[taking risks]

Topic: Politics
Not long after 9/11, my wife and I left the U.S. for South Korea to teach English for a year, following through on a plan we’d formulated months earlier. I remember people asking me at the time whether the terrorist attacks had changed my plans. I understood the emotions behind the question — like everyone else, I was mightily shaken by 9/11 — but still, it always seemed like an absurd thing to ask. Why wouldn’t I go to Korea? Because I was afraid to fly? Because I was afraid to be an American abroad? If anything, it seemed vital that I go ahead and represent my country in the world at large, just as I had been planning to do, and not cave in to exactly the fear that the attacks were meant to instill.

Which is why it’s heartening to read Senator John McCain’s prescription for dealing with the Holy Terrors of 9/11:

Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?

Once again, the Senator’s got it right. For all the talk of the world having turned upside down on 9/11, and for all the future danger we face, it’s worth remembering that in that same year, over 8,000 Americans died in workplace accidents, and over 50,000 from gun wounds, and yet somehow we manage to keep going to work every day, even in armed-to-the-teeth states like Texas and Idaho.

And the Europeans have understood this too. Spain suffered a terrible blow on March 11, but they’ve been through so much worse, and so has the rest of Europe. The threat that Al Qaeda poses to our civilization is paltry compared to the threat of total nuclear annihilation that hung over our heads for the latter half of the 20th century, or the plague of fascist domination, destruction and mass murder that swept the continent at midcentury. All of the casualties inflicted by Al Qaeda to date amount to something like an afternoon’s work at the Battle of the Marne. If anything, we should be grateful that the major powers on the planet have learned, for the moment, to play well with each other, so that our major conflicts (excluding the chaos of sub-Saharan Africa) are asymmetrical, low-casualty compared to state-on-state warfare, and heavily symbolic instead of just as bludgeoningly destructive as possible. In fact, if you exclude the Iraq war, which we started without needing to, we’ve managed to reduce conflict to the levels of the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica.

Now all we need are leaders who can see the current situation for what it is. In much darker times, President Roosevelt reassured us that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” His words remain a warning to us in these paranoid but peaceful times.