‘We don’t scare,’ U.S. official says. So why are we so afraid?

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.”

  • KTN

    Returning from a trip to Turkey a while back, I was waiting in line at the regional airport in Erzerum, where like the trained dog I am, I took my shoes off – the security guards both started laughing and asked me why i took my shoes off – I couldn’t answer them.

    Fear drives this country. Why else do we have the theater at airports except to kneel to a existential threat. It’s also why so many feel the need to carry a gun when in public. Fear, it’s what we do.

  • Rob

    Nobody’s ever polled me about terrorism. If they did, I would tell them that I spend ZERO time worrying about terrorist attacks, and if they polled my family or friends, pollsters would get the same answer.

    Several people died in the Twin Cities metro area from car crashes last week, and I’m guessing quite a few died from various health-related issues; none died from terrorist attacks. And even if a nutjob kills a few people here and there – and even if I myself happen to get taken out by a terrorist – the notion that we should suspend civil liberties because of such actions is what I am truly scared of.

    • Kassie

      As a government employee, I do worry think about attacks at work from time to time. Not from ISIS or anything, but from right wingers, people mad about not getting what they want from MNsure, angry non-custodial parents or people who have had their kids taken away. Or maybe some of my co-workers.

      • Rob

        Yes. As today’s Orlando shooting so sadly attests.

      • Al

        I worry about this, too, but not NEARLY as much as I did when I was at DHS. The idea of “welfare” really sets some people off.

        • Kassie

          I’m not at the main building anymore, but the lesser known, and less secure, other building. I think being here makes us less of a target, but like I said, it is also a much less secure building. Regardless, chances of something happening due to someone who isn’t employed here is very, very small. I do take not letting people without badges get into secure areas seriously these days, which I didn’t do as much 5 years ago.

    • jon

      I made a similar comment after 9/11 about how I didn’t fear a terror attack when I was in college… we were 100’s of miles from any major population centers, and no one would waste energy trying to blow something up in houghton michigan.

      Then the terrorists showed up.
      domestic eco terrorists tried to firebomb the forestry building (where genetic engineering research was being done). The bomb failed to go off, but an area that stopped just shy of my building was evacuated…

      Of course it wasn’t “radical islamic terror” it was just the normal homemade jug of gasoline, igniter, and a mechanical timer (which I hear froze up in the cold winter night).

      Of course, that is also a significant part about terror attacks no one really appreciates… A lot of them fail, or are thwarted by the people who have the job of thwarting terror attacks.

  • Mike

    There’s no more tired refrain from government officials than the “They hate us for our freedoms” line.

    To the extent that “they” hate us, and we’re talking about a relatively small group of people anyway, perhaps that arises out of our neocolonial domination of the Middle East since 1945, our tireless attempts to control and disempower populations in that region, and our placing U.S. military bases near or within their borders.

    Moreover, we call Saudi Arabia our ally when it’s one of the worst countries in the world for civil liberties and sponsorship of terrorism – at the same time we’re preaching to everyone about democracy and human rights.

    The majority of our political culture, left and right, supports the madness of foreign military interventions and domination, while never allowing the thought that it’s precisely such a philosophy that inspires terrorism. All of that keeps the military industrial complex happy, of course. This system certainly works for them.

    • jon

      Of course it can’t be the freedom™… they are attacking socialist Europe too! You can’t even get a gun in the UK!
      If this was about freedom™ they’d attack countries with freedom™ not some quasi-socialist democracy in europe.

      *Freedom is a registered trademark of the US government, licensed for use only with the US and confederate flags…… don’t think about that too much.

      • But…Freedom isn’t free!


        • jon

          That’s why we needed the ™ keep other countries from mooching off of our freedom without paying the 2% of GDP minimum for nato membership…

    • D.Robot

      Thanks for making the bipartisan statement. I find that to be far too rare in the comments. How long ago were we warned about a “military-industrial complex” and how much have things really changed in our actions around the world as we oscillate from one party in power to the other?
      If I remember right, Bin Laden’s big issue with the US was not just that we had military stationed in Saudi Arabia, but that we had female soldiers driving vehicles. If only we’d either not been there or not had women in the military, perhaps we’d not have the terrorism situation that we have now?
      Let’s also look at our media and how calamity is good for business. Also look at how terrorism in states that we are ideologically opposed to has been reported (see 2014 Kunming China train station attack).

