The United States secretary of defense said all the usual things after the latest terrorism in London, tough talk to show the world that we’re tough against the onslaught of occasional evil.
“We are united, as I said, in our resolve, even against an enemy that thinks by hurting us they can scare us,” Jim Mattis said.
“Well, we don’t scare,” Mattis added.
This is entirely false.
Terrorism has worked to the extent it was intended to create a fearful people.
It’s why people have developed a hatred of people not like them. It’s why we take off our shoes and throw away our bottles of water before getting on airplanes. It’s why we’ve cashed in some civil liberties.
It’s why the deaths of 94 Americans killed by jihadists between 2005 and 2015 has changed the way we live, while we change nothing in the wake of hundreds of thousands of deaths by other means.
Next to fear of government corruption, fear of terrorism is the No. 2 fear among Americans.
Mattis’ government is thinking about one more step to give in to fear: banning laptops on airplanes.
“In the rush to fetishize airplane attacks above all else, America’s distorted perception of risk ultimately leaves everyone more scared and no safer,” Zachary Karabel writes on Wired today.
How tempted are we to making ourselves unsafe because of our fear? After 9/11, fewer people flew and chose to drive instead, even though the risk of driving was substantially greater than the risk of driving.
Banning laptops increases risk.
This, he says, is not how Europe — whom several prominent Americans have been lecturing on matters of bravery in the last few days — sees things.
First, they have focused on the possibility that hundreds of electronic devices in a baggage hold could be a severe fire hazard should the lithium-ion batteries in those devices catch fire. That echoes similar concerns voiced by the US Federal Aviation Administration last year, and follows several incidents of batteries catching fire during passenger flights in 2016 as well as on several cargo planes in recent years.
(If any reminder of that risk was needed, just this week a JetBlue flight made an emergency landing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after a lithium battery ignited in a passenger’s backpack.)
The EU argued that it was unwise to exchange one risk – a terrorist with a laptop or tablet bomb detonating it in-flight – for another – a batch of batteries catching fire in cargo hold and bringing down a plane, especially when the risk of the latter is known and has actually happened, while the former is speculative.
In the ’60s and ’70s, plane hijackings were common, he says. It did not lead to mass hysteria or security theater.
Since 9/11, Americans demand safety.
“The laptop ban is not a world-changing issue, but the radically different responses from the United States and the European Union demonstrate that the US has not found a balance that allows a more holistic understanding of threats and costs,” he writes. “And without that balance, we will continue to overreact to threats and underestimate the costs, made no safer in the process but paying the price nonetheless.”