We're scared of all the wrong ways of dying

We're scared of all the wrong ways of dying

Last week, a terrorist plowed a car into a crowd of pedestrians near the Houses of Parliament in London. He then got out of his car, and managed to stab a cop before being killed by the police. Four people (and the terrorist) died. The story inevitably dominated Thursday's headlines -- vigils were held, speeches were made, Donald Trump, Jr. made repellent comments about London's mayor, and then life moved on, with a few articles here and there about London remaining defiant in the face of terror attacks.

London was my home for just under a year, and what shocked me the most, when I moved there, was the lack of garbage bins. There were none of them on the street, so I'd find myself carrying my coffee cup miles before I got to my destination and could dispose of it. The reason there were no bins, it turned out, was that back during the Troubles with Ireland, the IRA took to tossing bombs into London garbage bins. It became such a regular occurrence that the city decided to just do away with public garbage bins in the city center.

The IRA alone has mounted bombing or terrorist attacks 149 times in London (according to a cursory count of what's on the Wikipedia page) since 1939. On top of the IRA, in the past century, London has been bombed by Russian, Spanish, Greek, and Irish anarchists. It's been bombed by neo-Nazis, right-wingers, and pro-apartheid radicals. It's been bombed by Palestinians, Iranians, Egyptians, and Yemenis. Al-Qaeda famously attacked the city in 2005, and ISIS is claiming partial responsibility for the attack last week. 

London has seen some shit. And its attitude towards that shit is, indeed defiant. But any time there's a terrorist attack in a major western city, the news media here in the United States loses its mind a little bit. That seems surprising, given the frequency with which these attacks occur, and the relatively small number of people that they actually kill. This is not to trivialize the attacks or to downplay the tragedy of what happened last week. Those are lives lost and we'll never get them back. But if we hold all lives in equal regard, then sensationalized media coverage of terrorist attacks just doesn't make sense.

Maternity-related deaths in the US are out of control

It's the 21st Century. No one is giving birth in a log cabin anymore, and we more or less expect women to survive their pregnancies. But in the United States, for every 100,000 live births, 24 mothers die. According to the World Health Organization, this is a higher maternity death rate than in Libya, Turkey, and Iran. It translates to somewhere between 800 and 1000 women a year in the United States, or somewhere between 2 and 3 a day.

This isn't even to seize on a more politicized issue like American gun violence -- every decent American would say that any and all maternity deaths are unacceptable. But how many news articles did you read last week about mothers dyings? Probably around 15 women died last week giving birth in the United States alone. That's three times the number that died in the London attack. Which was more extensively covered? How many vigils were held for dead mothers?

Fear of a shark attack

This is, again, not to belittle terrorism deaths. Terrorist attacks are preventable, and we should do what we can to fight them. But our attention is more drawn to the explosions and the ultraviolence than it is to the death itself. 

I spend most of my time writing for a travel publication, and in the travel world, two fears come up fairly frequently. First: people are scared of dying in plane crashes. And second: people are scared of getting killed in a shark attack.

These fears are understandable -- both would be horrifying ways to die. To plummet from the sky in a fiery crash, to be ripped apart by an unseen monster from the depths -- these are legitimate fears. But while the visuals are scary, the reality isn't.

In a given year, sharks kill on average 12 people worldwide. Between 400 and 1000 people are killed each year in plane crashes. On the other hand, 372,000 people die each year from drowning. 1.3 million are killed in car crashes each year.

These fears don't come up for most of us every time we hop into a car or a pool. This is because we feel that we are mostly in control of these accidents, whereas on a plane or in a shark attack, our death is totally out of our control, and is much more spectacularly violent.

Terrorism, likewise, is a spectacular, out-of-our-control death. It feels like a shark attack. So it makes sense that our evolved fight-or-flight fear response would be more activated by it than it would, say, creeping afflictions like heart disease, which kills 1 in 4 people in the US.

How to save a life

Let's say you want to save lives. You have a job and hobbies and a family, but you want to do something for your community, so you can only pick one cause. Do you decide to fight terrorism? Or do you decide to fight heart disease?

If you wanted to save as many lives as possible, you would obviously choose heart disease. Not only are the solutions to the heart disease epidemic much less likely to result in drone strikes, military invasions, and further preventable death, but they are very probably going to save far more lives. 

The problem at the core of this is that we're getting stories on one type of death, but not so much on the other. And it's not as if death-by-terrorism is any more tragic than any other death. My aunt (whom I never met) died in childbirth in the early 80's. Her newborn daughter died with her. The scar of that tragedy has never left my family. But though literally millions of women have died of childbirth since she died (including an embarrassing number of American women), I have heard virtually no news stories about them. Nick Kristof at the New York Times occasionally writes about it, but that's basically it.

On the other hand, if there's a terrorist attack anywhere in the United States or Europe, I will hear about it instantly, and will see it in the news for days. This attention translates into a real world response. How much time, money, and energy has the United States put into fighting terrorism since 2001? How much time, money, and energy have we put towards fighting maternal mortality, which kills 10 times more people a year than terrorism?

Is one of these deaths truly more shocking than the other? If no, then why is one absorbing all of our attention?

Featured Photo: Petra Bensted

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