Fear Loses to Critical Thinking Every Time

When I was younger I used to love to travel.  I am fortunate to have had the opportunity in my life to do some extensive international travel (again, mostly when I was younger).  However, with the frequency of terrorist attacks seemingly increasing (the recent attack in Barcelona being a prime example), I thought I’d look at how dangerous it is currently for an American to travel in this world.

The seed for this inquiry was planted earlier this year.  My family and I were in Orlando over spring break and while there we met a lovely family from the U.K.  These folks visit the U.S. regularly, and travel to other international destinations several times each year.  In the course of conversation I mentioned that I’m not sure this is the time to travel internationally because of all of the terrorist activity one hears about, and they found that funny (and a very American concern).  They had been in places where incidents had taken place (not right in the locale, but in the region) and steadfastly believed that despite what the news would have us believe, the world (at least the places you would travel to) were no more dangerous now than they have ever been.

I did some basic research on the “inter-webs” about the frequency of death by terrorism (I’m probably on a watch list somewhere now).  There is a lot of moderately conflicting information, but by looking at multiple sources and doing some basic high-low averaging I made the following somewhat estimated calculations:

1. The chance of any person from anywhere being killed by a terrorist act in a given year is about 1 in 250,000.  This does not account for nationality or residence and weights a person the same whether they live in Mogadishu or Milwaukee, or were visiting Disneyland or Mecca.

2. The chance of a European person being killed by a terrorist act in Europe is 0.9 in 1 million.  These are Europeans being killed in Europe by terrorist activity.

3. The chance of an American dying as the result of a terrorist act somewhere in the world is 4.7 in 10 million. (this number is marginally lower if we only look at deaths in the U.S., and statistically non-existent if we take out the 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attacks – I counted them).  Soldiers dying in battle are not included in the calculations.

4. The chance of someone in the United States dying in an accident of some sort (auto, air, ladder, Segway, lawn dart – you get the picture), is 4.2 in 10,000.

[These were the types of statistics reasonably understandable to a non-statistics person like me – be warned that this is not scientific research, but just one old guy looking a bunch of stuff up then breaking out the calculator]

So if we are 1000 times more likely to die on accident on any given day than from a terrorist attack, why do we collectively fear it so?  Is it because it is all we see, all we hear about?  When was the last time a lead story was “Woman falls out of tree in fatal accident?” (actually happened here a couple of years ago – still was not the lead story – had she been visiting Israel or Iraq though . . .). 

We are continually bombarded every day by how dangerous the world is.  The only problem is that we are not being told the truth as to the source of what is most dangerous to us.  You should fear that matchbox car on the stair much more than some bearded madman or veiled madwoman with a sword.  But we see the bearded guy/veiled woman every day on the news.  We constantly hear how dangerous s/he is.  We are force-fed the idea that s/he wants only to kill us, and if we are not careful, s/he will.  Under such influences, how could we be anything but afraid?

Related Sidebar – As I may have said before, Mrs. Oldster teaches high school history and civics.  She worries about how to teach civics at a time where the values expressed by the Constitution seemed to be under threat, or at a minimum under appreciated.  She worries that her students will be confused by the competing rhetoric one often hears on the news. 

I believe that the answer to the questions “how can we be anything but afraid” and “how do you teach civics in a time where the meaning and value of civic duty are in question” is the same answer.  They both boil down to the ability to think critically.  To observe current facts, compare results to known constants, and draw conclusions.  Then to act on the conclusions, despite what detractors may say.  Should we fear dying in a terrorist attack?  No, the odds are so remote as that we can be almost certain that it won’t happen (odds we lengthen by not visiting places where we know terrorists hold sway).  Applying critical analysis and logical thought leads us to this conclusion.

How do you teach kids the lessons of civics in today’s world?  You teach them to question everything (including authority), then you show them how to apply the answers their questioning brings them.  The results of this critical analysis should illuminate their path and instruct their actions. 

Critical thought is what separates us from sheep(le).  Not taking something at face value merely because a well dressed and spoken news anchor tells us it is so, is a hallmark of intelligence.  Rather, drawing our own conclusions about things that matter, and living our lives by what we learn through our own critical analysis, that is how we confront the demons placed before us by people and entities that do not always have our best interest as their primary concern.  That is how we overcome the fear that can freeze us and keep us from truly enjoying the fruits of what this life offers.

I got off on a tangent there.  The issue of whether we should reasonably fear to travel and how one should teach civics to students have, in my mind, the same basic answer.  So I just lumped everything together.  Sorry if it was confusing.  End of rant (for the moment).

Until Next Time, Fire On – Oldster

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