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100% Scared: How the National Security Complex Grows on Terrorism Fears

Americans don't expect 100% safety from illness, car crashes, or even shark attacks. But our obsession with 100% safety from terrorism is fueling the military-industrial complex.

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Ironically, non-super-toxic versions of E. coli now cause almost as much damage yearly in the U.S. as the recent super-toxic strain has in Europe.  A child recently died in an outbreak in Tennessee.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have estimated that earlier in the decade about 60 Americans died annually from E. coli infections and ensuing complications, and another 2,000 were hospitalized.  More recently, the figure for E. coli deaths has dropped to about 20 a year.  For food-borne disease more generally, the CDC estimates that 48 million (or one of every six) Americans get sick yearly, 128,000 are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die.

By comparison, in the near decade since 9/11, while hundreds of Americans died from E. coli, and at least 30,000 from food-borne illnesses generally, only a handful of Americans, perhaps less than 20, have died from anything that might be considered a terror attack in this country, even if you include the assassination attempt against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Piper Cherokee PA-28 that a disgruntled software engineer flew into a building containing an IRS office in Austin, Texas, killing himself and an IRS manager.  ("Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well" went his final note.)

In other words, in terms of damage since 9/11, terror attacks have ranked above shark attacks but below just about anything else that could possibly be dangerous to Americans, including car crashes which have racked up between 33,800 and 43,500 deaths a year since 2001.

While E. coli deaths have dropped in recent years, no one expects them to get to zero, nor have the steps been taken that might bring us closer to the 100% safety mark.  As Gardiner Harris of the New York Times wrote recently, “A law passed by Congress last year gave the Food and Drug Administration new powers to mandate that companies undertake preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of such outbreaks, and the law called for increased inspections to ensure compliance. The agency requested additional financing to implement the new law, including hiring more inspectors next year. Republicans in the House have instead proposed cutting the agency’s budget.”

Doctrines from One to 100

Here, then, is one of the strange, if less explored, phenomena of our post-9/11 American age: in only one area of life are Americans officially considered 100% scared, and so 100% in need of protection, and that’s when it comes to terrorism.

For an E. coli strain that could pose serious dangers, were it to arrive here, there is no uproar.  No screaming headlines highlight special demands that more money be poured into food safety; no instant plans have been rushed into place to review meat and vegetable security procedures; no one has been urging that a Global War on Food-Borne Illnesses be launched.

In fact, at this moment, six strains of E. coli that do cause illness in this country remain unregulated.  Department of Agriculture proposals to deal with them are “stalled” at the Office of Management and Budget.  Meanwhile, the super-toxic E. coli strain that appeared in Europe remains officially unregulated here.

On the other hand, send any goofus America-bound on a plane with any kind of idiotic device, and the politicians, the media, and the public promptly act as if -- and it’s you I’m addressing, Chicken Little -- the sky were falling or civilization itself were at risk.

This might be of only moderate interest, if it weren’t for the U.S. national security state.  Having lost its communist super-enemy in 1991, it now lives, breathes, and grows on its self-proclaimed responsibility to protect Americans 100% of the time, 100% of the way, from any imaginable terror threat.