What does what we fear say about us?
A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Congressional vote to modify the extent of government snooping authorized by the Patriot Act, Timothy Egan wrote a thought-provoking column for the New York Times in which he compared Americans fear of terrorism to the far more numerous, everyday threats we face:
Some time ago, a friend of mine was hit by a bus in New York, one of almost 5,000 pedestrians killed in traffic every year. I also lost a nephew to gun violence — one of more than 11,000 Americans slain by firearms in this country. And I fell out of a tree that I was trying to prune in my backyard. I was O.K. But the guy next to me in the trauma ward was paralyzed from his fall. He was taking down his Christmas lights.
The column went on to list the odds of other misfortunes: it turns out that being struck dead by lightning, choking on a chicken bone or drowning in the bathtub are all more likely than being killed by a terrorist. Ditto deaths from cancer, diabetes, even the flu.
People who text and drive will get you before that suicide bomber does.
Consider the various threats to life. The sun, for starters. The incidence of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has doubled in the last 30 years. More than 9,000 Americans now die every year from this common cancer. I also lost a friend — 30 years old, father of two — to malignant melanoma.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death, just behind heart disease. Together, they kill more than a million people in this country, followed by respiratory diseases, accidents and strokes. Then comes Alzheimer’s, which kills 84,000 Americans a year. And yet, total federal research money on Alzheimer’s through the National Institutes of Health was $562 million last year.
To put that in perspective, we spent almost 20 times that amount — somewhere around $10 billion — on the National Security Agency, the electronic snoops who monitor everyday phone records. For the rough equivalent of funding a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s, the government has not prevented a single terrorist attack, according to a 2014 report on the telephone-gathering colossus at the N.S.A.
What is it about terrorism that so consumes our imaginations? I’d speculate that it is the random nature of terrorist attacks, but getting hit by a texting driver or coming down with a fatal disease is equally random.
Perhaps it’s tied to our persistent fear of the “other” and our tendency to fear the stranger?