Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Terrorism Week

I was reading through the latest issue of Time when I found this article that caught my attention: Media Freak-outs: Every Week Is Shark Week.

I love Shark Week. I don't actually watch much, but there is a general buzz around when Shark Week is on, and for the past two years the office played the Shark Week game online called Sharkrunners. So this grabbed my attention. The first line of the article pulled me in even further:

Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) on 30 Rock once sagely declared, "Live every week like it's Shark Week!"

I love Tracy Morgan's wacky humor. So I read on. And it's a good article so you should read it too.

The article goes on to tell the story of the summer of 2001 when a shark attack off the coast of Florida riveted the country to endless news stories of killer sharks, and Larry King even asked, "Are sharks rebelling?" By the end of the summer there were fewer attacks than the previous year.

So why are we so attracted to these sensational stories, and why are we so frightened of something that will never happen to us in a million years (mathematically)?

Ideally, the media should help us place our worries in perspective. But often they encourage the disaster mentality by focusing on the trendy menace--the sleeper cell, the Obama-conspiracy e-mails, the pandemic, the shark--jumping on hot-button distractions and rushing to label every new crisis the worst ever.

You are more likely to die by drowning or from melanoma induced by the beach sun. But that one-in-a-million chance of being done in by a primeval predator from the murky depths--that's the threat with teeth.

As I read this article I was more and more reminded of another article I read. I've been stewing over it the past few days, and now I'm blogging. "Peanuts Kill More Americans Than Terrorists."

That's right, we're obsessed with terrorism. We love terrorism because it frightens us, and it is an exotic threat that is so rare you have a much greater chance of drowning in a swimming pool than by being harmed by a terrorist.

The Cato Institute put out an article in 2004 called A False Sense
of Insecurity?
(which I also recommend reading) explaining how "Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts." (Of course we also freaked out about peanuts too.)

What's so bad about our intense focus on terrorism is we're giving the terrorists exactly what they want, legitimacy.

In the oft-repeated observation of terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, "Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead." ... Frantz Fanon, the 20th century revolutionary, contended that "the aim of terrorism is to terrify." If that is so, terrorists can be defeated simply by not becoming terrified — that is, anything that enhances fear effectively gives in to them.

Terrorists are little people with no voice, and little to no participation in the world's affairs. When they use these tactics and the world changes their focus, changes the way they operate, they have not just hijacked a plane, they've hijacked a whole country. They're altered the discourse, and now they're at the center of policy, instead of in their caves and huts.

And we as a nation took these fears and ran with it. We had discussions about the terrorist's next move, predicting exotic and strange new ways in which terrorists would attack. The head of the Department of Homeland Security told us all to "Be very afraid." And a huge portion of our nation's industrial output is dedicated to defeat these tiny little men with tiny ideas, and tiny strategies.

A suicide vest is a megaphone. The media is a soapbox.

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