No one wants to speak about death as though it doesn't matter. Of course it matters, even more so to the loved ones left behind than to the deceased. But I think America is badly in need of a reality check on this unpleasant subject.
What if I told you that 43,200 innocent Americans were violently killed last year as they were minding their own business, going about their lives heading to work, daycare, school, church when -- BAM!
Would you be shocked? Would you barricade yourself in your house? Nope. Each year you are informed that some 40,000-plus Americans got themselves killed driving their cars. And, unless someone you knew was among them, you don't give it a second thought.
But, we don't seem able to exercise the same cool when it comes to the threat of terrorism. On Sept. 11, 2001, a terrorist attack killed nearly 3,000 Americans, a tragedy of enormous proportions to be sure.
But, among the list of causes for people's deaths that year, that attack represented a fraction of a percent of the total. The highest death toll from a single 2001 event came in January's giant earthquake in Gujarat, India, which claimed 15,000 lives. Nevertheless, 9/11 has thrown America's collective psyche into irrational fear and turmoil.
I know the risk -- even folly -- of trying to inject statistics into such an emotion-driven discussion. But, let's take that risk. If you were going to die this year, here's the identity of the "terrorists" most likely to cause your untimely demise:
Osama bin Automobile: 40,000-plus
Falling down: 15,000
Accidental poisoning: 8,600
Drowning (swimming or bathing): 4,000 plus
Bugs (respiratory diseases): 122,000
Yourself (suicide): 130,000
As you can see from the list, there are plenty of everyday things that can kill you even in the most peaceful times. Nevertheless, the nation is suddenly consumed by a statistically unlikely fear that a terrorist will be our doorman to the hereafter.
Such irrational fears do not come out of nowhere. Our own government and the media have been working overtime to scare the bajeebbers out of us. The 24-hour cable news shows churn out an endless series of speculative analysis of what terrorists "might" be capable of. Smallpox, anthrax, ricin -- can they? Would they? Maybe, maybe not. Never mind, it fills airtime and rivets an already nervous populace to their TV sets.
The government has not been much better with its nonsensical color-coded alert scale -- recently upgraded from an un-mellow yellow (Elevated) to a nervous-looking orange (High). But, just what are we supposed be "alert" to? They don't know. How reassuring.
And how about our new Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, advising us to stock up on food, duct tape and plastic sheeting? That advice was about as useful as the advice we used to get back in the 1950s on how to protect ourselves from an all-out Soviet nuclear attack. Remember "Duck and Cover"? Today's version is apparently "Duct Tape and Cover."
Look, I'm not trying to trivialize the very real threats and dangers we face. The New World Order we hoped for at the end of the Cold War has morphed into the New World Disorder. And there's every indication it's going to stay that way for many years to come.
War with Iraq or no war with Iraq, America -- like the fastest gun in old Westerns -- will remain the target of choice for groups that want to make a point and/or a name for themselves. And honest, patriotic Americans on both sides of the issue can argue as long as they want about how much of this trouble America has or has not brought upon itself. Terrorists, foreign and domestic, will continue trying to take their best shot at us.
All I am proposing is that we put whatever crawls out of that geopolitical Pandora's box in a realistic place on our personal worry meters. Even counting the 9/11 casualties -- the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by any country -- fewer than 3,500 people worldwide died from terrorist-type attacks during 2001, according to U.S. State Department statistics. That same year the U.S. Center for Health Statistics reports that over 2.4 million Americans died from a list of 15 ordinary, boring and un-newsworthy diseases and accidents.
So, here's hoping you live long and prosper. But if you really want to reduce your chances of dying this year, park your car in your garage and duct tape the door shut.
-- Stephen Pizzo is a freelance journalist trying to live quietly in Sonoma County, California.
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