Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Blurring the lines


Those of us of a statistical turn of mind and inclined toward caution (not the same, even if the categories may be highly correlated) like to compare the lives lost to terror attacks (about which there tends to be unbounded panic, leading to willingness to abandon vast stores of wealth, national pride, and long-cherished principles of justice) and to the sorts of banal lethal events that people don’t get very excited about. For example, there was the study showing that additional automobile travel due to fear of airplane hijacking in the few months following the 9/11 attacks killed more people — through the ordinary difference in automobile and airplane fatality rates — than were killed in the planes on 9/11 (and over time may have killed 2300 people, almost as many as the entire death toll of the attacks).

An obvious point of comparison is between the Paris terror attacks and the remarkably similar style of mass shootings that have become such a regular affair in the US. (More than one a day in 2015!) The latter evokes reactions ranging from a shrug to a right-to-bear-arms rally. The former have American conservatives — who not too long ago would eat nothing but freedom fries — expressing their fraternité with the noble liberty-loving French people, and the need to exclude refugees from ISIS from the US because you can never be too careful. The connection was best expressed by Texas congressman Tony Dale, with an “A” rating from the NRA, who argued that Syrian refugees need to be kept out of Texas because once legally admitted they would be entitled to Texas drivers licenses, and with those they could freely purchase firearms:

While the Paris attackers used suicide vests and grenades it is clear that firearms also killed a large number of innocent victims. Can you imagine a scenario were a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States, is provided federal cash payments and other assistance, obtains a drivers license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?

But the two most recent widely publicised mass shootings seem almost as though they could have been designed by a Mephistophelean political science student as a project to show the optimal way of blurring any distinction between the two phenomena. First you have obviously political violence at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, but the killer is also a disturbed loner with anger-management problems, and the right wing doesn’t want to call him a terrorist because he’s white and Christian. Then you have what looks like a typical workplace massacre by a disgruntled employee, but then it turns out that the employee has been in contact with ISIS organisers.

You’d think it might make people wonder if the strategy of keeping Americans safe by keeping the people who “want to do us harm” out might not be so effective…

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