What Should We Be Afraid Of?

My last post, “Guns are security blankets not insurance policies,” discussed the irrationality that motivates people to possess firearms. This post tries to partly explain why fear in general is such a powerful motivator.

There is a lot to say about why fear motivates us, but the explanation is no doubt neurophysiological, relating to the amygdala, the sympathetic nervous system, and other elements of the reptilian and paleomammalian parts of the human brain. This physiology combined with a cultural environment which exaggerates risks—the firearms industry, the military industrial complex, certain news organizations, etc.—creates a situation in which people constantly misconstrue risks.

Consider that about 32,000 Americans die every year on America’s roads in motor vehicle accidents—many less than 30-40 years ago thanks to government regulations of the auto industry—and well over a million people around the world die every year in auto accidents. Moreover, 5,000 pedestrians a year die in traffic accidents each year in America alone. Yet people hop in cars and cross the street everyday without fear—yet we don’t go to war against cars!

Now think about the time Americans spend worrying about being killed by terrorists and the amount of money spent on wars and security to defeat it. Is being killed by a terrorist (whatever that means) something to really be afraid of? No, for as Timothy Egan put it in his recent New York Times op-ed, “What to be Afraid Of,”

You are much more likely to be struck dead by lightning, choke on a chicken bone or drown in the bathtub than be killed by a terrorist. Any number of well-known diseases—cancer, diabetes, the flu—take the lives of far, far more people. Yet, by one estimate, the United States spends $500 million per victim of terrorism, and a piddling $10,000 per cancer death.

Consider that cancer and heart disease kill more than a million Americans each year and that only a handful of Americans die each year as a result of terrorism. In 2011 the US State Department reported 17 US non-combatants killed as a result of terrorism. (To put this in perspective about 50 people are killed annually in the US by lightning.) In fact your chances as a US citizen of being killed by a terrorist are vanishingly small compared to other risks. Yet the US spends 50,000 times as much per victim on death from terrorists as deaths from cancer.

And this is not even to mention that over 16,000 Americans are murdered each year in their own country, more than 11,000 of those by firearms.  If you do want to be afraid, look around you at your fellow Americans, not mostly imaginary, foreign bogeymen. There is so much more to be said about all this, but we’ll let Egan have the last words:

So what should you be afraid of? Are you sitting down? Get up—you shouldn’t be. Sitting for more than three hours a day can shave life expectancy by two years, through increased risk of heart disease or Type 2 diabetes …

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