What are we afraid of? Laughing in the face of (unlikely) death

A few weeks ago, a flurry of news reports, commentary, and at least one poll indicated that Americans were once again seriously afraid of terrorism. According to a Times article posted online December 10, a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in early December showed that “Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any other time since the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.” Has this carried through Christmas? Apparently so. According to a report released this morning, a recent CNN/ORC poll showed that 45 percent of Americans polled “are very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.” I’ve got news for you, as my Texas-born grandfather used to say. It ain’t likely to happen.

Some news sources have paired the terror threat with the gun-control issue. On December 7, the Times pointed out that

The death toll from jihadist terrorism in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — 45 people — is about the same as the 48 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing extremist ideologies, according to New America, a research organization in Washington.

And both tolls are a small fraction of the number of conventional murders, more than 200,000 in the same period.

A few days later, The Economist reported the same number of deaths from jihadist violence and added, presumably counting suicides and accidents along with murders, that “Since 9/11, over 400,000 people have been killed by gunfire in America.”

But there’s no reason to limit the discussion to firearms. Two words: Remember anthrax? In the fall of 2001, it had people on edge. After consulting some statistics and finding that almost nothing was less likely to kill you, I worked up a short commentary, which has languished since then in my archives. It appears here with minor edits.

Okay, so the specter of death by anthrax stalks the land, and sales of Cipro have skyrocketed lately. Guess what? If the 1998 numbers are any sign, you’re still more likely to die from antibiotics than from anthrax. Yep—the friendly little germ-fighters killed 39 people that year.

Keep that in mind when you ring up your doctor’s cute receptionist to plead for a prescription. Speaking of doctors, they’re only human, right? The National Safety Council, which tallies what people die of every year, has a category called “Complications and misadventures of surgical and medical care.” What it means is—whoops!—you don’t come out of the doctor’s office the same way you went in. In 1998, it happened 3,228 times.

Wow! That’s a lot of people. Why, that’s more than died from

  • flying around in planes and spaceships (692)
  • accidental poisoning by gases and vapors (546)
  • catching your clothes on fire (171)
  • getting too hot (375)
  • getting too cold (420)
  • mean agricultural machines (567), and
  • “legal intervention” (379) all put together!

Numbers like that really put a new perspective on ordinary fears, don’t they? Your nagging golf-game fixation with lightning (63) must seem pretty foolish now. The prospect of a painful stinging death while picnicking among hornets, wasps, or bees (46)—trivial. And the threat of catching a fatal disease you just got vaccinated against (4) is totally off the radar.

You have bigger problems to worry about now. Much bigger. You might be done in by “other and unspecified” (3,259), meaning no one could figure out what the hell happened to you. Playing at this level, you no longer fear an accidental run-in with a gun (866). You know better: you’re more likely to have an intentional run-in with one and end up either as a homicide by firearm (11,798) or—you’ve really got to watch yourself in these troubled times—a suicide (17,424).

But even if you manage to dodge all those bullets, you’ll still have to be pretty nimble to survive. After all, 16,274 people died in 1998 just by falling down.


2 thoughts on “What are we afraid of? Laughing in the face of (unlikely) death

  1. Ha,very amusing. I remember the anthrax hysteria very well, not only one of the editors where I worked then spending half the day on the phone trying to score cipro but also my train being delayed by an hour for an investigation of white powder on a seat that turned out to be sugar from somebodys effing doughnut. This is why you are not supposed to eat on the train, peeps. Seriously!


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