Fear always Wins or How much is a human life worth?

I’ve been following the debate over barring entry for people from the seven predominantly-Muslim countries which are listed as “countries of particular concern,” and while I fully understand the need for security, I’ve been troubled by the standoff in debating the issue judiciously. The dispute between both sides, contrasting our tradition of open borders with the need for security, sounds like two parties talking in different languages, where values and facts are being thrown around as if it would be possible for one side to convince the other to see it differently. Obviously, it’s a futile attempt because we can only debate facts. We cannot make people agree with our values, and the questions being deliberated cannot be answered without first understanding the exact danger imposed on individual Americans, by the threat being perpetrated on our country.

The process of analyzing the balance between threats and safety to our nation has been the cornerstone of formulating public policy in every area of our lives. Just as we speak, there are debates over allowing driver-less cars through our streets, drones in our airspace and the fast-tracking of FDA approval for potentially lifesaving drugs. All these innovations are being studied to determine if their benefits should override their risks, and we are reluctant to implement them without first understanding these facts. If they are beneficial, we will be motivated to consider possible steps to reduce the risks posed by their implementation.

In deciding the ban, the question should not be about American values. Values do not exist in a vacuum. Governments often violate values of human lives—when they declare war, and societies violate freedom—when they put people in jail. Before we talk about values we need to examine the facts. When proposing this ban, we need to study the danger in admitting visitors from these countries and we need to subject the ban to a cost-benefit analysis for informed executive decision-making. We need to arrive at a decision that can afford us to debate policies along with other alternatives.

Among the relevant questions that we need to consider are:

Is there a real risk for terror, from admitting visitors from these countries?

Is there a benefit to protecting our open immigration policy?

Is it possible to do both; contain the potential risks while maintaining the benefits we can derive from keeping our borders open?

There are many times when rushing an executive decision can be essential. It was critical to contain the Ebola virus outbreak, before it spread or to deploy firefighters to contain forest fires before they rage out of control.

But what is the urgent danger from which this ban designed to protect us? This ban was rushed through while diffusing fear of potential terror. But in listening to the administration, it is clear that the danger is not immediate, but a hypothetical one. While he didn’t deny the risk, Homeland Security Chief John Kelly admitted that the rush to issue the executive order caused unnecessary damage and he agreed that it should have been done more responsibly.

Applicable in this situation is the Hebrew expression, הַחִפָּזוֹן מִן הַשָּׂטָן – All Haste Comes from the Devil. Rushing decisions is not always a good thing, and, while the ban is being considered in court, I’d like to suggest that, om an intelligent fashion, we conduct an honest assessment of the immediate terror risk and contrast it with the hurtle to our old-age values and our reputation as an open democracy.

Fear is the greatest impetus to making foolish decisions.

It is a fact that we tend to react in far greater haste, and often irrationally, whenever we face security risks against our nation.

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, we fought two wars – where we sustained many more casualties than the attack had originally caused. In retrospect, most people agree that the wars did not meet our goals and the outcome has been disastrous, by creating ISIS, destabilizing Syria, and possibly drawing us all into a far greater war.

In contrast, Operation Desert Storm was designed properly and, therefore, resulted in achieving its goals. It was well-planned since it was not instigated by an attack on our country.

Surprisingly, and despite the pain caused to every victim and their family, terror is one of the lowest sources of casualties to our nation. In more than twenty years, there have been 510 attacks in the United states, of which there has been 3,264 fatalities. The stunning fact is that nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.

In contrast, in 2015 alone there have been 35,092 fatalities in automobile accidents.

Bad hospital care contributed to the over 100,000 deaths per year and investigators from Department of Epidemiology in 2000 found in a research study published in the American Journal of Public Health, that in the United States, approximately 245,000 deaths were attributable to low levels of education, 176,000 to racial segregation, 162,000 to low social support, 133,000 to individual-level poverty, 119,000 to income inequality, and 39,000 to area-level poverty. Even if we disagree with some of the statistics, it is evident that between 500,000 and a million Americans’ potential annual casualties could benefit greatly from bringing attention to their plight and addressing policies in their interest.

Needless to say, none of these areas received an urgent executive order to try and remedy factual danger that has been clearly established.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is any bad faith involved by the administration’s action, but only to say that fear always wins. We value lives in totally irrational and unsound ways that are in direct proportion to the news generated rather than following rational approach. In a way, it is a vicious cycle, where the more the noise, the more the attention, the more the political urgency to act in order to appease a more fearful public whose fear has been originally diffused by the very media that is demanding to solve it.

What if we applied only 10% of the homeland security budget of over $50 billion annually to combat any of the problems killing almost one million American people per year? We would see far greater results than a rushed political ban that is far better resolved through maintaining the already exhaustive selective vetting process of people asking to enter our country.

As harsh as it sounds, budgets should be in proportion to the threat. Thus, using simple math, we can tell that Security from terror costs our country 15 million annually per victim (victims over 20 years), while road safety is less than $480,000 per victim annually. It’s a crude example and highly inaccurate but it demonstrates boldly our disproportional approach to safety.

Aside from the pain inflicted on many individuals, the ban would likely adversely impact many of our industries that are highly dependent on foreign brain power – whether they in Silicon Valley, medical research or other areas.

Lastly, the discussion focused on our American values, suggesting they need not result in indeterminable conflict. The role of government is to find, or initiate, evidence-based scientific research where possible, so that our debate can be resolved fairly and efficiently.

About the Author
Soli now lives in the US, but he was born in Romania and later lived in Israeli boarding school Hadasim, as part of the Aliyat Hanoar. He served in the Israeli Air Force, and graduated with a degree in architecture from the Technion. After settling in Jaffa, he moved to the US and had several businesses. He has been married for 37+ years, and is the father of 4 and grandfather of 4.
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