Traffic and Terrorism, Apples and Oranges
When times are tough, families try to do anything they can to cut spending and save money. The privileges and treasures that often give us all a much needed break from our hectic lives- like going out to restaurants on the weekends or embarking on a long vacation at a tropical resort- are usually the first things that are sacrificed from the family budget. State governments too are forced to revamp and review their budgetary process when officials are strapped for cash. Educational programs may be eliminated to make way for more spending on social services, or taxes may be added onto specific products (like soda and alcohol) in order to throw more money at a growing deficit problem. Unfortunately, these same actions tend to marginalize and anger the same people that the state is supposed to serve, putting politicians in an uncomfortable and awkward position.
Given the horrible economic situation that the country is experiencing today, and the terrible unemployment rate that is hurting close to ten percent of American families, politics in the United States is all about saving money. But with trillions of dollars in national debt, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an inefficient health care system and a draining social security system, how can the government actually stop spending without harming the national interest or placing even more hardship on the average American?
I’m really not sure what the answer is, which is why I’m still in school rather than campaigning for a seat on the town board, or running for office in Washington. Nevertheless, this doesn’t hamper my understanding on where we shouldn’t cut spending…our national security infrastructure. And we especially shouldn’t do it when one of the mainstream arguments for cutting the U.S. national security budget is misleading…”you have a greater chance of being killed in a car accident or struck by lighting than being a victim of terrorism.”
To be fair, I have to concede that this critique is not necessarily inaccurate. In fact, research and numbers support the claim. According to Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, an average of 40,000 Americans die in car crashes per year, a number that is over ten times that of the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history. This figure becomes even more astounding when officials go on the record and use it as a comparison to terrorism.
It’s called a diversionary tactic, and it’s a clever way of portraying an act of terrorism as so miniscule and rare that Americans would be foolish to worry about it. The fact that the United States hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil since September 11 only adds to the strength of this type of argument.
But how can you compare traffic deaths to terrorism when both are unique problems, with totally different motivations resulting in totally different situations? One is the result of careless driving and/or bad weather (in addition to other factors), while the other is the result of a coordinated and premeditated act of violence aimed to intimidate and instill fear. Using this comparison only focuses on the numbers while ignoring the circumstances and surroundings that make terrorism such a horrendous and psychologically devastating method.
More importantly, using the traffic-to-terrorism metaphor runs the risk of “dumbing down” the whole issue of terrorism and turning back the clock to a pre- 9/11 way of thinking; that somehow the United States is immune to the violence that has plagued so many other countries and killed so many of its citizens.
The United States has not suffered an act of foreign terrorism on its soil since September of 2001 (notice how I say foreign terrorism. Remember Maj. Nidal Hassan?). This is obviously something that we should all be celebrating. Part of this is due to luck, part of this is due to the tremendous talent of our national security officials and our military, and part of this is due to the way terrorists have chosen to operate in today’s global environment (a number of experts believe that Al’Qaeda, for instance, is focusing more of its energies on multiple, small-scale attacks against Americans than a single large and coordinated 9/11-style strike). Whatever the cause of this nine-year terror free reign, our recent successes should not be used as a rationale for slashing our defense and security budget. This is almost akin to shutting down the NYPD just because crime in New York City dropped.
Focusing on hard statistics is deceiving for another reason as well; depending on the specific organization and what they are trying to accomplish, the physical destruction of property and the killing of unarmed civilians could be secondary to the psychological impact of an attack. Look at what happened on Christmas Day when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to take down a passenger jet heading to Detroit. On a technical level, he failed, but judging from Washington’s schizophrenic reaction, his operation could still be considered a success. AQAP (Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) certainly thought it was, and so did Osama bin-Laden, who hailed the Nigerian terrorist “a hero” to his fellow Muslims.
Can you really compare car accidents to terrorist attacks? I guess you can, but it’s really apples to oranges isn’t it? Of course, there is more behind the numbers when we talk about traffic accidents as well, like how a family’s life is affected when a relative’s life is lost. But the same is true for terrorism, except terrorist attacks have a toll on the national psyche that traffic deaths do not.
-Daniel R. DePetris