Hysteria and the Myth
of Absolute Security

You know, I miss the conservatives who told us it was too costly to remove arsenic from our drinking water.

No, really. Oh they were blatantly wrong on the benefits of tightening standards for arsenic in our water -- a fact acknowledged by the Bush administration as they quietly reinstated the Clinton-established regulations a few weeks ago.

But the principle that risks have to be measured against the costs and the idea that absolute security is impossible -- or usually so costly as to be undesirable -- is a correct one. Unfortunately, it's a principle that's been loss since S11 as hysteria has taken over.

Out of fear, Americans have cut back flying, leading to mass layoffs at the airlines and a near collapse of the tourist industry around the country. This in turn has helped accelerate the deepening recession, helping to throw even more people out of work.

Out of fear, our political leaders are tossing the Bill of Rights out of the Constitution at an even more alarming rate.

And the sad fact is none of this is likely to make us that much more secure, since for every anthrax letter intercepted, tens of thousands of people are losing their health care coverage along with their jobs. Four people have died in the last three months from anthrax attacks. 91,425 died last year from pneumonia and influenza, and that number will only increase as lost health coverage translates into more deaths.

What is lost is any sense of proportion and of the costs of hysteria. Four thousand deaths on Sept. 11 is a horrible, grisly reminder of those who so little value other peoples lives.

But so are the 12,000 people who are murdered by guns each year.

But so are the 16,653 people who died in drunken driving crashes last year.

We could try to eliminate all those other deaths by banning alcohol and all ownership of guns, but as experience shows, people would still probably find both guns and alcohol -- maybe a bit less but the costs of enforcing the laws might be worse than the original problem. The death and ravages of the failed war on drugs show how costly "solutions" based on destroying liberties can be.

That's not to say that rational security measures can't save lives. It's worth remembering that the basic security measures in place required intense secrecy and discipline by the S11 terrorists and forced them to spend four years planning their attacks. But it's also unclear that any of the additional loss of civil liberties in the last few months would have, if already in place, have done anything to stop the same result.

Unlike reducing arsenic levels, which will decrease deaths in a nearly guaranteed manner for each percentage removed (if at an escalating cost), terrorism will not neatly decrease for each Amendment of the Bill of Rights we destroy. Unlike poison in the water, terrorism backed by the human mind can always, where there is a will, find the one option left unprotected.

There is no absolute security, so once basic measures are taken, policy has to move to smarter cost-benefit approaches to address the other side of the equation -- undercutting the will of the terrorists, and more importantly, eliminating the recruiting ground for the next generation of potential terrorists. And the recruiting ground in the modern world are the war-scarred and poverty-stricken countries of the world.

It is no accident that bin Laden and Al Qaeda have found refuge in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan, two of the poorest and most war-torn nations in the world.

The United States should be able to demand and expect sympathy for our terrible loss on Sept. 11, but in demanding that sympathy, we need to extend it as well to those around the world who suffer death every day, death that could be prevented with minimal help.

* 3 million people die every year globally from preventable tuberculosis.

* 2.2 million people, mostly children, die annually from diarrhea.

* 1.1 million die annually from malaria.

So how about this for cost-benefit analysis? As we spend tens of billions of dollars on "homeland security", maybe we can spend a few billion on real global security to ease the disease and death that drive so many to despair and, occasionally, into the recruiting arms of mass murderers.

UNICEF estimates that three million lives are lost from diseases that are preventable with existing vaccines. Today, the cost of buying vaccines to give a child lifetime immunity against polio, measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus is approximately 72 cents (US$). That's just a few billion dollars to immunize the whole world. Other diseases, like AIDS, may take a bit more to ease the suffering, but even addressing these basic issues, along with the economic aid to ease day-to-day poverty and assist economic development, would dramatically increase our real security at far less cost than anything else we are doing. The worse case scenario is that all we accomplish is saving a few million lives each year.

And it would be far more effective than the costly and futile search for absolute security at home based on undermining the liberty we are supposedly defending.

Hysteria is a poor roadmap to policy. Hard-headed cost-benefit analysis, combined with a bit of compassion, will serve us far better in this new era.

Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

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