Don’t become accustomed to ‘acceptable’ deaths

There’s a unique moment during the airport screening process when a TSA agent sizes you up. You stand on the “suspicious side” of their wall of machines, but the “all clear” side is within sight, beckoning like the Promised Land. You meet the agent’s eyes and try not to look guilty (I try to think of puppies). If you’re good, you get to move along. But if you fail their mystery test, you’re singled out for an in-depth search.

They did this to me recently and confiscated my 4-ounce toothpaste. I lost a buck of inconsequential value, and a smidge of my dignity.

The gods of irony were watching my every move as I retied my Reeboks and proceeded to a magazine kiosk. There, I thumbed through a copy of Businessweek and stumbled upon this editorial headline: “Airport Security Is Making Americans Less Safe.”

Here’s the article’s argument in a nutshell. A Cornell University study showed that airport security hassles caused people to switch from air to road travel. Consequently, the vastly greater danger of cars versus planes led to 242 additional highway fatalities per month, or 30,000 deaths since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The article also points out the $8 billion in annual TSA funding, all to prevent a terrorist-caused death that is fractionally less likely than expiration by earthquake, drowning, lightning strike or bee sting.

Still stinging from the loss of my Pepsodent, I looked up from the magazine and thought, “Well, there you have it! We are 250,000 times more likely to die from a car crash than from al-Qaida lurking in economy class. Once word spreads about this article, we can shift all that TSA funding toward developing an automobile constructed entirely of corrugated cardboard and bubble wrap.”

That was three weeks ago. The article didn’t spread; TSA lines at DIA remain dreadful; and I’m still driving a death trap.

There’s a reason. Our society accepts certain kinds of deaths and in certain acceptable quantities. We prefer our preventable deaths to be scattered throughout our population so they don’t stand out so much, like random thistles in a field of wildflowers as big as the nation.

After the 1973 oil crisis, the country tried to limit highway speeds to 55 miles per hour to save both energy and 4,000 lives per year. But it didn’t stick. We like our speeds — I couldn’t bear to add seven more hours to our 20-hour annual drive to Wisconsin — and we accept the 30,000 deaths.

We accept 10,000 gun-related homicides every year. We insist upon guns for self-defense, even though the number of criminal gun uses vastly exceeds self-defense gun uses, according to a Harvard University study. Oh, and we shoot each other to death 800 times annually by accident. That’s OK, too.

Unbelievably, we accept 450,000 cigarette-related deaths annually. Our 9-year-old recently asked me, “Why don’t we make cigarettes illegal since they’re so dangerous?” I offered arguments based on our free enterprise system, historical precedent, and jobs for tobacco farmers, but they all sounded ridiculous to his nascent ears.

Give it up, Businessweek. Our society will continue to move heaven and Earth to prevent the kind of spectacular terrorist attack that makes the front page. Meanwhile, the back pages will continue to fill with acceptable tragedy.

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