What Should We Be Afraid Of?

My last post, “Guns are security blankets not insurance policies,” discussed the irrationality that often 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—less than 30-40 years ago thanks to government regulations of the auto industry—and over a million people around the world die every year in auto accidents. Moreover, 5,000 pedestrians die in traffic accidents each year in America alone. People hop in cars and cross streets 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, 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 with firearms, and more than 21,000 suicides attributed to guns each year. More Americans have died in the last 50 years in the USA due to handguns than have been killed in all the wars America has ever fought!

So if you want to be afraid, look at your fellow Americans, not at mostly imaginary, foreign bogeymen. There is 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! 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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