Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Do you see what's happening?"

There's only been one day in my life when I could get a phone call, hear "Do you see what's happening?" as the first sentence from the person calling me, and, without having any context aside from being in America, know exactly what it was about.

I'm sure there have been other events in United States history when that would have also been understood — the assassination of JFK or MLK. But those were before my time.

And those were deaths of single individuals. As sad as it is for a sitting president to die, it's bound to happen sometimes. People die, and we need to have a way of dealing with it. But we should never have needed to deal with our greatest city being torn down.

Commentators on the right and left (William Safire, Matthew Yglesias) have compared the deaths in those attacks to car accident statistics. More people die in car accidents each month in the United States than died in the attacks.

Well, I think that's wrong on a lot of levels:

1. It's easy to focus on the deaths you know about; it's harder, but equally important, to focus on the hidden deaths that you can't see or that haven't even happened. The terrorists didn't go to all that effort "just" to kill 3,000 people. The fact that such a relatively small number died while so many more escaped is amazing. Tens of thousands of people escaped the World Trade Center. The terrorists foolishly attacked shortly before 9 a.m., when many people hadn't gotten to work yet. One of the four planes didn't even strike its target. They were trying, and are still trying, to do a lot more damage than they did on September 11.

It's common to use "3,000 deaths" as a shorthand for "the extreme consequences that can result from terrorism." But this number is (understandably) used for its emotional resonance, not because of any genuine numerical exactitude. The September 11 attacks have already happened; we can't change that. We need to be worrying about the number of people killed in the next terrorist attack, and there's no telling what that number will be. It could be 3, or 300, or 30,000, or 300,000.

2. Yes, only a tiny proportion of deaths are due to terrorism, but it doesn't follow that terrorism should be a negligible concern. As impolitic as it may be to point this out in our "culture of life," some deaths are more worth accepting than others.

We've spent a century getting used to cars. Over time, we've collectively decided that having the widespread benefit of cars is worth the tradeoff of resulting deaths — which are a tiny percentage of the beneficiaries even though the absolute numbers are huge.

Cars can kill people; they can also make life more comfortable. They can even save lives if, say, you need to be rushed to the hospital for life-saving treatment, or you need to leave town to escape a natural disaster. Most people basically accept this calculus, and those who don't like it have a lot of power to minimize the role of cars in their lives by not driving, being extra careful when crossing the street, and so on.

You can't say the same thing about terrorism. We haven't gradually gotten used to its presence in our life and systematically worked on minimizing the damage in a way that's broadly acceptable to most people.

I also find it really odd when people argue, in effect, that "we don't take car accidents seriously, so we shouldn't other deaths seriously either." The fact is, we do take car accidents very seriously, as well we should. We've taken all sorts of measures to try to reduce the harm they cause: speed limits, drunk-driving laws, airbags, etc. If one of the premises of your argument is that cars aren't a very morally serious issue, then you simply have a false premise.

Above all, there is no real cost-benefit tradeoff with terrorism because there's no benefit! Terrorists don't offer us a mix of good and bad that we look at and say, "Well, we'll accept that, on balance."

Al Qaeda-style terrorists offer an obsession with death and a dehumanizing ideology, and that's it.

3. The death toll alone doesn't capture the enormity of the destruction caused by terrorism.

Again, people use "3,000 deaths" as a synonym for "the harm caused by the attacks" -- understandably so, as it would seem crass to focus on some of the other harms. But if reality is a little crass, then so be it.

There was enormous economic loss. For some estimates, look at this list and scroll down to the dollar figures. One that stands out: the cost to NYC in the month after the attacks was over $100 billion. That's a million dollars, multiplied by 1,000, multiplied by 100, for just one city, in one month.

There were the toxic environmental effects in Manhattan.

There was a deep psychic wound left on our country's soul.

And there were people who didn't just die, but had to live their last moments hanging out of skyscraper windows and deciding to plummet to their deaths.

That's what I try to remember every year this day. But it's so unfathomable that I can't imagine it.

I don't know how you factor that into a cost-benefit analysis. I don't know how you balance that against annoying airline security measures, library records being given an extra look beyond just checking for late fees, or eyebrows raised at Arabic-sounding names.

Maybe you can't. You just have to do whatever you can, whatever tiny amount that might be, to try to stop this from ever happening again.

WTC World Trade Center September 11 memorial in NYC

(Photo of September 11 memorial by Denise Gould. I got this from pingnews, who in turn got it from the U.S. Department of Defense photo collection.)