Our Risks from Terrorists

“’The free movement of good people also means the free movement of bad people. Expect Schengen to dominate the EU debate next year,’ Nigel Farage, a leading British anti-E.U. campaigner, wrote on Twitter, referring to the area that allows for border-free travel in most of the European Union.” Washington Post /2016/12/23/

Fear of terrorists may destroy the EU or limit some of its finer features. In addition, government measures to protect us from terrorists often restrict our privacy and potentially our freedom from government interference with our lives. How should we determine the best balance between freedom and security when confronting terrorist threats? Answering that important question should start with putting the risk of death from terrorist attacks in broader perspective.

From 2001 to 2014, 3,043 people were killed on U.S. soil as the result of acts of terrorism. Almost all of them (2,990) died on 9/11/2001. An additional 369 Americans have died from terrorist acts abroad (excluding Afghanistan and Iraq) for a total of 3,412 souls. This is a terrible loss but should be seen in the perspective of other risks we face and accept.

Over this same period 440,095 died on American soil from guns. Put differently, for every person killed on American soil by terrorists, 1,049 were killed with guns.

Over the same period 534,137 people died in car accidents in the U.S. The good news is that deaths from car accidents have been steadily declining over this period, falling by 22%. Since its peak of 53,543 in 1969 deaths on American highways have falling by 39% . Given that automobile accidents are caused almost totally by human error, the expanding use of driverless cars will cause this figure to plummet.

Poisoning (drug overdoses) comes in second as the cause of deaths in the U.S. with around 39,000 deaths annually in recent years.

Falling kills around 25,000 people annually in the U.S. Most of these falls occur in the home. Two thousand seven hundred people die in fires annually and 2,500 choke to death per year while eating.

We rightly take practical measures to reduce all of these sources of unnatural death. Measures that pass the cost/benefit ratio test differ for each cause of death. In the case of guns, the right to bear arms is balanced with various approaches to regulating that right. Taking account of the use of guns for self-defense (as opposed to hunting), it is not obvious whether wider gun ownership increases or reduces public safety. No one has proposed outlawing cars.

Preventing terrorist attacks is devilishly hard. Attempting to guess who might commit a terrorist act (particularly in cases of isolated individuals who perform these acts alone – so called lone wolfs) aside from being basically impossible, can be extremely expensive with significant risks to our privacy and freedom as we have seen. I will not attempt to advise on how best to deal with the threat of terrorism. Rather, I want to stress how tiny the risk of a terrorist death is in both absolute terms and relative to all of the other accidental deaths we face. You are more than 100 times as likely to choke to death as to be killed by a terrorist and no one is proposing that we stop eating (which would also be fatal). Nor should we significantly restrict the freedom of movement in the world. We should not overly put our privacy at risk or significantly change our life styles and public policies in order to try to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks.

Virtual Life after Death

Hi from Munich,

A recent spam email from a dead colleague has caused me to reflect again on the awkwardness of our Internet existence (email addresses, Facebook and Linkedin profiles etc.) after our flesh and blood, biological one has ended. It is spooky when Linkedin suggests that I might want to connect to someone I know is dead. But the continuing messages to deceased friends on their Facebook page are a touching and sometimes disturbing feature of our evolving modern lives.

A long time but still young (early 40s) friend died well over a year ago at the end of what he had reported as so far very successful chemotherapy. I did not know his family and we did not share other friends who might have notified me of his death. So when he did not return my email and phone messages I eventually checked his Facebook page. As I read through the recent posts from friends it became clear that they were saying good-bye.

I checked it again today over a year later. He still lives there. Friends continue to post messages, one on Thanksgiving and several on his Birthday and one frequent poster for no particular reason at all. For most of them it is clearly a dialog with the dead and quite touching. But I am not sure about the frequent poster. Does he know that J is dead and just keeps talking to him, or does he not know and must wonder why J never replies. I could tell him, though I do not know him, but perhaps (if he doesn’t already know) he doesn’t want to know. I am not yet fully adjusted to the Internet world.

Notes from a Visit to Rosewood

My father and I left my parent’s assisted living apartment for lunch just a short walk down the hall on the second floor of Rosewood. If you said you were on the second floor, all Rosewood residents knew you were in assisted living, midway health-wise between independent retirement living in the tower, and the Health Center in the adjoining building. My mother had just been returned from a local hospital to the Health Center.

