The U.S. should certainly try to prevent terrorist attacks, and there is a lot that government can and has done since 9/11 to improve security in ways that are totally unobjectionable. But it is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute. In 2011*, 32,367 Americans died in traffic fatalities. Terrorism killed
17 U.S. civilians that year. How many Americans feared
dying in their vehicles more than dying in a terrorist attack?
Certainly not me! 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 kills far fewer than 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.
* Said Ronald Bailey in a piece published in September of 2011, "a rough calculation suggests
that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a
terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk
of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a
bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000;
or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in
the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by
lightning than killed by a terrorist."
** Everything in this article would be just as true if I published it and you read it the day after the Boston bombing -- but it sure would feel
less true, wouldn't it? That's why, if there's a terrorist attack today
or tomorrow, it would be foolish for us to react based on our feeling
at that moment.