By Bill Frayer

Living With Risk


Bill-Frayer-2010I am writing this in the aftermath of the utter failure of the US Congress to pass even a watered-down measure to control gun violence. It looks inevitable that we will be facing the threats of terrorism and gun violence in the coming days. 

When I think back to our response to the events of September 11, 2001, it seems clear that the US implemented some good measures to prevent another attack, but that, on balance, it grossly overreacted. The so-called Patriot Act significantly eroded the privacy and freedom of US citizens.  All of us who fly get to experience some of the ridiculous policies implemented in the name of airport security.  And the extremely costly wars, in blood and money, in Afghanistan and Iraq have drastically increased the US budget deficit and taken the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of people.  I am confident history will judge our reaction to 9-11 harshly. 

This all has to do, I think, with how we view risk itself. Our overreactions to terrorist attacks are, essentially, attempts to reduce the risk of harm.  Ironically, these steps may not mitigate the risk much, but they often give the illusion of doing so. Of course, we face risk from a variety of threats.  In Mexico, we face the risk of being caught in the crossfire of drug gang violence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Of course, we’d face this risk of random violence in many cities in North America and around the world. 

We face risks from many non-violent sources: food borne illnesses, carcinogenic chemicals, traffic accidents, identity theft, cyber attacks on our banking systems, and pandemics caused by viruses which may have become resistant due to the overuse of antibiotics.

And how do we react to these risks? If you’re like most of us, you go on with your life because in most cases, aside from taking reasonable precautions, like wearing seatbelts, washing kitchen surfaces, changing your passwords, and avoiding people who have infectious diseases, there is little we can do.  Most of these disasters are largely out of our control. So, we just accept the fact that we might be involved in a bad car accident, wake up with cancer someday, or have our credit cards compromised. We don’t dwell on the bad things that might happen; we just go on enjoying our lives, in spite of its risks.

I think we may be starting to adopt a similar attitude toward violent acts.  We take reasonable precautions, then get on with it. (I would add that, to me, a reasonable precaution against gun violence is to limit access to the most lethal weapons and check carefully into the background of those wishing to purchase firearms.)

Risk is an unfortunate fact of living a free and autonomous life. We may expect our government to keep us safe, but all it can do is regulate to mitigate some risks. Living in a risk-free society, to me, would not be vibrant and fulfilling. We should value our freedom and accept that it comes with some inherent risk.

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