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Why We Seem to Care More About Paris than Beirut — Never Mind Baghdad
Coming together after a tragedy is equally tribal as causing the tragedy in the first place.
The toll from the Paris terrorist attacks; 129 dead, 352 injured, billions frightened. Relatively few victims, yet global fear. Why? What is it about this particular threat that gives it such inordinate emotional power, far beyond the danger that it actually poses to most of us. Why does terrorism terrorize? And why, though many other global perils threaten us far more, does fear of terrorism uniquely bring the world together?
Three characteristics make this threat emotionally unique. First, it's random, unpredictable. Guns and grenades here, car bombs there. A train in Spain. Busses in London. Buildings in New York, Beirut, Baghdad. We don't know when or where the next attack will come.
And we don't know who is out to get us. Yes, extremists fall into general patterns. Some act in the name of religion – Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism - to excuse their murderous rage. Some invoke the superiority of their race, their nationality, their culture. Some are angry at repressive governments. But just who the individuals are who will show up unexpectedly with guns and bombs and murderous rage, we don't know.
So we don't know who might attack us, when, where, or how they might do it. We don't know what we need to know to protect ourselves. That uncertainty, that powerlessness, helps make terrorism particularly frightening. And it explains why we are willing to go to such lengths, including paying the high price of giving up some civil liberties, to reduce the threat. More police surveillance cameras, expanded government powers for intelligence gathering, increasingly invasive security checks at airports and borders, are costs that people in many nations have been willing to pay to reduce the uncertainty that we might be attacked.
Terrorism, and mass murders and plane crashes and big industrial accidents, kill a lot of us all at once in one place, which research in the psychology of risk perception has found magnifies the fear.
Second, terrorist attacks terrorize because they kill and injure a lot of people all at once. Many causes of death kill far more people, but they are what public health experts call 'chronic'. The number of victims of hunger, and infectious disease, and climate change-connected severe weather events far exceeds the number of victims of terrorism, but those deaths are spread out across time and space. Terrorism, and mass murders and plane crashes and big industrial accidents, kill a lot of us all at once in one place, which research in the psychology of risk perception has found magnifies the fear. Our greater concern about what that research calls 'catastrophic' risks is why such events get more attention from the news media, and extensive coverage of terrorism magnifies fear yet further.
But perhaps the most powerful psychological reason terrorism terrorizes is that we all worry that it could happen to us. We all feel that we could be the next target, the next victim. In a restaurant, a mall, at a concert, in a bus or plane or train or just walking down the street. Minding our own business. Going about our normal lives. We are, all of us, at any time, potential terrorist targets.
Never mind that the numerical odds are low (roughly 1 in 20,000 in Paris from this attack, roughly 1 in 110,000 in the U.S. on 9/11/01). Emotionally such odds mean little. If you think you might be the numerator, the one, your fear will be real, though it exceeds the statistical risk.
This emotional risk perception factor – the vulnerable sense that “It could happen to me" – explains why anyone in the civilized world feels threatened by what happened in Paris, and what has happened in Tokyo and Mumbai and Barcelona and London and Nairobi and Oklahoma City and New York and Boston. The terrorists are lashing out at the normal world they see as their oppressor. “The civilized world", as President Obama has put it. Our world. You and me.
This emotional factor explains why many of the world's most famous buildings were illuminated in French bleu blanc et rouge within hours of the attacks.
It's why many of the leaders of the world, including the leaders of China and Russia, and the Pope, spoke out in solidarity with the French. It's why German Chancellor Angela Merkel said what she said to the French;
“We are so close with you," said Ms. Merkel, dressed in black. “We are crying with you. Together with you, we will fight against those who have carried out such an unfathomable act against you."
Chancellor Merkel's “we" means more than Germans. It refers to all of us in the normal world. We all feel Paris' pain, and fear, because those feelings, particularly the fear, are ours.
Sadly this psychology also explains why the terrorist bombings in Beirut (43 dead, 200 wounded) and Baghdad (at a funeral, 19 killed and 30 wounded), just hours before the attacks in Paris, drew much less international attention. Sectarian terrorism that targets particular groups doesn't target everyone. If we don't belong to the group under attack, we aren't threatened. We don't worry. We shed no tears. We don't demonstrate solidarity. Which is why the civilized world that is so ready - so EAGER- to fight back against Daesh (a more accurate and derisive name for the group that is falsely validated with labels like Islamic State), does little when Sunni Muslims terrorize Shiites, or radical Hutu Rwandans slaughter Tutsis, or Palestinians murder Israelis and vice versa. Tribe-on-tribe violence doesn't threaten the greater tribe – humans – to which we all belong.
Too bad we don't feel that way about global perils that threaten us all and will do infinitely greater harm than terrorism; climate change, the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics, the peril of a quickly spreading pandemic in our globally-connected community.
But attacks like the one in Paris are against everyone outside the Daesh tribe, Muslims included. While that makes us all afraid, it's also what brings us together. Shared fear reminds us that we are all citizens of the global village, that despite our many differences we are all connected, concerned for and even responsible for one another at the primal level of survival. The outpourings of support and offers of assistance to victims after terrorist attacks anywhere are evidence of this connection.
Too bad we don't feel that way about global perils that threaten us all and will do infinitely greater harm than terrorism; climate change, the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics, the peril of a quickly spreading pandemic in our globally-connected community. Those much greater threats don't have the emotional characteristics that make them as personally and viscerally frightening as terrorism feels.
But perhaps these post-terror attack moments of increased global togetherness might remind us of our connections with and responsibilities for each other. After all, we are all members of the human tribe and what helps that tribe survive helps us as individuals. Remembering that, and coming together not just to fight terrorism but to protect ourselves from other shared dangers, would be a great way to honor the victims of terrorists who, by spreading fear, also promote a sense of human connection around the world that can help us all stay safe.
David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He runs a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk and was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which he was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
image: Getty Images, Jeff J. Mitchell
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.