuals, Americans are generally good at denying al-Qaeda the pleasure of terrorizing us into submission. Our cities are bustling; our subways are packed every rush hour; there doesn’t seem to be an empty seat on any flight I’m ever on. But as a collective, irrational cowardice is getting the better of our polity. Terrorism isn’t something we’re ceding liberty to fight because the threat is especially dire compared to other dangers of the modern world. All sorts of things kill us in far greater numbers. Rather, like airplane crashes and shark attacks, acts of terror are scarier than most causes of death. The seeming contradictions in how we treat different threats suggest that we aren’t trading civil liberties for security, but a sense of security. We aren’t empowering the national-security state so that we’re safer, but so we feel safer.
Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism. But consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack — by far the biggest in its history — roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S.
Let’s put that in context. That same year in the United States:
- 71,372 died of diabetes.
- 29,573 were killed by guns.
- 13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.
That’s what things looked like at the all-time peak for deaths by terrorism. Now let’s take a longer view. We’ll choose an interval that still includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history: 1999 to 2010.
Again, terrorists killed roughly 3,000 people in the United States. And in that interval,
- roughly 360,000 were killed by guns (actually, the figure the CDC gives is 364,483 — in other words, by rounding, I just elided more gun deaths than there were total terrorism deaths).
- roughly 150,000 were killed in drunk-driving accidents.
I irrationally find terrorism far scarier than the sober incompetents and irresponsible drunks who surround my vehicle every time I take a carefree trip down a Los Angeles freeway. The idea that the government could keep me safe from terrorism is very emotionally appealing.
But intellectually, I know two things:
- America has preserved liberty and privacy in the face of threats far greater than terrorism has so far posed (based on the number of people actually killed in terrorist attacks), and we’ve been better off for it.
- Ceding liberty and privacy to keep myself safe from terrorism doesn’t even guarantee that I’ll be safer! It’s possible that the surveillance state will prove invasive and ineffective. Or that giving the state so much latitude to exercise extreme power in secret will itself threaten my safety.
I understand, as well as anyone, that terrorism is scary. But it’s time to stop reacting to it with our guts, and to start reacting with our brains, not just when we’re deciding to vacation in Washington or New York, but also when we’re making policy together as free citizens. Civil libertarians are not demanding foolish or unreasonable courage when they suggest that the threat of terrorism isn’t so great as to warrant massive spying on innocent Americans and the creation of a permanent database that practically guarantees eventual abuse.
Americans would never welcome a secret surveillance state to reduce diabetes deaths, or gun deaths, or drunk-driving deaths by 3,000 per year. Indeed, Congress regularly votes down far less invasive policies meant to address those problems because they offend our notions of liberty. So what sense does it make to suggest, as Obama does, that “balancing” liberty with safety from terrorism — which killsfar fewerthan 3,000 Americans annually — compels those same invasive methods to be granted, in secret, as long as terrorists are plotting?
That only makes sense if the policy is aimed at lessening not just at wrongful deaths, but also exaggerated fears and emotions. Hence my refusal to go along. Do you know what scares me more than terrorism? A polity that reacts to fear by ceding more autonomy and power to its secret police.