Today is December 7th, a day that shall live in infamy, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor seventy-four years ago. It seems like a good day to reflect on the hysteria engendered by the horrific events in San Bernardino, California. Considering that one official governmental response to Pearl Harbor was the internment in concentration camps of roughly 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent, sixty percent of whom were citizens, we should perhaps not be surprised by the calls for the registration and monitoring of Muslim Americans or the closing of mosques.
All of which, besides depressing me horribly, raises once more in my mind a question I have often brooded on, namely: How ought we to evaluate the relative importance of social phenomena whose magnitudes vary greatly? Let me explain what I mean by this rather obscure question.
Fourteen people were murdered in San Bernardino, and almost two dozen were injured, several critically. That is perfectly awful. Since September 11, 2001, I believe almost three score people have been killed in the United States in similar terrorist attacks, or so one television commentator asserted. The number sounds about right. During those same fourteen years, 120,000 Americans have been killed by guns [including those who killed themselves, just to be clear .] I cannot imagine any rational mode of discourse that treats the former number as somehow more important than the latter number. And yet, people who would pass most tests for sanity , if not intelligence, are eager to take dramatic steps to prevent another San Bernardino although they would not even consider equally vigorous steps to diminish, say by half, the number of deaths from firearms in the next fourteen years.
The group of sadists, adventurers, displaced military brass, and religious fanatics in Syria and Iraq who call themselves a Caliphate pose no realistic threat to the security of the United States whatsoever. Indeed, they are a great deal less dangerous than the hygienic practices in most American hospitals. And yet even so deliberate and cautious a person as President Obama thinks that it must be a central goal of American foreign policy that they be defeated.
One of the great virtues of old-fashioned Benthamite Act-Utilitarianism, despite its fatal logical other flaws [such as the injunction to maximize several independent functions simultaneously, which is in general mathematically impossible] was the fact that it gave us a simple, comprehensible procedure for comparing alternative policies, actions, or states of affairs: add up the pleasures and pains -- the one with the greater felicific index is superior.
By that measure, ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh is, for America, a minor irritation, roughly on a par with, but perhaps not as serious as, the distressing state of America's roads and bridges. The deaths of those murdered in San Bernardino, are tragic, but so are the deaths of a busload of school children caused by a crumbling bridge. And so are the deaths of 120,000 victims of gun violence -- just not nearly so tragic as those 120,000.
Will there be more killings in America by ISIS-inspired terrorist s? Undoubtedly. Will more people die in American hospitals from iatrogenic diseases? Certainly. Will more people die needlessly on the highways? Of course. And will all of those deaths be dwarfed by the deaths of victims of gunfire? Oh yes.
It does not take a prophet to predict which of those deaths will receive the greatest attention.