Dear Mr. President,
"We refuse to live in fear," you declared in your October 7th address from the Oval Office. If only it were so.
An hour before your address, I was screened into my local airport's sleepy concourse (with but four small flights yet to depart) by nineteen bored security personnel. Cars entering the parking lot, though buffered from the single story airport by two streets, underwent inspection (though not at more vulnerable venues across America, such as ferries and underground parking lots). With 9/11's four crashed airliners still vividly in mind, and with threats of more terror to come, our airlines have been flying into the red. Understandably, Mr. President, we are living in fear.
Terrorists may indeed strike again, though our preoccupation with airline terror likely underestimates their creativity. Already in the aftermath of 9/11 the terrorists have continued killing us, in ways unnoticed. In the ensuing months, Americans flew 20 percent less. "No way are we flying to Disneyland for vacation!" Instead, we drove many of those miles, which surely caused more additional highway deaths than occurred on those four ill-fated flights.
Consider: The National Safety Council reports that in the last half of the 1990s Americans were, mile for mile, 37 times more likely to die in a vehicle crash than on a commercial flight. When I fly to Washington for our meetings, the most dangerous part of my journey is my drive to the Grand Rapids airport.
Terrorists, perish the thought, could have taken down 50 more planes with 60 passengers each in 2001 and—had we kept flying (speaking hypothetically)—we would still have finished 2001 safer in planes than on the road. Flying may be scary (531 people died on U.S. scheduled airlines in 2001). But driving the same distance should be many times scarier.
Why do we intuitively fear the wrong things? Why do so many smokers (whose habit shortens their lives, on average, by about five years) fret before flying (which, averaged across people, shortens life by one day)? Why do we fear violent crime more than clogged arteries? Why do we fear terrorism more than accidents—which kill nearly as many per week in just the United States as did worldwide terrorism in all of the 1990s. Even with the horrific scale of 9/11, more Americans in 2001 died of food poisoning (which scares few) than terrorism (which scares many).
To understand why we live in fear, Mr. President, and how you might lead us to think more rationally, consider four influences on our intuitions about risk (as identified by psychological science).
• First, we fear what our ancestral history has prepared us to fear—which includes confinement and heights, and therefore flying.
• Second, we fear what we cannot control. Driving we control, flying we do not. "We are loathe to let others do unto us what we happily do to ourselves," noted risk analyst Chauncey Starr.
• Third, we fear what is immediate. Teens are indifferent to smoking's toxicity because they live more for the present than the distant future. Likewise, the dangers of driving are diffused across many moments to come, each trivially dangerous.
• Fourth, we fear what is most readily available in memory. Horrific images of United Flight 175 slicing into the World Trade Center, form indelible memories. And availability in memory provides our intuitive rule for judging risks. Thousands of safe car trips (for those who have survived to read this) have largely extinguished our anxieties about driving. A thousand massively publicized anthrax victims would similarly rivet our attention more than yet another 20,000+ annual U.S. influenza fatalities, or another 30,000+ annual gun deaths.
Some things we should fear more, Mr. President, and you can use your bully pulpit to help us fear the right things. We fear too little those threats that will claim lives undramatically, one by one (rather than in bunches). Smoking kills 400,000 Americans a year, yet we subsidize tobacco growers. Although killing many fewer, terrorists cause more terror. Never again, we vow. And so will spend tens of billions to save future thousands, yet are reluctant to spend a few billion to save millions.
A 2002 report by Deloitte Consulting and Aviation Week projected that the United States would spend between $93 and $138 billion during 2003 to deter potential terrorism. Alternatively, $1.5 billion a year would be the U.S. share of a global effort to cut world hunger in half by 2015, according to a 2001 study done for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ten billion dollars a year would spare 29 million world citizens from developing AIDS by 2010, according to a joint report by representatives of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and others. And a few tens of billions spent converting cars to hybrid engines and constructing renewable energy sources could help avert the anticipated future catastrophe of global warming and associated surging seas and extreme weather.
While agonizing over missed signals of the 9/11 horror, are we missing the clearer indications of greater horrors to come? "Osama bin Laden can't destroy Western civilization," observed Paul Krugman (dare I quote him). "Carbon dioxide can."
The moral: It is perfectly normal to fear purposeful violence from those who hate us. When Saddam commits more evil, or when terrorists strike again (likely where unexpected), we will all recoil in horror. But smart thinkers will also want to check their intuitive fears against the facts. To be prudent is to be mindful of the realities of how humans die. By so doing, we can take away the terrorists' most omnipresent weapon: exaggerated fear. If our fears cause us to live and spend in ways that fail to avert tomorrow's biggest dangers, then we surely do have something to fear from fear itself.
David G. Myers
John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology
Author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, and The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty