Fears are an interesting thing. If we were rational creatures, our fears would be based firmly in those things that pose the most risk to our lives. But we all know they are not. When people visit from out of state, you see that clearly. Alaskans have, for the most part, gotten over their fear of being eaten by a bear or attacked by a wolf. Moose, on the other hand, make many of us wary. Newcomers to the state, however, seem to harbor huge fears of the elusive bear and wolf attacks, and gamely wander out of their cars to take pictures only feet from moose, especially moose with calves.
Fears seem to be personal, too. I have spent most of my life afraid of heights, though I've found ways to manage that out of necessity. My son spent a couple of his early years being afraid of grass, which made the onset of winter a relief. My dog is panic-stricken by balloons, and I'm pretty sure no real harm has ever come to her from one.
And then there is our fear of terrorism. Nothing seems to get us wound up quite as quickly as a person armed with a bomb or a gun, intent on killing people. It's interesting too that dangerous people from our own country, state or community set on causing harm don't seem to have the same impact. In downtown Anchorage not that long ago, a man crashed a plane into an office building. I don't hear a lot of talk about that now — people aren't ducking every time they hear an airplane overhead. Somehow, when a deadly individual is anonymous, or perhaps from a foreign land, it sets our fear-senses buzzing. How many others are there? Could an entire nation hate us so much, be so brainwashed they all want to kill us?
Terrorism is effective not because of those who are hurt and injured, but because of the number of unknowns involved. It lets our imagination go wild, just like it does with spiders, snakes and getting hit by lightning.
In reality, terrorist attacks, like the one that sadly befell Brussels this week, pose minute risk to us, in the grand scheme of things. Some statisticians have put the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack at one in 20 million. That means you are 35,000 times more likely to die from heart disease and a thousand times more likely to die from choking, but that doesn't stop many Americans from wolfing down hamburgers and french fries fearlessly. One blogger noted a person is more likely to be killed by brain-eating parasites, falling out of bed, and even your own toddler than you were to be hurt by terrorists.
But the real danger isn't a collapse in tourism because of our fear of terroristic threats, though that wouldn't be great for Alaska. No, the real danger behind fears is when someone panders to them — uses them to their advantage to get what they want.
See, fears make us very vulnerable, and in the wrong hands, that vulnerability can cause real, lasting damage. Like children, we want someone to tell us everything will be OK, that we will be safe. We waste gobs of time and money trying to calm our fears, like testing every baby bottle taken aboard an airplane to make sure it's not filled with some sort of explosive liquid. But really, all that effort is ineffective.
The real danger is when fears start to become a pawn in politics. Nothing seems to galvanize people in a particular direction faster than fear. And all of a sudden, things that would never have seemed rational before we were afraid make perfect sense.
Right now, Americans have an incredibly important decision to make about who will lead our nation. We should be considering candidates based on their leadership ability, knowledge, experience and point of view. Instead, so much of the conversation seems to be about fears, and the irrational promises being made about how to minimize risks that are essentially impossible to minimize in a free society.
What happened in Brussels, in Paris and on our own soil are terrible tragedies, and there is no justification for such senseless violence. But we must all remember that the point of such acts is not to kill as many people as possible. If that were the case, the weapons would be much bigger. The real point of terrorism is to make people fearful. Because when people are fearful, you can control them.
As we make choices in coming weeks and months, we must make sure we keep our fears in check. We must not let this act of terrorism change our actions, and we especially must not let it guide our political decisions.
Because if we do, we may indeed have something real to fear in the not-so-distant future.
Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.
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