Sunday, February 19, 2006

Fear Itself 

Benjamin Franklin famously upbraided "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety" -- a group upon which certain of our contemporary sages have bestowed the considerably punchier soubriquet of "Whiny-Ass Titty Babies." Whatever you choose to call them, they are the natural audience for the trio of articles published in this morning's S.F. Chronicle under the umbrella title "The War on Hype":

1.) "The Deadly Terror Lurking around the Corner May Not Be Such a Big, Ominous Threat After All":
Avian flu, for example. We are cautioned that a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, is only months away. One World Health Organization estimate says 2 million to 7 million people will die in the next pandemic. But it is not 1918. The WHO reports that since 2003, there have been 152 cases of avian flu, resulting in 83 deaths. A flu pandemic has been regularly predicted since 1997 and (knock on wood) it has never arrived.

Or cyber terror. In 1995, the first in a long series of warnings of an "electronic Pearl Harbor" was made. Although terrorists have launched many attacks since 1995, none has involved cyber terror . . . .

Dirty bombs -- conventional explosives mixed with radioactive material -- present another example of overreaction . . . . [T]he Nuclear Regulatory Commission says a dirty bomb would contaminate "up to several city blocks." The commission's advice, if one goes off, is to walk away and take a shower. Two decades ago we feared that hundreds of powerful Soviet nuclear weapons delivered simultaneously across the continent would kill hundreds of thousands, create economic collapse and deal a fatal blow to our way of life, but now we are told it can be done with a single small explosion. All of these dire prognostications remain unfulfilled . . . .
There are important differences between experts and terrorists. Experts imagine exotic attack scenarios. Terrorists are conservative. They prefer guns and bombs.

Osama bin Laden and his accomplices are sophisticated planners. They know that bombs work and that in civilian settings bombs cause terror. One of bin Laden's videos promises to repeat in America the London and Madrid bombings.

Attacks using exotic, untried weapons are more likely to be detected, more difficult to carry out and may not even work.

Our enemies in Iraq are innovators, creating new and deadly bombs every month, but there is yet to be a casualty from a dirty bomb, cyber, or bio attack. Terrorists have researched bioweapons and rejected them as unlikely to work. It is difficult to turn biological agents into weapons and deliver them -- even more difficult if the goal is mass casualties. Bio agents can be degraded by exposure to rain, sunlight, air, wind. Our opponents have decided that it is better to stick with something they know will work.
2.) "Risk to U.S. of Withering Terrorist Hit Is Overblown":
Most homeland security experts say that Hurricane Katrina's flooding of New Orleans shows how vulnerable we are to terrorists. In fact, it shows that most Americans have better things to worry about. By any statistical measure, the terrorist threat to America has always been low. As political scientist John Mueller notes, in most years allergic reactions to peanuts, deer in the road and lightning have all killed about the same number of Americans as terrorism.

In 2001, their banner year, terrorists killed one twelfth as many Americans as the flu and one fifteenth the number killed by car accidents . . . .

Even if attacks killing thousands were certain, the risk to each of us would remain close to zero, far smaller than many larger risks that do not alarm us, or provoke government warnings, like driving to work every day. And if something far worse than Sept. 11 does occur, the country will recover. Every year, tens of thousands Americans die on the roads. Disease preys on us. Life goes on for the rest. The economy keeps chugging. A disaster of biblical proportions visited New Orleans. The Republic has not crumbled. The terrorist risk to the United States is serious, but far from existential, as some would have it . . . .

Most people's risk perception is confused. The world is complex. No one can be an expert in everything. Making judgments about risks requires mental shortcuts, what experts call heuristics. Heuristics subject us to biased risk assessment. Human psychology leads us to overestimate the likelihood of dangers that are novel and uncontrollable. The news media and social interaction reinforce these common errors.

We also tend to overestimate risks that lend themselves to memorable images, like planes crashing into buildings. Like shark attacks and kidnapping by strangers, terrorism is strange, uncontrollable and forms a ready mental image. So people overestimate terrorism's risk and demand excessive protection from it . . . .

The other reason people overestimate risk is politics. When American assess danger they rely on their perceptions, but they also rely on experts in the news media. Experts, however, have interests and often exaggerate danger to serve them.

From government bureaucrats seeking larger budgets, to contractors hawking technology, to congressmen campaigning, danger sells. It delivers money and votes. It also sells newspapers. Reporters report on danger, not its absence. Careerist think tank and academic analysts learn that grants, invitations to Capitol Hill and jobs are more likely to go to those who trumpet threats and defenses against them than those who tell Americans to worry less.
3.) And finally, a vivid illustration of that very point -- "America's Fleecing in the Name of Security":
Rest easy, America. As a response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Princeton, N.J., Fire Department now owns Nautilus exercise equipment, free weights and a Bowflex machine. The police dogs of Columbus, Ohio, are protected by Kevlar vests, thank God. Mason County, Wash., is the proud owner of a half-dozen state-of-the-art emergency radios (never mind that they are incompatible with existing county radios).

All of these crucial purchases -- and many more like them -- were paid for with homeland security grants. Doesn't it make you feel more secure that $100,000 in such money went to fund the federal Child Pornography Tipline? That $38 million went to cover fire claims related to the April 2001 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico? And that $2.5 billion went to "highway security" -- that is, building and improving roads?

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has appropriated nearly $207 billion to protect us from terrorism. Total homeland security spending in 2006 will be at least $50 billion, split between the Department of Homeland Security and many other agencies, including, improbably, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce and NASA. But far from making us more secure, the money is being allocated like so much pork. While the Department of Homeland Security is finally making some improvements in how it allocates resources, much more needs to be done, especially by Congress.

Indeed, as the above examples suggest, states and cities are spending federal homeland security grants on pet projects that have little or nothing to do with security. State and local officials fight over who will get the biggest share of the money, regardless of whether they have a legitimate claim to it. Hence, of the top 10 grant recipients, only the District of Columbia also appears on a list of the 10 places most at risk of attack (see table below). The U.S. Virgin Islands receives more per capita in homeland security spending ($104.35) than does Washington, D.C. ($34.16). So do Guam ($90.36), the Northern Mariana Islands ($54), Wyoming ($37.74) and American Samoa ($37.54).

And don't think high-risk cities necessarily spend their money wisely: The District of Columbia, for instance, used the first wave of homeland security aid as "seed money" for a computerized car-towing system Mayor Anthony Williams had promised for three years to help combat fraud by private towing companies. The city also used $100,000 in homeland security money to fund the mayor's popular summer jobs program.
UPDATE: Yet another underreported menace to the homeland: mature anal grannies.

| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us