  • jon

    It was pointed out else where that we don’t have a director of the FBI, TSA, or National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC)…

    The good news is we have a president who is willing to fight with terrorists personally, on twitter, if it comes to it.

    We clearly aren’t that afraid, if we were afraid we’d be doing something, something meaningful.
    The only question is what do we gain from banning laptops on planes, and I think the answer lies in a policy of isolationism that we are driving towards in response to globalization.

    • Kassie

      Also, FEMA also doesn’t have a director and hurricane season has started. That’s an important national security position too.

      • jon

        And we won’t get one until, a fox pundit to announce the security threat of Ebola, riding on terrorists, riding on sharks, lifted into the air by a hurricane!

        *sigh* remember when the idea of some one in the news media actually saying that sounded completely insane? I miss reality.

    • kennedy

      Name calling and threats of violence do not demonstrate bravery. They are actually more of a fearful response to something we consider threatening.

  • Karl Crabkiller

    “In the ’60s and ’70s, plane hijackings were common, he says. It did not lead to mass hysteria or security theater.”

    I remember terrorist bombings and hijackings being pretty much an everyday event in that era, kids were still encouraged to walk to school.

  • If responding to a problem by examining the data and developing a policy that actually made sense was our default behavior, we wouldn’t have things like laptop bans, abstinence-only sex education, trickle down economics, an outsized military empire around the world, bathroom gender hysteria, and on and on. But one party in particular pushes all of those things and the other is weak-kneed about them, so it’s what we have.

  • Zachary

    Fear is an effective sales tool.

    “Are you afraid of ‘x’?? You should be if you’re not! Buy this ‘z’ to prevent ‘x’!” or “Afraid of ‘y’? Elect me, (or better yet – send me money!) and I will take care of ‘y’!”

    It’s sad, but this has become the commonplace reaction for a lot of people. I for one – choose not to live in fear. There is no reason to fear, really anything. Be wary of, yes. Be cautious, yes. But fear? Not so much. Once you figure out statistics and probabilities, fear sort of goes away on its own.

    I’m still teaching my kids to be wary of strangers, look both ways before crossing the street, and to always wear a bike helmet. That’s not based out of ‘fear’ but one out of responsibility.

  • crystals

    Because if we’re not pointing the finger at someone/something else that means we need to do the much more difficult, complicated work of improving ourselves.

  • Jerry

    Of course we’re not scared. Now let’s go lock and bar our doors while clutching our guns.

  • lindblomeagles

    Can’t argue with this post. Americans are afraid, which is why so many Americans helped Trump get to the White House. Terrorism is very similar to guerilla warfare. In both forms of political fighting, individuals ban together, committing violence, generally against civilian populations, in a strategic effort to expose the general army and its leaders’ weaknesses. Theoretically, the more exposed the general army and leaders are, the more the civilian population will oust the general army and its leaders. The difference between terrorism and guerilla warfare is guerillas usually ARE ex-military men, a rogue element arising from the general army, who have the ability to engage protracted military strikes. Terrorists are every day civilians usually lacking significant infantry experience, who commit atrocious criminal acts, either alone, or frequently with no more than 5 actors. Both terms, in Western culture, have always applied to non-European people of Latin, Asian, or African descent, combining not only the threat of violence, but also the fall of Eurocentric racial power. But, as the latest London attack shows, anyone working in coordination with others to kill innocent civilians for the purpose of a stated political objective is a terrorist (American Dylan Roofs should have fallen under this designation). This is why we are afraid. Anybody with 2 or 3 buddies can drive their Ford Ranger into a busy street without warning or detection, and kill innocent civilians. And there’s really no immediate response to this, except for depriving countries like England of their civil liberties. Guerillas hold territory. They have a base. Terrorists are citizens without territories, without a base, communicating with individuals through phone or the web.

  • rover27

    I became convinced after 9-11 that we’re a nation of cowards. At least, a very large percentage are.