In 2011, terrorist attacks killed zero people in the United States. By comparison, tornados killed 553, and automobile accidents killed 32,367. Yet we have no department of tornado security, and no one is suggesting that we must sacrifice certain constitutional liberties to be safer on the road. Actually, they are: we submit to speed limits, cell phone bans and other infringements as a necessary cost of reducing traffic fatalities to a manageable level. But it’s a question of degree; if we reduced the speed limit to 15mph, fatal accidents would almost disappear. So why are 32,367 traffic fatalities in a year okay, but 16 deaths from terrorism in the last decade a cause for multibillion-dollar, society-restructuring alarm?
I ask because yesterday, I read this story about how Dick Cheney disabled the wireless function on his implanted defibrillator to prevent terrorists from remotely electrocuting his heart. Getting defibrillated is so not a big deal for Cheney that he lets a machine do it to him automatically, whenever, but that’s not the point. The point is that normally, such machines can be calibrated and programmed wirelessly, but the former Vice President had that feature disabled because he worried that terrorists might use it to kill him.
The odds of that happening are extremely low. The wireless control on Cheney’s defibrillator is limited to a range of a few inches, and it’s unlikely anyway that any terrorist would be sufficiently familiar with defibrillator programming language to hack it.
A much more likely scenario is that doctors need to reprogram Cheney’s automatic heart shocker—possibly because it keeps defibrillating him, hilariously, while he is trying to watch Steve Harvey host Family Feud—and now they need to cut open his chest to do it. According to Dr. Kevin Fu, a computer security expert who investigated the possibility of hacking the Vice President’s heart, Cheney incurred much more risk by disabling his defibrillator’s wireless function.
“He must have decided that he was willing to sacrifice that because of the security risk,” Dr. Fu said. “I think the average person would make the opposite decision.”
The average person who has devoted his life to quantifying risk, maybe. Cheney, on the other hand, made the decision that the entire country has implicitly endorsed since September 11, 2001. He decided that the possibility of getting killed by terrorists is somehow much worse than the possibility of getting killed by anything else.
Why is that? A loose wire that disables Cheney’s defibrillator would leave him just as dead as a remotely transmitted line of terrorist code. Like a car accident or a shark attack, the loose wire is also more likely to happen. Yet these possibilities are so much less frightening to the former Vice President, and to us, that we consciously take extraordinary measures to protect ourselves from one and not the others.
Maybe it’s because one of these threats to our lives is relatively new. Human beings have had generations to come to terms with fatal accidents caused by broken machines. Death by tornado and other forms of natural disaster has been with us since the beginning. Terrorism, by comparison, officially started 12 years ago. We’re afraid of it the way a person who has just stubbed his toe is newly afraid of the refrigerator.
That theory would explain why the news runs a lot more stories about terrorism than auto accidents, but it doesn’t satisfyingly explain why a hard-eyed realist like Cheney would reconfigure his defibrillator. It does not elucidate why the professional tacticians in the US defense and law-enforcement apparatus would reorganize the federal government around a threat that is, numerically speaking, less dangerous to Americans than lightning.
But there’s another obvious difference between tornados/car accidents and terrorism: terrorists are people. If Cheney’s defibrillator stops working because of a loose wire, well, he had to go sometime. If it breaks because Al Qaeda reprogrammed it with a cell phone, the terrorists win.
The difference between accidents and acts of terror is that the physical world is not an opponent. It’s worse to get killed by a person, because then that person is, by one crude measure at least, better than you.
This theory explains why Americans have willingly sacrificed all manner of convenience and principle to fight the “war” on terror. Unlike accidents or natural disasters, terrorism is not so much a threat as a contest. It’s a contest we must win, in a way that transcends lives or calculated risk.
Unless you’re not in charge of winning the contest. In that case, the war on terror is simply a pain in the ass. It’s not so much our leaders doing everything they can to protect us as our leaders doing everything they can to wield more influence over our lives than Al Qaeda. It may be benevolent, even fiercely so, but it is hardly government at its best.