Saturday, June 04, 2005

The plague...

In an earlier posting, I compared terrorism to the plague. I wanted to expand on that a little bit. The point I am trying to make about this is that the plague was random. Whether you lived or died depended on qualities of your immune system and living conditions about which you, for the most part, had no advance knowledge. Similarly for the 1918 flu. There is some worry that the efficacy of antibiotics is on the wane, so that we might once again be visited by plagues like the ones our ancestors endured, but so far that's not a risk with which most people at least in the U.S. are acquainted. Our two big plagues are cancer and AIDS; in the case of cancer it usually doesn't take us early, and in the case of AIDS, depending on which demographic segment of the populace we are in, we may be able to pretend that it's not a problem for us.

But terrorism really captures the random quality of ancient plagues. It seems likely that there will be some new act of terror in the U.S. at some point - maybe sooner, maybe later. We don't know where it will happen. When I was in NYC three weeks ago, I thought about it once in a while - nerve gas while riding in the subway, or just the possibility of a smuggled device detonated near where I was staying or walking. Really, terrorism is just like plague. We have no real control over whether or not it affects us. If we're lucky, it doesn't. If we're unlucky, it does.

The perceived difference between terror and plague is that the enemy in terror is not a microbe. It's a group of people. So even though the situation is really the same, we react differently. People need to be punished. We need revenge. Because people are visible without the aid of a microscope, we imagine that we can track down everybody who harbors a wish to harm us, and imprison or kill them. But actually, you can see the activity of a microbe under a microscope. You can't see the activity of a mind until it decides to take action.

Just like the plague, there is no reason to panic in the face of terrorism. For the most part, the risks we face with regard to terrorism are less than those of the plague, except in the case where a terrorist actually unleashes a plague, and then we are back in the dark ages. Which is bad, but not astonishingly bad, not without precedent. But how we react has a big part in determining the outcome.

If we react to terrorism by becoming paranoid, by becoming totalitarian, by engaging in reprisals, or in pre-emptive attacks, then the net damage done by the disease is increased. This is why it's so important to identify and combat the real enemy. The real enemy is hatred and anger, not some guy with a bomb.


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