I find remarkable the number of things people don’t see. It can be right in front of them, but they don’t see it. As someone who is largely blind to social cues, I can appreciate that better than most. I’m often told something about what someone was feeling or thinking or implying that I was completely missed. When someone is trying to get me to stop talking, or move on to another topic, or just go away, I can be downright oblivious. It can be very frustrating for me and for the people around me. Sometimes, however, it is what we do see, rather than what we don’t, that blinds us from the truth.
I was watching a news program the other day about terrorism. Some political pundits were arguing about what we were doing about ISIS and how dangerous they are and whether there would be acts of terror in the US. The conversation turned to preventing acts of terrorism and what restrictions should be imposed. I was struck by the draconian measures that were being discussed. They were discussing conducting surveillance on mosques and infiltrating radical Muslim sects. As the discussion grew more heated and increasingly more ridiculous options were being discussed, I found myself thinking about how many people were actually being killed by terrorists.
There were about 3,000 people killed in the single greatest terrorist act in history, the 9/11 attacks. The largest terrorist incident on American soil since then has been the Boston Marathon bombing, which injured many, but only actually killed three people. We’ve fought two major wars since 9/11/01. While some would argue that the Iraq war was unrelated to terrorism, I would reply by asking whether it is reasonable to believe that war would have or could have occurred without the concerns about terrorism. To me, they are inextricably linked. If you add up the casualties from these wars, it’s over twice as many as those killed in the 9/11 attacks, and that is only counting American military casualties. It doesn’t count any of the foreign soldiers or civilians, nor does it include non-military Americans who were involved in some aspects of the rebuilding. So, in order to avenge the deaths of 3000 people, we sent over 6000 Americans to their deaths in war. Does this make sense? Nobody seems to question it, and why is that?
During the several years that the war on terrorism has continued, many thousands of people have died. Many thousands die of cancer or . Many die in car accidents, or from drug overdoses. More people die from suicide in a year than in all the terror attacks and the wars against it in the past decade. So, why no politicians campaigning to protect us from drunk drivers? Why no political pundits debating on national TV how to wipe out cancer? Why such fear of and concern about terrorism when, statistically, we’re much more likely to be murdered by a regular criminal than any terrorist group? Such incongruities pierce my mind like splinters into a bare hand.
Ironically, the answer can be found in the words of a terrorist (of sorts) from the world of fiction.
Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know. . . You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Most will recognize the words as those of The Joker from the popular Dark Knight movie. In comics, the villains are often more insightful than the heroes, for while the hero stands for established ideals that most believe in, the villain challenges conventional world views and provides criticisms of society that are often thought-provoking. In this case, The Joker refers to a “plan”. What does he mean? The answer is that people don’t notice when things happen the way they’re expected to. People die everyday of heart disease and cancer and all those other things I mentioned above. Everyone knows these things by the time they’re old enough to think intelligently. After that, it becomes part of some mental background scenery that is no longer particularly noticed. So, when something like a terrorist attack, or an earthquake, or a tsunami, or a plane crash comes along, well, people notice it because it’s not part of that background. It’s unusual, out of the ordinary, unexpected. People don’t usually like the unusual or the unexpected. People like it when events fit neatly into their world and they don’t really have to think about unpleasant things like death or evil. Just as The Joker observed, when things don’t go “according to plan”, “everyone loses their minds”. Fear overrides rationality, and we do ridiculous things like spending thousands of lives and billions of dollars to make war on something we can barely define in order to perhaps save the lives of some people who might have been killed in future attacks that the wars might have prevented, assuming that the wars didn’t inspire more terrorist attacks than they prevented.
It wasn’t really the deaths, or even the terrible images that were the source of our fear. It was the violation of expectation, the deviation from our accepted normality, the new devil with a new face that we hadn’t seen before. We know about all cancer and heart disease and drunk driving, but terrorism was new. None of us wanted to accept that a handful of evil-minded people could accomplish such a despicable act. None of us wanted to add a new entry to our list of bad stuff in the world. Suddenly, we saw something terrible we hadn’t before, right in front of us, in images that could never be forgotten. Our reaction was emotional and understandable, but ultimately irrational, and even possibly destructive in the long-term.
So, I watch the people on television debating what to do about terrorism, and find myself asking why we should ‘do’ anything. Why spend so much blood and treasure on something which, even in areas where it is prevalent, kills no more people than other, more conventional, causes. It’s worth remembering that the 9/11 attacks could have been stopped with something as simple as locks on the doors to the cockpit. We also forget that a fourth plane failed to find its target, because once people were aware of the terrorists’ plan, they quickly attacked the terrorists. It’s almost inconceivable that the same sort of terrorist attack would ever again be successful, because in fact it was already defeated the moment people understood what was really going on. Had people on the first three planes known what would occur, I would wager they would have made the same choice as those on Flight 93. That’s something good about humanity, and it’s often lost in the midst of all the violence and death. In a similar fashion, the people in the Dark Knight movie showed their humanity by refusing to kill each other to save themselves. Overcoming the villain’s criticisms and challenges reaffirms our basic humanity. Yes, there is evil in the world, and in us, but there’s also good. There’s decency, and self-sacrifice, and refusal to submit to the machinations of the wicked. Let’s try to remember our better angels the next time things don’t go according to plan.