Our fears of airplanes, and terrorism
Dec 29, 2011

Our fears of airplanes, and terrorism

Many of us have a fear of flying; it ranges from a mild discomfort to a paralyzing fear. For the most part, this fear is not rationally founded. On a per kilometer basis, flying is far safer than driving which usually elicits no fear among us at all. It is almost astonishing that flying actually is as safe as it is. Why then, are so many afraid of it?

The psychological reasons are varied, but there are three main aspects. Firstly, we have an instinctual fear of heights and falling, but not that much of a fear of traveling at fast speeds horizontally; this makes good evolutionary sense since we can't travel that fast on ground but can fall to great danger in our non-technological past. Secondly, there is a fear of the unfamiliar. We all drive regularly, and so are accustomed, and in some sense numbed, to this experience while flying is done rarely so we may dwell on its fears.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the lack of control. In a car, even as a passenger, we can take many actions to avert danger such as spotting the hazard, breaking, swerving, and the like. We may be very poor at this statistical,y, and death rates may be very high, but we still have this illusion of control over our fates. With flying, we have utterly no control. The plane breaks or doesn't; the pilot takes the right actions or they don't; we simply sit there and experience our fate. It is the existence of danger, no matter how statistically small, that we can do nothing to avert that can be so palpably frightening.

Our fear of terrorism:
I submit that the fear of a terrorist attack is much like our fear of flying. Statistically, we are incrediably unlikely to die from terrorism in the west. Exclude 9/11, and the numbers don't bear mentioning. Include this ghastly one-of, and we still remain in a situation where we ought to be 75 times more afraid of backyard swimming pools than Islamic fundamentalists (1.2 deaths per million annual average in US from '93 to '03 for terrorism compared to 90 deaths per million for swimming pools). Yet we spend trillions of dollars fighting a global war on terror in numerous countries in a created politics of fear that has dominated this past decade. Innumerable ways to spend money more efficiently to save lives, both domestically and foreign, are sidestepped compared to the enormous expense invested on fighting against this almost trivial problem.

Part of the reason for this is that this politics of fear has been manufactured by vested interests that finds it useful, and investigations into the interplay between the media, political, and military-industrial classes that perpetuates this fear gets discussed throughout this blog. However, part of it - the part that makes this message so effective at capitivating the public - is that there is real psychological reasons, analogous to airplanes, that underpin why this is so fearful.

It is, I think, that same aspect of a complete lack of control that affects us so strongly. Whether one is working in an office building, taking the subway, or out in a public place, one faces the constant risk - no matter how statistically small it is - of having one's life extinguished due to terrorism. It is that complete inability to control our own destiny that allows us to succumb to the fear of terrorism.

September eleventh makes us feel violated in the deepest of ways. It robs us of the dignity of a death where we retain our humanity and pits us as a nameless victim in a war not of our choosing and not in our control. Aesthetically, such a death horrifies us. While it is somewhat morbid to contemplate, I think few would choose a death due to terrorism over any of the countless other ways that we humans die too young.

That combination of terrorism being intrinsically frightening, and giving way to such an easy sense of horrified disgust, means that we often think quite strongly about it. With those strong feelings, comes the notion that this is a really important issue. And issue that seemingly justifies the trillions of dollars, the stripping of civil liberties, the massive casualties in wars arround the world, and everything else that has come from fighting this war on terror. However, from the efficacy standpoint, spending such vast sums of money and lives on fighting terrorism is simply hopelessly ineffective at actually saving a net number of lives and the are innumerable ways that our efforts could be put to better use. Every dollar spent fighting terrorism is a dollar not spent on healthcare, education, clean water, disaster response and the like, domestically or as foreign aid. So we are forced to prioritize and choose the most efficient and effective forms - fighting terrorism simply is not, and never has been, even close to this. The distinction between terrorism, like airplanes, being legitimately frightening and emotionally impalpable yet simply not effective is an important realization to have.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

Elipsis said...

My personal fear of flying is rather low, but what always struck me as dreadful was the 90?-some seconds of freefall trying to come to terms with the accomplishments and shortcomings of my entire life.

But then again: http://www.greenharbor.com/fffolder/carkeet.html

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