Two dinning rooms stand out in my experience as particularly memorable: the massive mess in one of the ballrooms in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace in Baghdad (another story) and the assisted living dinning room on the second floor of Rosewood. The entrance to the dining room was lined on both sides with “parked” walkers. My dad parked his and walked stooped over the rest of the way to his seat at the table. An extra place had been set for me–the visiting son.

Our fellow 2nd floor diners were a very diverse group of old women and few men, about 20 people in all. They all arrived ten minutes before the official start of lunch. Most spoke cheerfully about past or upcoming events. Rosewood offers and organizes a lot of activities for its senior residents. Some made jokes about this or that. The Rosewood staff efficiently and warmly serviced the group the day’s offerings. The food was surprisingly good.

A few stared silently ahead and ate slowly. One lady who sat across the table and four seats to the right of my father and me alternated between making angry comments about the service rudely at one moment then somewhat politely at another moment. Her relatively short hair was combed straight back and tended to stand up reminding me of Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (or most any other Jack Nicholson movie). At our first breakfast together in the second floor dining room the same lady came earlier than scheduled and asked the lady next to her whether she wanted her food and if not whether she could eat it. She yelled at the servers for not serving her more quickly and
shouted that she would fire them all. We soon learned that the poor lady had had nothing to eat since lunch the day before because she was having her blood taken at 8:00 that morning and it was still only 7:50. She was not allowed to eat for a bit longer. The room fell silent.

The lady who sat directly across from me was very attractive despite her wrinkles. Her hair was carefully and tastefully combed and each day she wore a different outfit with very nice colors. She had heard that my mother had been returned to Rosewood to the Health Center and she asked me how she was. “Not very well” I replied. My father and I eat on in silence. A few minutes later the attractive lady across the table asked: “How is your mother?” “Not very well,” I replied.

After lunch dad and I walked over to the Health Center to visit mom.  The flower gardens
along the way were lovely; the sun was bright and warm. Entering the Center, we passed the dining room on the right of the entrance. It was very well appointed with a high ceiling and chandeliers and round tables widely spaced to allow diners to eat from their wheel chairs. Wheel chairs and walkers were not allowed in the dining room on the second floor where the residents had to be able to walk. The flower gardens could be seen from the dinning room window. My mother would have loved it but she had never made it to the dining room in the Center.

We passed through the TV room to the left of the entrance toward my mom’s room. The usual viewer was sitting in his wheel chair in his usual place up against the screen watching a Jimmy Stewart movie. Down the hall we passed several people sitting quietly in their wheel chairs looking vacantly at nothing in particular and one man was exercising his legs by pulling himself down the hall in his wheel chair.

My mom was awake when we entered her room and actually smiled at me.

“I want to get up and go walking with my son,” she said. I wasn’t sure whether I should tell her that she was too weak to walk or whether I should play along.

“Why don’t we take a spin in the wheel chair just to warm up? This place is really lovely and you should see it,” I finally said.

Mom seemed almost in high spirits. Thank God for antidepressants. The nurses lifted
her into her wheel chair. She insisted on putting on her lipstick and the nurse combed her hair. I was beginning to think we might enjoy this.

With the first attempt to move her into the hall, she slumped a bit and said: “I
feel sick, please put me back in bed.” Back in bed she said, “Why am I here? Where is my furniture,” and she fell asleep.

Dad and I walked back to the tower building and took the elevator to the second floor. We shared the elevator with another of Rosewood’s senior residents. She was holding on to her walker firmly. “Growing old is not for sissies,” she said with a smile.

The next day I packed for my flight back to Washington, DC, finalized arrangements for my father to move to a smaller unit, and ran a few other last minute errands for him. I then walked over to the Health Center to join dad and to say goodbye to mom.

“She has been asleep the whole time I have been here” he said.

“Should we try to wake her?” I asked. “Let’s try gently. Mom…, mom…, I want to say goodbye.” She opened her eyes and turned her head toward me.

“Leave me alone. Why is God punishing me this way?”

As dad and I walked back down the hall toward the entrance, the elder residents had lined up along the wall in their wheel chairs waiting for the opening of the dining room for lunch.

One very bedraggled and frightened looking woman said: “I don’t know the way home.” And then she repeated more loudly: “I DON’T KNOW THE WAY HOME. I WANT TO GO HOME!” Then she cried in loud sobs. I was trembling.