Friday, January 14, 2011

Let's Not Overreact

At the risk of being a reactionary, can we please stop overreacting to tragic events?

At the time of this writing, the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nearly 20 others in Tucson, AZ, is barely 24 hours old. And this columnist is as concerned about these kinds of senseless killings as the next person. Moreover, my sympathy and condolences go out to everyone injured and killed in Tucson.

But, at the same time, it never ceases to amaze me how Americans have a penchant for quickly reacting to these events, leaping to wild and unsubstantiated conclusions, and suggesting knee-jerk remedies. In the case of the Tucson shooting, immediately some people tried to pin the rampage on the Tea Party Movement, or at a minimum, suggested that conservative rhetoric somehow caused the shooter to commit this crime.

For the record, the shooter has no ties with the Tea Party Movement. However, the speed with which some pundits tried to draw that correlation is at least as dangerous as any language used by conservatives and Tea Partiers.

My point is this. Why do Americans have this fixation on finding someone or something to blame for every tragic event? And worse yet, why do we often implement a solution to a perceived problem that is at times worse than the originating event?

Take the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill. A horrible accident, but rather than accept that, the U.S. Government immediately started seeking someone to blame instead of cleaning up the mess. The Attorney General launched an investigation and promised to prosecute the law breakers, as if poor judgment is the same as willfully breaking the law. Deep water oil and gas exploration was stopped even though the U.S. needs the oil and we have the best safety and environmental record of any nation in the world. Oil has been seeping naturally into oceans for eons at volumes far greater than man-caused spills or leaks. Nonetheless, we overreacted to the Deepwater Horizon spill resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, increased cost of energy for all Americans, billions of dollars of decreased revenues to the U.S. Treasury, and equipment and exploration operation taken to riskier places in the world perhaps resulting in greater threats to the environment.

Take the gross overreaction to the marginal science that suggests human-caused carbon dioxide emissions may cause catastrophic global warming. One reaction was to create tax incentives for hybrid cars that rely heavily upon batteries that use lead and sulfuric acid. Did anyone ever stop to think about where lead comes from or what sulfuric acid spilled in a car wreck might do to the environment? And what happens to the old batteries when a hybrid quits running? There are very few places to dispose of old batteries because most facilities have been shut down in an overreaction to a few bad apples who did not handle battery waste properly.

Another equally wrong-headed response to global-warming fear mongering was to encourage more corn be used for ethanol fuel production. Notwithstanding the fact that corn uses more energy than it creates, this policy diverts corn from the food production chain. Less food means higher costs and more poverty. Poverty is the single greatest threat to the global environment. Just take a look at the environmental damage occurring in third-world countries. Progress and prosperity will be the only way we work through whatever environmental problems may exist in this planet we call home.

Next time there is a plane crash watch the new media flock to cover the story and spend days analyzing what went wrong or searching for someone to blame. Americans react to this news coverage. Every time an airplane crashes—despite the fact that air travel is statistically one of the safest modes of travel—Americans respond by flying less and driving more. Yet, your chances of dying in an automobile are about 24 times greater than the likelihood of dying in a plane crash!

It is not just the news media that overreacts to tragic events. There are those ambulance-chasing lawyers who never saw an accident that did not represent an opportunity. The anecdotal stories are endless. You have heard about the law suits and huge awards against service providers and manufacturers over things like hot coffee spilled in a lap or limbs cut off because someone tried to trim the hedge with a lawnmower. Please, must I suffer through yet another safety device that makes my tools harder to use and more expensive just because some idiot pulled a stupid stunt?

Everyone is talking about the new TSA procedures of groping and fondling people in a feckless effort to decrease terrorism on airplanes. I believe that terrorists long ago figured out that using airplanes as weapons is too hard. Now they are more likely looking at train stations, subways, and other places where a lot of people gather and the security is less rigorous. Yet, here we go again, overreacting instead of being forward thinking and proactive.

Americans tend to focus on “What” and “Where” of the tragedy instead of the “Why.” And sometimes the “Why” just defies explanation. Other times, the “Why” does not matter because nobody could have foreseen the event, or nothing could have prevented it. Whether a terrorist, or a crazed killer, uses an airplane, bomb, car, gun, or a pocket knife matters much less than the fact that in a free society we have to accept a certain level of risk. Out West there is a saying, “I’ll live ‘til I die, unless a tree falls on me.”

You can bet your boots that the Tucson shooting will once again invigorate the gun-control zealots. However, the reality is that guns are no more the cause of murders than pencils and pens are the reason for hate mail or books led Hitler to perpetrate the worst hate crime in history.

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." It seems to me that every time we overreact, another liberty is sacrificed at the alter security. Let us mourn for the victims; care for the survivors; find, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators; but let’s avoid the temptation to overreact and apply more cures that are worse than the problems.

No comments: