Fear

Magda raised an important point yesterday, and it’s one that I need to talk about.

In democracies, fear is a double-edged sword. It’s an easy weapon to use on your enemies, but it’s also a weapon that routinely turns on you. A population that is afraid will demand that you do something to make them safe, and they’ll throw you out of power if you don’t. And, if they find out that the fear was unwarranted, they’ll throw you out of power. However, there is another, more important aspect to ‘fear in a democracy’.

The average person can do some pretty crazy stuff when they are afraid. That’s why terrorism only works in democracies. Terrorists know and understand that a bomb that kills five people has more psychological impact than a traffic accident that kills ten – more than ten traffic accidents that kill a hundred. 

I’ve lived through countless waves of bus bombings. I’ve even had one blow up a bus just down the street from me. Yet, for all of that, there has only been one month in all those years in which it was more dangerous to ride a bus than to drive a car.

I know that’s hard to believe, so let me throw another study at you. Years ago, they did a statistical analysis of the Vietnam War. They compared the casualty rate in Vietnam to the rate of traffic accidents in America. Their conclusion was that serving in Vietnam was safer than driving the roads in the US.

They did the same kind of study in Israel and found that more Israelis have died in traffic accidents than have died in all the wars since the formation of the state of Israel.

Here’s a bit of anecdotal evidence. Several years ago, a friend of mine was at a party and met yet another friend – a commander serving in southern Lebanon. This commander was visibly depressed, and my friend asked him why. The commander responded by saying that he had just attended nine funerals. My friend was surprised and said that he had not realized that there had been that much combat. The commander replied that the soldiers had been on leave and had died in traffic accidents.

Traffic accidents.

In our world, it is safer to serve in a combat unit than it is to drive a car. In Israel, it is safer to ride a bus than it is to take a taxi – even when the threat of terrorism is high. In fact, it is safer to live in Israel, than to live in the US.

The problem is that it doesn’t feel safer, and when the people don’t feel safe, the government needs to be seen to be doing something about that. Unfortunately, visible symbols of protection don’t really do all that much to protect you.

However, governments know that what the public wants, the public gets.