Live at Your Own Risk: Shark-Attack Vigilance vs. Terrorism Hysterics


We're mindful of these predators, not cowed by them. If only we could be so circumspect about terrorists.


"You have a one in 300 million chance of being bitten by a shark," a friend assured me weeks ago. The statistic was unimpressive. Swimming in a Wellfleet pond, you have no chance of being bitten. Swimming in an ocean inhabited by sharks, the odds change, and not in your favor, as the recent attack in the waters off Ballston Beach suggested.

It was predictable. Seals began appearing at Truro's ocean beaches some five to ten years ago. Now we see a few a day, often swimming quite close to shore. Since 1972, they've been protected by federal law, but only from people, not from the great white sharks who've pursued them here. We've seen seal carcasses, as well as seals, along the beach. Shark sightings aren't yet common on the outer Cape, but they're not all that unusual either.

"Swim at your own risk," signs now advise. Regular beachgoers shrug. We have always swum at our own risk on long stretches of the National Seashore unprotected by lifeguards. Still, in years past, before the seals appeared in great number, we didn't worry about sharks. Now ocean swimming is an interesting exercise in risk assessment.

Avoid swimming in the morning and at dusk, the experts tell us; that's when sharks feed. They need, or simply prefer, about 6 feet of water, so swim in shallow water, close to shore. Don't swim with seals.

But in order to follow all this advice, you'd have to stay out of the water. Swim a few feet off shore in 4 feet of water, and you may find yourself uncomfortably close to a seal. Walking into the ocean earlier this week, I nearly encountered one, maybe 6 or 8 feet away.

Still, people venture into the water, joking about sharks, with varying degrees of unease or insouciance. "Watch for sharks," someone said to us, as he entered the ocean yesterday. "What do we do if we see one?" we asked.

Some, no doubt, don't go near the water, but others do, although the chances of a close encounter with a shark may be at least as great or greater than the chances being victimized by a terrorist attack. Watching the swimmers, I wonder if it's easier to tolerate the risk of being eaten or dismembered by a shark. I wish we were collectively as rational or fearless and fatalistic about terrorism.

Maybe people swim with a greater sense of control, assuming -- or hoping, at least -- that they'll spot the shark before it spots them. Terrorists are not so easily identified. So, under the increasingly omnipresent eye of the security state, we are all suspected terrorists now. The risks of being subject to illegal government surveillance, or targeted for engaging in legal protests and deterred from exercising your First Amendment rights, seem much, much greater than the risk of being attacked by a terrorist or a shark.

It's only fair to note that sharks are under government surveillance, too. They're electronically tagged and studied by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Federal officials are also involved. Outer Cape ocean beaches have been federal parks since 1961, when President Kennedy created the National Seashore. (On the one hand, he almost got us all killed, we say, remembering the Cuban missile crisis. On the other hand, he preserved the Seashore.)

The beach at Truro is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior, and so federal park rangers, town officials, and local emergency responders are collaborating on new "shark strategies." They're enhancing communications and response capabilities, developing lifeguard protocols, and distributing "marine animal picture books" for witnesses and lifeguards. "Be vigilant and be safe and informed," is the Truro police department's message to the public.

OK. If we "see something, we'll say something." In the meantime, the beaches are open, and unless or until someone is attacked close to shore, people will continue swimming and boogie boarding, mindful of the sharks perhaps, but not cowed by them, as we're cowed by the thought of terrorists. It makes you question if we treasure our fundamental freedoms as much as we treasure going to the beach.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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