The disappearance of an American teenager in Aruba has been more than a tragedy for her and for her family. It is the latest of many tragedies to strike trusting people who have long been sheltered from dangers and who have acted as if there were no dangers.
Not only individuals but whole nations have lost their sense of danger after having been protected from those dangers.
After the devastating disease of polio was finally conquered by vaccines, back in the 1960s, the number of people afflicted declined almost to the vanishing point. Some people then began to see no need to take the vaccine, since apparently no one was getting polio any more, so who was there to catch it from?
The result was a needless resurgence of crippling and death from this terrible disease.
The kind of thinking involved in the polio fallacy has appeared in many other contexts. When some public disorder gets underway and a massive arrival of police on the scene brings everything under control immediately, many in the media and in politics deplore such "over-reaction" on the part of the police to a minor disturbance.
It never occurs to such people that it was precisely the arrival of huge numbers of cops on the scene that brought the disturbance to a screeching halt without having to use force.
During the Cold War, Communist expansionism around the world somehow never struck Western Europe, which was protected by the American nuclear umbrella -- and which often accused the United States of unnecessary militarism. American military power was like the polio vaccine that was considered unnecessary.
The latest version of the polio fallacy is the demonizing of the Patriot Act. Some people are yelling louder than ever that they have been silenced, that we have had our freedom destroyed, all as a result of the Patriot Act.
Let us go back to square one, to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which were the reason for passage of the Patriot Act.
Do you remember how long every major public event -- the World Series, Christmas celebrations, the Super Bowl -- was a time of fear of a new terrorist attack? Do you remember all the advice to stock up on medicines or food, so that we could ride out any new terrorist onslaught?
Do you remember all the places that terrorists were expected to strike? The different colors of national alerts being announced regularly?