Just listened to Bruce Schneier’s recent appearance on EconTalk, which left me with two thoughts:

1) I was really delighted to hear Schneier really let Russ Roberts have it for his droning, myopic libertarianism, which even many left-of-center guests are too polite to really hammer him for. Good for Schneier.

2) This exchange, I think, is telling about a different kind of myopia:

Russ: The other side would argue, and I’m not sympathetic to this, but it is possibly true: the other side would say, well, look, it’s true we spend all this money, we’ve implemented these last-war[?] efforts, fighting the last war–the box cutter, the underwear, the liquids, etc. But look how well it’s worked. And the only reason your strategy of acceptance is okay is because it is only a few thousand people over the last decade and a half. If it were every month, then it would be a serious problem. But the reason it’s not every month is because we’ve stopped all these plots along the way. What’s your answer to that?

Schneier: There’s a couple of things. One, car crashes are every month and it’s not a serious problem. So it’s not obvious that it would be a serious problem. It’s possible we as a society would be more accepting, like car crashes, if it happened every month because it would be normal. It would be weird, but that’s possible.

I’m going to go ahead and say it would decidedly not be normal, and that’s a good thing, and that Schneier’s inability to really engage with that is telling about a certain kind of blinkered view of the issues at hand.

It is true that car crashes kill lots of people all the time and terrorism doesn’t. But it is laughable to simply compare them apples-to-apples. There are many good reasons for this. Firstly, people react differently to "danger" as a general category and the subset of danger that is "malicious intent." It’s very different to get in a car knowing there is a risk of a fatal crash and another knowing that someone out there may try to kill you. But (Christine aside) we don’t usually assume that about cars. And we don’t want people to assume that about all kinds of activities because, secondly and very importantly, there are enormous positive externalities to widespread inclinations towards trust of strangers. Certaintly trust of strangers is not always well-advised, and a society inclined as such can run into all kinds of problems (that’s why social engineering works, for example). But on the big broad macro scale a broad ingrained willingness and inclination to trust other people may be the single most important determinant of economic prosperity and civic health. This is what made the large Johnson-to-Clinton crime spike so dangerous to America’s economic and civil order – not just that people individually were being relieved of life and property, but that collectively it discouraged people from engaging in the kinds of activities, everything from neighborhood associations to walking to a store at night, that are the bedrock of a functioning nation.

Terrorism is like this. And just ask any country that really did have that level of persistent terrorist danger, like, I dunno, a certain nebbishy New Jersey-sized Levantine strip between the Mediterraneanand the Jordan. During the Second Intifada a thousand Israelis were killed over half-a-decade in a boggling drumbeat of attacks large and small; comparatively, that would total ~35-40,000 deaths in the United States. Which until very recently was still less than the annual expected deaths by automobile in the United States (and probably way less than in Israel – those people drive like fracking maniacs). But look at how Israel responded! Not very calmly! They lurched rightward politically, bombed the heck out of everyone they could get their planes on, and redoubled their efforts to plant as many facts on the ground across the Green Line as possible. So, like, not "normal" at all.

The myopia here is to view all "life-savery" as created equal and say "well, TSA costs a gajillion dollars and lots of people die in car crashes so that is silly!" But there are really good reasons to prevent terrorist attacks above and beyond the cost in lives lost.

Advertisements