Last week's butcher's bill: Nearly 100 dead at a Rhode Island
nightclub because an infantile band played with matches. Over 20 dead after
a stampede in an overcrowded Chicago nightclub. Over 130 dead after a subway
conductor in South Korea fled a burning train without opening its doors.
With all our concern about weapons of mass destruction, a lot of
small masses die when small precautions are ignored because of selfishness,
overlooked because of laziness or forgotten because of panic. Some club
owners esteem dollars over safety and admit more fans than fire codes allow.
Then those fans don't take a second to see where the nearest exit is.
In the central areas of New York, Washington and other large
cities with terrorist bulls-eyes on them, it's wise to be prepared, but in
most of the United States, everyday risks are far greater hazards. During
2001, Americans had about a 1 in 100,000 chance of being killed in a
terrorist attack -- that includes those killed on the ground in New York and
Washington and in the four airplanes that terrorists seized on Sept. 11.
That same year the odds of being killed in a motor vehicle accident were
about 1 in 6,000.
The odds of being killed while attending Great White's heavy
metal concert in West Warwick, R.I., last Thursday night were about one in
four. Here's a tiny silver lining in last week's dark cloud of death:
music-related catastrophes have become "a wake-up call for clubs to make
public safety the number one concern," in the words of Frank Hendrix, owner
of Emo's in Austin, Texas. Charles Attal, owner of another club near the
Texas capitol, Stubb's, said his new rule was "No pyro, period. From now on,
I don't even want bands to light candles onstage."
Just as charity begins at home, so homeland security begins with
doing more to minimize everyday risks. Seatbelts in cars save lives. So do
bicycle and motorcycle helmets. Last week "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff
and his wife broke bones and ribs when the actor lost control of a
motorcycle they were riding, but helmets protected their brains (and no
jokes about that brainless television series, please).
Keeping terrorist risks in perspective means heeding some wise
words penned one month after 9-11 and given wide Internet circulation but
little press coverage, perhaps because "calm down" pleas make for smaller
headlines than "sky is falling" screams.
Red Thomas, a retired U.S. military weapons expert, explained
the extreme difficulty of pulling off chemical attacks and noted that "If
there is an attack, leave the area and go upwind. ... They have to get the
stuff to you, and on you. You're more likely to be hurt by a drunk driver on
any given day than be hurt by one of these attacks. ... Don't let fear of an
isolated attack rule your life. The odds are really on your side."
The Washington Post, to its credit, tracked down Thomas at his
Mesa, Ariz., home and noted his general advice that the best overall
preparation for any terrorist attack is about the same as for a big storm:
"a week's worth of cash, several days' worth of canned goods and plenty of
soap and water." But folks at the Post building near downtown Washington, or
those who live or work in downtown New York, do have reason to be concerned
about low-yield nuclear weapons that could kill a lot of people within a
half mile of the blast. That's why I'm fully in support of John Ashcroft's
push to break up terrorist cells.
I also support a general inoculation against smallpox:
Biological warfare is a great threat, and I'd accept the extremely small
risks that come with inoculation in order to be protected against something
highly contagious that generally kills one third of those infected. But if I
dwell on that threat, I might not look both ways before crossing the street.