In philosophy, I’ve always thought that those who abstract the value of human life across different contexts are very much not to be trusted. Ethics and politics are necessarily strategic. When we abstract from context, we lose the details that should inform our conduct.
The excellent Bill Vallicella argues such a point in his rebuttal, “Why some think that terrorism is no big deal,” to Bryan Caplan and Nathan Smith’s views that people fret too much about terrorism because so many more people die other preventable events, they pick the example of automobile accidents. While I certainly think that the statement that people fret too much about terrorism should go without saying. However, I do not believe that their argument is all that convincing and agree with Mr. Vallicella when he writes:
But this sort of reasoning involves vicious abstraction. It is highly unreasonable to consider merely the numbers on both sides while abstracting from the motives of the terrorists and the societal impact of terrorism. With very few exceptions, drivers do not intend to kill anyone, and when their actions bring about deaths, those deaths involve only themselves and a few others.
Suppose a drunk driver unintentionally causes the death of himself and a family of five. Total deaths = 6. Other people will be affected, of course, but not many. (The wife and children of the drunk driver will now have less income to get by on, etc.) The effects are confined to a small circle of acquaintances and the effects are not additive in the way that the effects of terror events are additive.
One cannot reasonably abstract from the political agenda of terrorists and the effects even a few terrorist events have on an entire society. Ask yourself: has your life changed at all since 9/11? It most certainly has if you travel by air whether domestically or internationally. And even if you don't. Terrorists don't have to kill large numbers to attain their political goal and wreak large-scale disruption. The Tsarnaev attack on the Boston Marathon shut down the city for a few days. Same with Paris, San Bernardino, Madrid, London, etc. That had all sorts of repercussions economic and psychological.
Deaths due to terrorism have wider effects than deaths due to automobile accidents. Mr. Caplan gets that point right in a follow-up to Mr. Vallicella’s remarks, writing:
"This boils down to complaining about the reaction to terrorism. But that's ultimately my and Nathan's point: Popular cures for terrorism are far worse than the disease."
He is right, but then he fails to recognize what, I believe is Mr. Vallicella’s point: That the deaths due to terrorism will have a qualitatively different effect as deaths due to tragedies people consider mundane. As much as intellectuals, such as Mr. Caplan, may be right in arguing that popular cures for terrorism are worse than the disease, his saying that won’t have much impact on whether those cures are implemented. I don’t think that the voting public will ever think after a terrorist attack: “Well, these things are bound to happen and we are safely within the acceptable level of deaths.” They should, and they may come to such an opinion when time passes and cooler heads prevail.
Nevertheless, in thinking about policy, the public response to terrorism must always be factored in when thinking about terrorism strategically. Policy-makers should adjust their actions based on how they believe voters and commentators alike will respond to terrorist attacks because those responses will have definite effects, just like the terrorist attack.
We shouldn’t be romantic about how people will respond to terrorism. If we take reactions to terrorism attacks, such as those that happened in Istanbul last week or Paris a couple of months ago, as given, terrorism will generally have the cost of creating public uproar to stop terrorism. As much as that public uproar may be unproductive, it shall still be there, and a wise statesman should take that into account. Not stopping a terrorist attack therefore might have a second-order effect in causing anti-terrorism panic.
Ultimately, Mr. Vallicella is right. If we care about civil liberty, we do need to take seriously the fact that terrorist attacks have adverse consequences for those freedoms. Going on to pretend that a serious terrorist attack won’t empower those who desire to mitigate our civil liberties in favor of harsher anti-terrorism measures is nothing less than a romantic view of politics.