On the one hand, he agrees with Paul Campos that we shouldn’t be scared:
[W]e need to stop doing al-Qaeda’s PR for it by panicking over every foiled terrorist plot. AQ’s public image — that they’re a triumphant army forever creating fear and hysteria in the decadent West — is the oxygen they live on and a key to their recruiting efforts. We should at least make them work for it, rather handing it to them on a silver platter.
But on the other hand, he disagrees with Campos and tells us that it’s OK to be scared:
The fundamental fear of terrorism is that it’s not just random or unintentional, like car accidents or (for most of us) the threat of homicide. It’s carried out by people with a purpose. The panic caused by the underwear bomber wasn’t so much over the prospect of a planeload of casualties, it was over the reminder that al-Qaeda is still out there and still eager to expand its reach and kill thousands if we ever decide to let our guard down a little bit. So even if you agree with Campos, as I do, that overreaction to al-Qaeda’s efforts is dumb and counterproductive, it’s perfectly reasonable to be more afraid of a highly motivated group with malign ideology and murderous intent than of things like traffic accidents or hurricanes. [Emphasis added.]
Really, is it? Campos argues that the consequences of this fear are almost certainly not reasonable:
Unfortunately, the politics of cowardice can also make it rational to spend otherwise irrational amounts of resources on further minimizing already minimal risks. Given the current climate of fear, any terrorist incident involving Islamic radicals generates huge social costs, so it may make more economic sense, in the short term, to spend X dollars to avoid 10 deaths caused by terrorism than it does to spend X dollars to avoid 1,000 ordinary homicides. Any long-term acceptance of such trade-offs hands terrorists the only real victory they can ever achieve.
Campos is almost certainly correct. Terrorism is evil, but it’s an evil with a very, very small number of direct victims. By far the greatest effects of terrorism are those caused by our own response to it. Most of the victims of terrorism are not victimized directly by terrorist violence, but by the bad policies that our own government pursues in the name of assuaging our fear and making us feel safe. This is how victims of terror trade their freedom for psychological feelings of security.
Kevin Drum may be right that, psychologically or biologically, we can expect to feel more afraid of terrorists than of car accidents. But Drum is wrong that pointing out that this fear is overblown “hurts the cause of common sense more than it helps.” Instead, it’s the first necessary step in helping us to overcome that fear. It’s a necessary first step toward courage.
I would have hoped that because America is supposedly the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” that we’d hear the argument Paul Campos is making much more often than we actually have. Instead, we almost never hear it, and when we do, pundits like Kevin Drum dismiss it immediately: “[f]irst, this line of argument — that terrorism is statistically harmless compared to lots of other activities — will never work. For better or worse, it just won’t. So we should knock it off.”
My request of Drum is that suggest some other way that we might begin to find our courage. If he thinks Campos’ argument “hurts the cause of common sense,” then he should try to offer an alternative.