Why is a terrorist scarier than swine flu? by mattsteinglass
January 10, 2010, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Terrorism

Like Paul Campos, I didn’t think Kevin Drum’s response to, um, Paul Campos was very apt. Drum wrote:

The panic caused by the underwear bomber wasn’t so much over the prospect of a planeload of casualties, it was over the reminder that al-Qaeda is still out there and still eager to expand its reach and kill thousands if we ever decide to let our guard down a little bit.

So even if you agree with Campos, as I do, that overreaction to al-Qaeda’s efforts is dumb and counterproductive, it’s perfectly reasonable to be more afraid of a highly motivated group with malign ideology and murderous intent than of things like traffic accidents or hurricanes.

Why is that reasonable? Is it because if we let our guard down, Al-Qaeda will try to murder more and more of us? But if we let down our guard against all sorts of other threats, they, too, would result in more and more deaths. Non-intentional agents of destruction like avian and swine flu, in fact, will probably kill vastly more Americans than Al-Qaeda is capable of, if we let our guards down. But Barack Obama’s presidency isn’t going to be at risk if he’s perceived as not being utterly gung-ho in the war on swine flu, and indeed if he diverted major resources from Afghanistan to enhancing our flu-vaccine capabilities most people would probably (wrongly) think he was crazy.

For that matter it’s not even clear that Al-Qaeda would murder more Americans if we “let our guard down,” not for all values of the word “guard”. Increased scrutiny of people from Nigeria at airports may in fact inspire more Nigerians to try to kill Americans than it prevents from doing so. And to the extent that Al-Qaeda’s goals include getting Nigerians more pissed off at America, our increased scrutiny may lead Al-Qaeda to conclude that trying to kill Americans on planes remains its most promising strategy, leading to more attempts to bomb airplanes.

The reason we freak out more about Al-Qaeda than about traffic accidents is that Al-Qaeda is made up of humans, and enemy humans inspire hatred, while threatening natural phenomena merely inspire fear. Humans are biased towards responding to human-directed threats because human-directed threats are part of the contest for power within and among human polities. Ultimately, contests for power, particularly between males, result in greater evolutionary fitness. This is why when you see a guy coming at you with a baseball bat you have a fight-or-flight response, whereas when you see a boulder coming at you, you just have a flight response. But in the case of Al-Qaeda this response is misplaced. We’re not engaged in a dominance contest where we have to show how tough we are or risk having our women taken away. We’re dealing with people trying to stage provocations. The fact that Americans keep responding as if this is a dominance contest is exactly what AQ counts on to pursue its strategy, which was Campos’s point.


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“one of the greatest medicine scandals of the Century”

Comment by David Granovsky

Hey, I agree 100%

I suspect that if we started calling Al Qaeda “The Sith” and Osama “Darth Sidious”, a lot more people would ‘get it’.

Comment by johnbr

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