Thursday, December 10, 2015

Probabilities and the perception of danger

There is now a petition in Parliament to prevent Donald Trump from entering the UK because of his hate-speeches about Muslims (UK debates a ban on Trump), and Canada and Australia are now routinely warning their citizens about traveling in the U.S. because of the danger due to the gun culture here . This is like the warning to U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen or Libya, or other such places, because of the danger of violent crimes against Americans. So should we be worried about dangerous Muslims in the U.S. or dangerous Americans in general?  While Trump rails against Muslims and their potential danger to Americans, we have experienced slightly more than one mass shooting (defined as a killing of 4 or more people in a single incident) per day in 2015 (Mass shootings). Of more than 300 such shootings this year, only 1-2 were perpetrated by people who were foreign-born; the rest were done by wacky Americans with guns. In addition, another 30,000 people were killed by shootings in events that do not qualify as a mass-shooting. Of course, the Republican politicians’ uncreative solution to this problem is for all of us to carry more guns. How absurd!

Perception is nearly everything, when one has to triage what is safe and what is dangerous. In my case, I fear Americans with guns the most, with foreign-born terrorists following at a very distant third. I can’t even list number two, for fear of alienating some friends and relatives. I’m guessing that many people would put my number 3 as their number 1. But the data do not support that ranking. I almost never worry about foreign terrorism, because it is very rare in the U.S. But every time I walk into a 7-11 or a public school, I think consciously about some deranged guy who bears a grudge or has some kind of mental derangement, and I scan the area for suspicious people, escape routes, doors, and windows. Even though I know that the probability that I will be harmed violently is still exceedingly small, it is now on my mind much of the time. And this is no way to live.

The irony is that of the dozen or so countries where I have spent significant time in the past decade, the U.S. is the only place where I am somewhat preoccupied with the perception of possible violence. The only other place that matched this feeling was Nairobi, Kenya, although my travels through the rest of Kenya did not elicit this feeling. And in Uganda, I spent a week traveling from the Kenyan border on the east to the Rwandan border on the west, followed by a couple of days in Kampala the capitol. On that trip, I had total peace of mind about my safety, even though I was the only white guy for tens of miles in any direction during most of that week. For me, the main reason for this feeling of safety in foreign countries and my feeling of non-safety in my own country is the incredible difference in the availability of weapons. The number of small firearms in the U.S. now numbers more than 300,000,000, which represents more privately-owned small handguns per capita by far than any country in the world (Number of guns per capita). These numbers do not include rifles and shotguns, only handguns.

So what to do? I’m really not sure how to solve this problem. But let’s at least start by trying to match our perception of danger with the actual probabilities. The chances of being shot by a native- born American with a gun is on the order of 10,000 times greater than being hurt by a foreign-born terrorist, using the numbers cited above in the referenced article. The chances of being killed by someone who is driving while texting is probably even greater than that, but this form of mayhem never even makes it to the front page. My conclusion is that all this hype about dangerous immigrants and Muslim terrorists is overplayed, given the actual facts, but it resonates with the xenophobia that is so curiously common in the U.S.