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English as a foreign language

Living as a German in an increasingly English-speaking world

2010-12-01: There is going to be a terrorist attack in Germany.

How do I know that? Well, actually I don’t. It’s just that I think it is inevitable. There have been attacks in the US, in the UK, in France, in Spain. Why not here? It is going to happen. And it’s not such a big deal as some people think.

People die premature deaths. That’s not nice, but it’s a fact of life. People die of preventable diseases, they are murdered or run over by a car while crossing the street. They die in accidents in the home, in house fires, air crashes. They drown, suffocate, starve to death or die of thirst. According to some estimates, in Germany alone, up to a 100,000 people die prematurely each and every year in hospitals from infectious diseases they hadn’t even contracted when they went in!

Money and effort are dedicated to try and prevent these premature deaths from happening. Which, of course, is good. But there is the law of diminishing returns, which makes it advisable to spend some money of effort to prevent the bulk of easily preventable premature deaths, accept the rest as a regrettable fact of life, and move on to spend the rest of the available money and effort on a different kind of easily preventable premature death. “Effort” in this case includes inconvenience and hassle caused to people.

As an example: about 40,000 people die in car crashes in the US every year. Could all of these premature deaths be prevented? Maybe not. But many of them? Absolutely. Easily even. Outlaw driving.

So why isn’t driving outlawed if it could save so many lives? Because the effort involved isn’t worth it. Outlawing driving would so severely disrupt our daily lives that we accept a certain number of victims to be able to carry on with our present lifestyle. Which is absolutely fine.

Interestingly enough, the same approach is taken even in the light of the recent terrorist attacks (or attempts at such attacks) with air cargo. The TSA (the government aviation safety people in the US) has concluded that requiring all carriers bringing air cargo into the US to screen all their cargo for bombs would “unduly impede the flow of commerce”. It’s the law of diminishing returns again – the disruption would be unacceptable in relation to the risk incurred, so we’ll live with the risk.

Unfortunately, such level-headedness does not prevail when it comes to screening airline passengers. There is a simple reason for this – humans react with irrational panic to extremely rare incidents with massive negative consequences such as loss of life, like a terrorist attack or the crash of a passenger aircraft or train, while numbly accepting the much more common tragedy incurred in everyday events like in-hospital infections or highway deaths, with a much higher death toll overall. So in order to be seen doing something to counter the – if considered rationally, rather insignificant – terrorist threat, massive security theatre is enacted, with tremendous inconvenience and material loss to passengers, not to mention their dignity when given the choice of being virtually stripped naked in a perv scanner or fondled in the genital area by a TSA agent.

The sinister side to this: because we act this way, the terrorists have won. The primary aim of terrorism is not to kill people. It’s to instil terror. And that has worked remarkably well, even if the attacks themselves have mostly failed. All of this is helped by the fact that a general feeling of panic and anxiety in the population is advantageous for the incumbent government, so governments like to foment this feeling. (This, I think, applies to Germany as well as to the US and other countries.)

With this, I’d like you to refer you to an article by David Foster Wallace, which I found on Bruce Schneier’s outstandingly level-headed blog which I suggest you all read. My hope is that you are not blown up in mid-air by a bomb in a package that couldn’t be screened because that would unduly impede the flow of commerce right after you were made to dump your $100 bottle of champagne because it just might have been the missing part of a bomb.

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