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Cars, Riptides, Lightning -- All More Likely to Kill You Than Terrorists

Any attempted terror attack, no matter how poorly executed, raises a national alarm -- and our paranoia only adds to the power of the imperial presidency.

Let me put American life in the Age of Terror into some kind of context, and then tell me you’re not ready to get on the nearest plane heading anywhere, even toward Yemen.

In 2008,  Americans were murdered, according to the FBI.  In that year, there were  34,017 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. and, so the U.S. Fire Administration tells us,  3,320 deaths by fire.  More than  11,000 Americans died of the swine flu between April and mid-December 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; on average, a staggering  443,600 Americans die yearly of illnesses related to tobacco use, reports the American Cancer Society;  5,000 Americans die annually from food-borne diseases; an estimated  1,760 children died from abuse or neglect in 2007; and the next year, 560 Americans died of weather-related conditions, according to the National Weather Service, including 126 from tornadoes, 67 from rip tides, 58 from flash floods, 27 from lightning, 27 from avalanches, and 1 from a dust devil.

As for airplane fatalities,  no American died in a crash of a U.S. carrier in either 2007 or 2008, despite 1.5 billion passengers transported.  In 2009, planes certainly went down and people died.  In June, for instance, a French flight on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared in bad weather over the Atlantic, killing 226.  Continental Connection Flight 3407, a regional commuter flight, crashed into a house near Buffalo, New York, that February killing 50, the  first fatal crash of a U.S. commercial flight since August 2006.  And in January 2009, US Airways  Flight 1549, assaulted by a flock of birds, managed a brilliant landing in New York’s Hudson River when disaster might have ensued.  In none of these years did an airplane go down anywhere due to terrorism, though in 2007 two terrorists  smashed a Jeep Cherokee loaded with propane tanks into the terminal of Glasgow International Airport.  (No one was killed.)    

The now-infamous Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his bomb-laden underwear toward Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, had 290 passengers and crew, all of whom survived.  Had the inept Abdulmutallab actually succeeded, the death toll would not have equaled the  324 traffic fatalities in Nevada in 2008; while the destruction of four Flight 253s from terrorism would not have equaled New York State’s 2008 traffic death toll of  1,231, 341 of whom, or 51 more than those on Flight 253, were classified as “alcohol-impaired fatalities.”

Had the 23-year-old Nigerian set off his bomb, it would have been a nightmare for the people on board, and a tragedy for those who knew them.  It would certainly have represented a safety and security issue that needed to be dealt with.  But it would  not have been a national emergency, nor a national-security crisis.  It would have been nothing more than a single plane knocked out of the sky, something that happens from time to time without the intervention of terrorists. 

And yet here’s the strange thing: thanks to what didn’t happen on Flight 253, the media essentially went mad, 24/7.  Newspaper coverage of the failed plot and its ramifications  actually grew for two full weeks after the incident until it had achieved something like  full-spectrum dominance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.  In the days after Christmas,  more than half the news links in blogs related to Flight 253.  At the same time, the Republican criticism machine (and the media universe that goes with it)  ramped up on the subject of the Obama administration’s terror wimpiness; the global air transport system plunked down millions of dollars on new technology which  will not find underwear bombs; the homeland security-industrial-complex had a  field day; and fear, that adrenaline rush from hell, was further embedded in the American way of life.

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