As the entire nation mourns, I thought about all those others who die every day in the US, many for reasons that could be avoided. Looking around, I found this from an article in the Skeptical Inquirer:
Every month, including September 2001, the U.S. highway death toll exceeds fatalities in the WTC, Pentagon, and four downed airliners combined. Just like the New York City firefighters and restaurant workers, last September’s auto crash victims each had families, friends, critical job responsibilities, and valued positions in their churches and communities.
One of the major killers on the roads are SUVs. But I don’t intend this to be a post about the dangers of SUVs. Rather, I wanted to ask why it is that we consider the single loss of over three thousand lives in the World Trade Center to be a national tragedy, but not the monthly loss of even more people in traffic accidents, not to mention other tragedies, such as deaths due to heart disease, cancer, AIDS, poverty, etc. The Skeptical Inquirer article believes that this is because of the uniqueness of the event:
Research on risk perception has shown that our reactions to hazards don’t match the numerical odds. We fear events (like airliner crashes) that kill many at once much more than those that kill one at a time (car accidents). We fear being harmed unknowingly (by carcinogens) far more than by things we feel we control ourselves (driving or smoking). We fear unfamiliar technologies (nuclear power) and terrorism far more than prosaic hazards (household falls).
But I am not convinced by this argument. It may explain a certain higher level of fear and anxiety around such events, and I think it also is a useful argument in terms of directing public policy towards spending money in more useful ways than the “war on terror”; but I think it misses the main reason why the entire nation is able to mobilize around such an event. That reasons is “justice.” Many Americans, I believe, are willing to accept that the people of the Middle East have legitimate grievances. Some may even accept that the U.S. is partially responsible for their situation. But no sane person believes that those people in the World Trade Center, or on those planes, deserved to die as a result. It is the injustice of the act that arouses such anger. Yes, nobody deserves to die — not even people who drive SUVs — but the fact that so many people died from a single horrible act (actually, two acts, if you count both planes that hit the WTC), is what upsets people the most. But if I am right, if we are upset about the injustice of the situation, then why are we so willing to pursue unjust means in our response? I have to admit, I have no idea … maybe people just want revenge … maybe I’m wrong and people are just worried about saving their own hides (but bad at assessing risk) …