We are PROBABLY safe, but not CERTAINLY safe

It is disgusting but not shocking to hear about terrorist attacks in Paris last night.


This morning I received an email from my university’s office of communications and external relations reassuring our community that university officials “have not heard of any student who has been harmed or is in danger . . . All are safe.” Furthermore, there is no indication that any faculty or staff member “has been harmed or is in danger, either, in France.”

Although it was good to know that no member of our university community had been harmed, I was surprised to read that the university also believed that none were “in danger” and that they “are safe.”

The very fact of the terrorist attack that created the need for the communication suggests that no one in Paris, no one in France, no one anywhere is safe and out of danger.

At the same time, as people ratchet up concern on social media and the 24 hour news cycle kicks into high gear, I remind myself of the work of Steven Pinker showing that we live in the most peaceable time in human history.

So, we are probably safe, but not certainly safe.

I think about Pinker also as I prepare to travel to Washington, DC for a conference this coming week. Washington, DC seems like it would be a major target for terrorist activity, and yet I try to remind myself that I am more likely to die in a car crash driving to DC than I am to be a victim of a terrorist attack. I’m more likely to die from the saturated fats I will consume while I am there. More likely to die from the work-related stress of preparing for my presentation. More likely to die from the exercise I won’t get because of the conference. Even more likely to die from being attacked in a city with a high rate of violent crime and limited civilian access to the means of lethal force for purposes of self-defense.


The infographic above is for the UK, but the risk factors for death are very similar in the United States. In the end, I’m afraid that in so many ways we are our own worst enemies.


  1. I look at the possibility of dealing with a terrorist attack in terms of a “scale of self reliance”, where having jumper cables and a flashlight in your car is a one, and a fully stocked, off-the-grid zombie-proof hideout in the mountains as an eleven (“It’s like ten, only one more.”). Preparing for a terrorist attack is definitely on the higher end of scale, but the desire to be ready for such an event springs from the same source as having a first-aid kit in the home.


    • Excellent point. I am definitely thinking about how to keep myself safe on my upcoming trip. I was sorry to see that Washington DC not only has very restrictive gun laws, but that it also appears to ban the carrying of any KNIFE that does not have utility purposes (self-defense not being a utility). So, I guess if anything happens I will just have to turn my fists up to 11.


  2. David, I’m not sure I understand the point of this blog post. Is it that we ought not to worry so much about the dangers of random gun violence (and that those who do will only want to get rid of guns)? After all, there are other risks such as smoking and car accidents that are far more likely to kill us. But of courses we understand that nonsmokers are not worried at all about dying from the risks associated with smoking. They made the choice not to smoke or were lucky enough to overcome the addicting properties of cigarettes. So that’s not really parallel to the fear of a risk one has no control over. And car accidents are a big risk but they usually don’t involve someone trying to kill us with their car. And clearly we don’t worry about risks simply because of their statistical likelihood. I’m thinking back to your own post about one of the reasons you wanted to carry a firearm– because you had a scary encounter with a criminal at your apartment complex. The chances of that happening to you ever again are pretty slim, but you don’t ever want to be in a position like that unprepared, and you did not like thinking of yourself as vulnerable to such an occurrence. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth; just to be clear, this is only the impression I got. Telling people the statistical likelihood of something happening gets done when it’s strategic. Prof-gun folks try to tell women about male predators so that they’ll want to get a gun. Anti-gun folks emphasize the statistical likelihood that someone will use a gun against us so that they’ll want fewer guns or stricter gun control. And in the end, simple statistics don’t drive individual decisions.


    • Thanks for the comment and sorry for the slow reply. I think my point was that, when thinking of those things that MAY harm us (“risk”), we need to have some perspective. A large part of that perspective is that most of the biggest risks we face we do to ourselves. That is important to recall when thinking about, in my case, the risks of traveling to Washington DC following the Paris attacks. We shouldn’t spend an excessive amount of time and energy worrying about the things we can’t control and no time and energy worrying about the things we can.

      Which is not to say that we should not fear the things we can’t control, regardless of the statistical probability. Random gun violence — or anything other risk that is statistically unlikely — should concern us, especially if that risk is a “low odds, high stakes” risk.

      The odds of me getting in a car accident are very small, but the stakes are high, so I choose as safe a car as I can afford, drive safely, and wear my seatbelt. But many car accidents are things beyond my control — not other drivers trying to kill me, but other drivers driving in a way that disregards my safety. I always told my kids when they were starting to drive that it didn’t matter how safely they drove, that they could still get into accidents because of they way others drove. And so they needed to prepare accordingly. There might be a parallel there to random gun violence. It doesn’t matter how cautious we are, if we are part of everyday life in public (in schools, shopping malls, holiday parties, etc.) we could get shot. And so we should prepare accordingly. The chances of that are slim, but the consequences are not.

      Now, I am the first to agree with you that simple statistics don’t drive individual decisions. That was part of my point as well. I am overweight, I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, my blood pressure and cholesterol are borderline, and I don’t get enough physical exercise. These things are going to be the end of me, but I still chose to eat a reuben sandwich with fried okra on my way home from the gym last night. I am a big believer Kahneman and Tversky on the social psychological side and Glassner on the sociological side that human beings do not assess risk purely “rationally.”

      But I don’t think we are completely irrational either. As to whether a private citizen carrying a firearm in public for self-defense is a “rational” decision, I don’t think that can be answered empirically, but it is an interesting question to ask to determine how people perceive and process risk. In my conversations with people who practice and preach armed citizenship, most never say that you WILL need to used a gun to defend yourself at some point. Most say you will PROBABLY NEVER need to use a gun to defend yourself. But it is better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it. This is rational position — it is, I have suggested, a form of Pascal’s Wager (https://gunculture2point0.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/pascals-wager-self-defense-and-gun-ownership/).

      Liked by 1 person

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