For a long time I’ve had a post rattling around in my head about fear. I’ve had no luck writing the thing. But this great post by Alex, about a Cato Institute paper called "A False Sense of Insecurity" (PDF), finally spurred me to make the attempt. Bear with me.

What harms people in the U.S.?

Mainly heart disease and cancer, along with several other health ailments, accidents (mostly automobile), and suicide.

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Homicide used to be among the top 15 killers, but it dropped off that list in 2003. Military attack on home soil hasn’t happened since WWII. And terrorism? From the Cato paper:

Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

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There’s more to threat assessment than body count, but … peanuts?

It seems the main threat to the Americans comes not from other people but from ourselves: smoking, eating poorly, getting no exercise, polluting our air and water, and driving around in 2-ton personal vehicles.

And yet. What do we spend money on? Defending ourselves against other people. Almost half the U.S. federal budget is devoted to military expenditures. (Of course, the lion’s share of DoD money is not "defending" us from anything. But put that aside.) Bush’s military budget request for 2007 is over $460 billion. That’s about 46 times the total U.N. budget, seven times larger than the military spending of China (the next biggest spender), and bigger than the military spending of the next 14 nations combined.

The Iraq war may yet run us over $1 trillion.

We Americans spend a grossly disproportionate amount on threats from other people rather than the things that, objectively speaking, most endanger our health and well-being. But harm is harm; death is death. I don’t see why those who suffer and die from diseases of civilization are any less to be lamented than those killed by terrorists.

Americans also spend a grossly disproportionate amount of time thinking about threats from other people. Parents live in terror of "stranger danger" and child abduction, while stuffing their children with fatty, salty food, allowing them to sit in front of video games for eight hours a day, exposing them to environmental toxins, and driving them around in cars that mangle and kill thousands of them every year.

Fear of crime has risen in tandem with punitive criminal sentences for years, even though violent crime has declined for over a decade.

It sometimes seems that the healthier, wealthier, and safer we get, the more we fear other people. Why?

The biochemical system homo sapiens uses for threat assessment evolved over many thousands of years of brutal animal life on the savanna, at a time when living to 30 qualified you as a senior citizen. Immediate danger to person or tribe elicits a torrent of hormones from our adrenal glands; we are gripped by a fight-or-flight response.

As a way of avoiding danger on the savanna, it’s handy. As a way of assessing the dangers of 21st century human society — the worst of which are slow, imperceptible, and accumulative — it sucks. Really sucks.

The toxic American political milieu thrives on this maladaptation. That as much as anything explains why contemporary environmentalism is difficult (dead, whatever). More on that next post.