Freaking out about the wrong thing
I just finished a five-month leave from this column, writing a book with my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and what struck me while away from the daily fray is a paradox that doesn’t seem quite patriotic enough for July Fourth.
But I’ll share it anyway: On security issues, we Americans need a rebalancing. We appear willing to bear any burden, pay any price, to confound the kind of terrorists who shout “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and plant bombs, while unwilling to take the slightest step to curb a different kind of terrorism — mundane gun violence in classrooms, cinemas and inner cities that claims 1,200 times as many American lives.
When I began my book leave, it seemed likely that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut would impel Congress to approve universal background checks for gun purchases. It looked as if we might follow Australia, which responded to a 1996 gun massacre by imposing restrictions that have resulted in not a single mass shooting there since.
Alas, I was naive. Despite 91 percent support from voters polled in late March and early April, Congress rejected background checks. Political momentum to reduce gun killings has now faded — until the next such slaughter.
Meanwhile, our national leaders have been in a tizzy over Edward Snowden and his leaks about National Security Agency surveillance of — well, just about everything. The public reaction has been a shrug: Most people don’t like surveillance, but they seem willing to accept it and much more as the price of suppressing terrorism.
Our response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and international terrorism has been remarkable, including an intelligence apparatus in which some 1.4 million people (including, until recently, Snowden) hold “top secret” clearances.
That’s more than twice the population of the District of Columbia. The Washington Post has reported that since 9/11, the United States has built new intelligence complexes equivalent in office space to 22 United States Capitol buildings.
All told, since 9/11, the United States has spent $8 trillion on the military and homeland security, according to the National Priorities Project, a research group that works for budget transparency. That’s nearly $70,000 per American household.
Some of that money probably helped avert other terrorist attacks (although some of it spent in Iraq and Afghanistan may have increased risks). We need a robust military and intelligence network, for these threats are real. An al-Qaida attack is an assault on the political system in a way that an ordinary murder is not. And overseas terrorists do aspire to commit mass murder again, perhaps with chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, and our government is right to work hard to prevent such a cataclysm.
But there are trade-offs, including other ways to protect the public, and our entire focus seems to be on national security rather than on more practical ways of assuring our safety.
The imbalance in our priorities is particularly striking because since 2005, terrorism has taken an average of 23 American lives annually, mostly overseas — and the number has been falling.
More Americans die of falling televisions and other appliances than from terrorism. Twice as many Americans die of bee or wasp stings annually. And 15 times as many die by falling off ladders.
Most striking, more than 30,000 people die annually from firearms injuries, including suicides, murders and accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. American children are 13 times as likely to be killed by guns as in other industrialized countries.
Doesn’t it seem odd that we’re willing to spend trillions of dollars, and intercept metadata from just about every phone call in the country, to deal with a threat that, for now, kills but a few Americans annually — while we’re too paralyzed to introduce a rudimentary step like universal background checks to reduce gun violence that kills tens of thousands?
Wasn’t what happened at Sandy Hook a variant of terrorism? And isn’t what happens in troubled gang-plagued neighborhoods of Chicago just as traumatic for schoolchildren, leaving them suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder?
I don’t see any glib solutions here, just a need for a careful balancing of risks and benefits. I’d say that in auto safety, we get it about right. We give most adults access to cars, but we regulate them with licenses, insurance requirements and mandatory seat belts. In the case of national security and terrorism, I wonder if we haven’t overdeployed resources.
In the case of guns, we don’t do enough. Baby steps, consistent with the Second Amendment, would include requiring universal background checks, boosting research to understand gun violence and investing in smarter guns. A debit card requires a code to work, a car requires a key — and a gun, nothing at all.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.