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irregular times logoAmericaville and the Scale of Terror

As we approach the third anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, it seems that it's the duty of every member of the American media to try to put the attacks in perspective, to show what the September 11 attacks really mean. We're interested in these kinds of media trends, and so we thought that we'd join in this national effort to find meaning in the attacks of September 11, 2001. After all, as everyone says, everything changed on that day. It must be our duty, therefore, to investigate just how everything changed.

One of the challenges of understanding the events of September 11, 2001 is that the attacks seem so big. Approximately three thousand Americans were killed on September 11, 2001! Three thousand sounds like a big number, so big that we can't even picture that many dead bodies.

In order to better grasp the impact of the September 11 attacks, it's necessary to reduce the scale of the attacks, while preserving the attacks' scope. Basically, we need to stand back a bit so that we can see the whole landscape.

In order to do so, we'll use that great old mathematical technique we learned in elementary school: Simplifying fractions (who ever said we wouldn't use math in real life?). The process of simplifying fractions takes big, intimidating numbers and makes them easier to evaluate. For example, if we were told that 690 buffalo in a big herd of 85,100 buffalo carried mad cow disease, we could use the process of simplifying fractions to understand that 3 out of every 37 buffalo in that herd carry mad cow disease. These smaller numbers are just easier to picture.

Now, on September 11, 2001, the population of the United States was about 280 million. Out of that big population, just under 3,000 people were killed in the attacks. So, by simplifying fractions, we can see that just about 1 out of every 93,334 Americans were killed on September 11, 2001.

The Story of Americaville

So that we can understand the ramifications of these numbers, let's imagine that this smaller version of America actually exists, as a city. We'll call it Americaville.

What does Americaville look like, and how has it changed since September 11, 2001? Well, Americaville has a population of 93,334. Most of those Americans live in the middle of town, although some live in a ring of suburbs, and a few live in areas of countryside that are still within city limits.

Americatown has a pretty powerful mayor, who commands a small army taken from the city's population. Americaville's army has tanks and aircraft carriers, and even a few nuclear weapons. Americaville is by far the most powerful and richest city on the face of the Earth.

On September 11, 2001 a single member of a criminal gang that hides out in a little village far away, called Afghaniburgh, snuck into Americaville. Just as the day was getting started, that gang member killed one member of an accounting firm, chased everyone else out of the office, and burned the office down. The gang member killed himself in the process.

After a few weeks, the gang released a videotape saying that it was responsible for the murder and arson, and said that it was planning further attacks.

Pretty soon after the murder, the mayor of Americaville took his army and flew it over to Afghaniburgh. The mayor of Afghaniburgh and the leader of the criminal gang ran away to a secret hideout. Three years later, the mayor of Americaville still hasn't been able to find them, but the army remains there.

The mayor warned that another gang murder could be imminent, and started arresting people, and even torturing a few. No one really knew if these prisoners of the mayor had anything to do with the murder, but the citizens of Americaville said that something had to be done. When the courts tried to get information about these prisoners, they were told to mind their own business because the mayor needed to keep it all secret.

About a year later, the mayor of Americaville started saying that another little village, Iraqton, had an evil mayor who was developing secret murder weapons designed to kill another citizen of Americaville. There was never any evidence of such a plan, but the mayor of Americaville said that he had secret evidence that he just couldn't show anyone. The City Council decided to believe the mayor, and although only half of the citizens of Americaville approved, the mayor took most of the army out of Afghaniburgh, and sent it to take over Iraqton. One American soldier was killed as the citizens of Iraqton tried to defend their village from Americaville's huge army. Many more citizens of Iraqton were killed.

Three years passed, and although the mayor posted warnings about imminent murders every few months, the gang from Afghaniburgh never even tried to commit another murder in Americaville.

Nonetheless, the mayor of Americaville sent special security agents to the homes of his political opponents, and started new programs to have the police spy on the citizens of Americaville, "just in case." Citizens were searched whenever they tried to move around the city, and the mayor even started a huge new bureau, the bureau of Homeland Security, with the authority to conduct wiretaps and secret surveillance of unsuspecting citizens.

Still, the gang did not come back.

The mayor demanded more money from the citizens of Americaville in order to fund his anti-gang initiatives, and announced a plan to design new, anti-gang nuclear weapons. Much of the money from these initiatives ended up going to the mayor's old employer.

Once, someone pointed out that there had been at least 5 murders in Americaville every year, for the last 30 years. The only difference with the murder of September 11, 2001 was that it was committed by someone from a foreign village. Just a few years before, one of the citizens from the outskirts of Americaville had set off a bomb that blew up an entire government building and killed the person working inside. Yet, no one had started a war over that murder.

The mayor didn't listen to such comments, but talked of evildoers, and said that God was on his side. He played patriotic music, and waved the Americaville flag, and talked of the murder of September 11, 2001 almost every single day. He said that everything had changed, since the murder of September 11, 2001.

Things changed, all right, but did they change because of the attack, or because of the mayor's reaction to the attack?

Scare Little, Scare Big

The relevant question for Americaville, and for the United States of America, is this: Is it worth it for a city of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants to change their way of life because of the murder of one of them? At such a scale, the answer is clearly no.

Unfortunately, the answer gets muddled when the numbers get bigger, even though the principle is the same. After all, three thousand murders is a big number, and when three thousand people are murdered, it's a big bad thing, and big bad things need big bad responses, right?

Keeping an eye on the scale of the matter, we need to remember that in terms of the population of the United States of America, three thousand is a very tiny number. If there were three thousand murders in the small city of Americaville, it would be a very big deal. However, three thousand murders for the whole of the United States of America is, in fact, a very low number. In most years, there are at least five times that number of murders.

The deaths of the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001 were tragic, and the families of the victims are deserving of sympathy. However, for the rest of the nation, the impact of the attacks in themselves was not that significant. Most of the harm to the United States has come from the government's severe overreaction to the attacks.

One murder in a city of 93,000 is also an awful thing, but no real city would react in the extreme way that Americaville did just because of one murder. No real city would take away the freedoms of its citizens, harass them and control their movements, arrest and torture them, and bankrupt their economy in the way that the mayor of Americaville has.

If we are to accept that a city of 93,000 people must not change its way of life as a result of one murder, then we must also accept that a nation of 280,000,000 people must not change its way of life as a result of three thousand murders.

What the President of the United States and his supporters are counting on is that the citizens of the United States will not stop to look at the attacks of September 11, 2001 with this kind of detached perspective. Instead, the President will talk about how "we were all attacked" when we were not, and about how "the evildoers hate our freedom", when in fact it is the President of the United States himself who has done the most to undermine Americans' freedoms.

When the scale is small, it is easier to be rational, and to make decisions that are wise in the long term. When the scale is large, was the case with the attacks of the September 11, 2001, it is extremely difficult to exercise rational restraint.

America needs political leaders who have the wisdom to help the American people keep an eye on the long road ahead. Instead, we have elected leaders who are more interested in manipulating the emotional power of a short-term crisis. Such unscrupulous politicians are found in both major political parties in the United States. They will not willingly abandon the path of irrational terror, because it has served them well. If America is to be saved from the perils of paranoia, it must be the American people themselves who call an end to the blind exaggerations of the terrorist threat, and return our once-great nation to a course of secure and steady power.

The alternative to the paranoid War on Terror is not inaction. The alternative is to take action that is truly in proportion to the threat. America is much greater than the threat of the criminal gang of Al Quaida -- if it chooses to demonstrate its strength through restraint and intelligent action, even when terror is the instinctual reaction.

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