November 16, 2015

On risk

This morning, I put my four year old son at risk.

I did so by taking his person and strapping him into his car seat. I then pulled the car out of the driveway, and – it was also a very foggy morning, one must note – I piloted this car out onto the nearest highway, where any number of horrible things could have happened.

We were exposed to the very decent chance that any one of the countless drivers we passed on the highway – all fallible humans, and some more fallible than others – could have driven their car into ours at upwards of 65 miles an hour, sending us hurtling into cement walls, or other cars, or off one of the two bridges we drove over.

There is also the chance that I myself could have failed, becoming distracted or perhaps having a coughing fit or maybe just hitting a particularly wet spot in the road. We could have died that way, too.

There was a not insubstantial chance these things could have happened. It happens to a lot of people – 30,000 Americans die in car accidents every year.

But I did it anyway.

Why? Because the risks were acceptable. The convenience of delivering my child to his education of choice is one I value very highly. It is also convenient that his preschool is close to my office. I like having him near me.

In fact, I tolerate this substantial risk multiple times every day, thousands of times a year, because the convenience and freedom is too difficult to turn down. I am willing to tolerate participating in a frequently lethal system in order to reap the considerable benefits it offers me. I want to drive to nice restaurants, to drive to other states, to drive to scenic views, and to see my family and friends. I like these things enough that I am willing to risk injury and death, simply because this system has made it so convenient.

Risk is a hard thing to think about. Frequently it goes unseen. It’s built into the walls of our lives, where we can pleasantly ignore it. But it’s still there.

There are risks to living in a free society, an open society, a liberal society that empowers the individual. And a lot of those risks have become very apparent recently.

Today, the governor of my state, along with many others, said he would refuse to offer safe harbor to the millions of international refugees pouring out of the Middle East, fleeing rampant death, rape, and destruction. The risks were just too great, he said. Even though this is the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, even though women and children are living in fear and hunger and dying miserable deaths, even though Syria has had the equivalent of a Paris attack every single day for years on end – despite all this, the risks are simply too great. If just one of these millions of people is a terrorist, a warmaker, a servant of harm, that is too many.

Now, just like over a decade ago, we are being tested. What happened in Paris and Beirut, and what has been happening across the Middle East for a decade now, is an undeniable tragedy. But a free society, a liberal society, an open society, would undoubtedly extend aid to these refugees.

Yet are we willing to do so despite these new risks? Are we willing to continue being what we are? Or do we wish to alter the structure that’s given us so much for so long, due to a slightly higher chance of death and injury?

And it is slight. Here is a list of the highest causes of death in the UK, which is comparable to America:

CaptureTerrorism doesn’t show up on the list. For something that so thoroughly dominates our fears and rhetoric, it’s not what’s killing us.

This is a defining moment that many people will remember in the years to come. To withdraw our hands, and banish these people to a stateless world of agony and abuse – this will surely have repercussions down the line.

And if we extend aid to them and let them in, as a free society surely would, it may have repercussions as well. Maybe. Maybe bad ones.

Perhaps it could kill me. Perhaps it could kill my son, or my wife, or my unborn child.

But these are the costs. These are the costs of a free, open, and liberal society. And that is the society I would prefer to live in.

I will think about these costs the next time I climb into my car, shut the door, buckle my seat belt, and start the engine.