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Life After 9/11

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Autor:   •  December 2, 2010  •  803 Words (4 Pages)  •  494 Views

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or most of us, airports are the only places where life has really changed since 9/11. The terminal has become a vast theater of the absurd where aspiring passengers line up halfway back to town. The shoes of little old ladies are gravely removed and inspected. Men in suits take their cell phones out of the bag and put their laptop computers into the bag--no, wait, cell phones in and computers out. Random passengers stand spread-eagled while strangers say to them softly, "Now I'm going to run my hands around your waist. Is that all right?" Somewhere unseen, a food-service worker is assembling plastic knives but metal forks in meals headed for first class. And all the while the public-address system hectors us to "report any suspicious activity."

Many people, understandably skeptical about these quasi-religious rituals, have stopped flying instead. Others are thinking about moving out of New York and other big cities, and some have done so. These are responses more in keeping with the scale and drama of the episode that provoked them, but they may not make any more sense. David G. Myers of Hope College in Holland, Mich., calculated that terrorists would have to hijack 50 planes a year and kill everyone aboard before flying would be more dangerous than driving an equal distance.

The steps we have taken to protect ourselves from terrorism (not counting the military effort to stop it at the source) seem either farcically trivial or farcically excessive. Is there a rational middle ground?

Dealing rationally with the risks of terrorism is hard for several reasons. First, human beings are bad at assessing small risks of large catastrophes. And Americans are especially bad at this because we are Americans, and catastrophes are not supposed to happen to us. Our legal culture, our political culture and our media culture all push us toward excessive caution by guaranteeing that any large disaster will produce an orgy of hindsight. Lawyers will sue, politicians will hold hearings, newspapers and newsmagazines will publish overexcited revelations about secret memos that could be interpreted as having warned of this if held up to the light at a certain angle.

Second, the actual risk of being a terror victim is not merely small--it is unknown and unknowable. Economists make a distinction between "risk" and "uncertainty." Risk refers to hard mathematical odds. Uncertainty refers to situations in which the odds are anybody's guess

Third, even knowing what is theoretically knowable is impossible for most of us. Just attempting to list the fields of knowledge where expertise would be required strains my own ignorance: aeronautical engineering, Middle Eastern politics, nuclear physics, um, microbiology? Clinical psychology? Without a clue about most of these subjects, how can citizens think rationally about them? Walter Lippmann, in his famous 1922 book, Public Opinion, said the


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