Sandy vs. Terrorism – which is the bigger threat?

Superstorm Sandy vs. “terrorism.” I know which risk I’d rather take. 

As people are trying to assess the damage and clean up from the storm that walloped the most populous part of the U.S. (up to 20% of the country’s population) and left hundreds of miles of destruction and longterm consequences in its wake, it’s impossible for me not to compare the risks of Mother Nature to the risks of terrorism.

Though the former are far, far more likely to affect us — even kill us — the latter are over-emphasized and over-hyped.

We’ve laid out the facts and the risks many times. I’ve done it; Bill Fisher has done it; Sommer Gentry has done it, multiple timesWendy Thomson has done it, multiple timesProf. Richard Jackson has done it; Bruce Schneier has done it; Professors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart have done it, and written an entire book on it, no less.

We know it doesn’t matter, we know most people aren’t swayed by facts, but we’ll continue to do it because we do believe in the importance of facts. We do believe in the value of empirical evidence.

The refrain we hear most often when any discussion of national security comes up is simple and short: 9/11. It’s the trump card. Speak those two numbers — “nine eleven” — and people bow down as if before a god. Logic goes out the window. Common sense doesn’t exist. Say “nine eleven,” and you’ve magically won the argument.

Except you haven’t.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 killed almost 3,000 people. They weren’t the only terrorist attacks in our country’s history, not by a long shot. But because they happened all at once, on one day, in a spectacular fashion, and because we could point to a convenient enemy, they have become the be-all and end-all of discussions about security.

Never mind the fact that you’re so far more likely to be killed in a car accident or shot or struck by lightning than to be killed in a terrorist attack that it’s not even worth talking about them in the same breath. I know people don’t want to hear it.

Air travel was affected by 9/11, for a while. Businesses lost money, for a while. Some people were fearful, for a while. But all that passed.

What hasn’t passed is the insane — and I don’t use that word lightly — overreaction by our government and many of our fellow citizens. We invaded two countries. We codified torture. We passed laws that eviscerated civil liberties. We legalized indefinite detention and assassination. We created an enormous security and surveillance apparatus, with so many alphabet soup agencies I hesitate to name them because I’m sure I’ll leave some out. We agreed to give up Constitutional rights without batting an eye, even to the point of physical assault as a condition of travel. If you came up with this stuff up on your own, it would be the makings of a dystopian novel.

By comparison, the death toll in the U.S. from Sandy is 50 72 74 76 80 88 90 98 102 109 113 115 and rising (and homeless people who live in the subways were likely drowned and will never be accounted for). The longterm consequences, however, are greater. So is the risk of future storms like Sandy. And if you don’t believe that, tell it to the insurance industry, which does believe it.

Entire neighborhoods were wiped out. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. Millions of people have lost power, power on which we depend for the most basic functions in a modern society. Cellphone signals aren’t working because a quarter of the transmission sites were knocked out. People are without heat, with colder weather coming. Without water. Hospitals are without power. Thousands of trees and power lines are downed, making driving and even walking hazardous, and in some places impossible. Hundreds of bridges, tunnels, parks, and roads are closed. Lines at gas stations are miles long, and many of those stations are running out of gas; fights there have already broken out. The subway system in New York City isn’t operating. That alone is a mammoth consequence (I remember being told by a Washington resident and former NYC denizen, back in 2003 during Hurricane Isabel, that, and I quote, “New York would never shut down its subway”). Millions of people depend on the subway to get to work; they don’t have the luxury of telling their bosses, “sorry, can’t make it in until all this mess gets cleaned up.” Some subway stations are still under water. Salt water is corrosive, and miles of tracks have to be cleaned before trains can run again. As for the railroad, trains all over that city and the states of New Jersey and Connecticut aren’t running. Parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia are buried in snow. Thousands of residents of Hoboken, NJ are still stranded in sewage-tainted water. People in Lower Manhattan, on Coney Island, and Staten Island have been practically forgotten, by FEMA and everyone else, and are struggling to hold on. 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel has been spilled into the water between New Jersey and Staten Island.

New York and environs will eventually snap back, of course. The speed and efficiency with which people are going about their business are impressive.

But the point is that natural events — Katrina, Snowmageddon, Sandy — affect far more people in this country than terrorism does. So why aren’t we up in arms about Mother Nature? Why aren’t we spending $8 billion a year (the TSA’s annual budget) on upgrading infrastructure, repairing bridges, dams, roads, burying power lines, investing in weather satellites, which are growing obsolete and set to expire with no replacements in the works, fixing century-old water mains, boosting water treatment plants, building more walkable communities where people aren’t dependent on cars?

Why aren’t these questions asked and their answers demanded? Why is the result just a collective throwing-up of hands and an “Oh, well, what’re you gonna do? That’s Mother Nature!”?

Because 9/11 is a handy tool. It’s the ultimate monster. It conjures images of fire, explosions, people falling out of skyscrapers, and, of course, The Evil Other. It’s an instant emblem of fear. And a populace led by fear is easily controlled. Both by government and by corporations standing to profit from that fear. The draconian laws we have allowed to be passed in this country put the lie to our platitudes about “freedom” and “democracy” and “values.” The billions that so-called security firms are raking in, thanks to our tax dollars, put the lie to our claims about “frugality” and “debt” and “supporting the little guy.”

Since 9/11, we have created in this country a self-perpetuating paranoia. It’s something that a brilliant writer, Rod Serling, warned us about over 50 years ago, in a famous episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

We have done this to ourselves. These are decisions that we, as a country, have made. And we, as a country, can make different ones.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if the British had behaved like this during the Blitz, they never would’ve gotten through it. London was bombed, almost every single night, for 9 months straight. What did its citizens do?

Got up every morning, cleared the rubble, mourned their dead, and moved on.

If we had exhibited half that spirit in the aftermath of 9/11, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Instead, we have sunk deeper into a morass of fear and hysteria, susceptible to any charlatan who comes along and tells us he has The Answer, and willing to accept anything that comes down the pike in the name of “security.”

(Photo: NOAA)