Life and Death in Boston

We will all die and can hope that our passing and the passing of our loved ones will be peaceful and painless. It is sad when anyone dies prematurely. It is very disturbing when someone’s death is the result of a deliberate act. And is seems worse yet, when the targets of murder are random. How should we react to each of these?

I am struck by how differently we have reacted to the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon that killed (initially) 3 innocent soles and injured over 180, the Texas fertilizer plant blast two days later that killed 14 (at the time of this writing) and injured about 200, and the 88 deaths on American highways on average every day (down from the high of 150 per day in 1972). No one would think to propose closing all of the highways, yet much of the area around Boston and Cambridge has been locked down (a term I know very well from my many trips to Iraq and Afghanistan) for over a day.

There is of course an important difference between the dangers of driving and a 19-year-old killer on the loose. However, Ed Crane’s comment (in a private email) introduces what I wish to reflect on: “Since when does the government shut down half of Massachusetts (stay in your house!) to catch one 19-yr-old?  If everyone in Boston had a gun there would be no shut down.  Just a dead 19-yr-old.” Ed is the founder and until last month the President of the Cato Institute here in Washington D.C.

Where it is possible and/or necessary to take precautionary measures to protect the public safety, it is prudent to do so. However, zero risk is not the standard we live by or automobiles and much else would be banned. Were we safer or did we feel safer a few years ago when signs and laud speakers kept announce that the city was code orange so be on alert?  At best such measures were silly and at worst they were part of a pernicious campaign to make us all feel more dependent on the government.

Public safety is a legitimate concern, but needs to be pursued sensibly. But what about the impact of our reactions on those wishing to terrorize us? We do not yet know what motivated the Chechnyan brothers Tamerlan, 26, and Dzhokhar, 19, Tsarnaev to blow up some joggers. Young Dzhokhar lived in the United States most of his life. What was his point? If it was to terrorize us, for whatever reason, our reactions have fulfilled that goal beyond his wildest dreams.

This brings to mind another recent case where our reaction to intimidation has surely rewarded the intimidator, another near child, beyond any reasonable expectation. I am speaking of (probably) 29 year old man child Kim Jong Un, the ruler of North Korea.  It is only prudent for the U.S. government to take defensive measures in response to the daily threats coming from young Kim. But why reward his behavior so loudly with such importance and publicity.

Consider the comments by Professor Andrei Lankov from Seoul’s Kookmin University: “The North Koreans are very, very rational. … Why do the foreign media, why do people overseas consider Kim Jong Un to be suicidal? … If he attacks he will be dead in 10 or 15 minutes and he knows it perfectly well. He is not suicidal. He is a young boy who is madly in love with his wife, who loves fast cars and a slice of pizza. And the people around him are not suicidal. They are hard-nosed, cynical Machiavellians who survived decades in the cutthroat world of a Stalinist palace. … They are not ideological zealots. They are just brilliant manipulators.” “Threats and crises are just normal North Korean diplomacy”

I am not suggesting that it is easy or obvious what measures should be taken to keep the risks of living in balance with its joys. But life has always been a risky undertaking. If our big brother government insists on trying to reduce its risks to near zero, which is not possible anyway, it will not be worth living.

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About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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One Response to Life and Death in Boston

  1. Bang on, Warren. Mencken also nailed it in one when he wrote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”. These particular hobgoblins may not be imaginary, but the bigger they can be made to seem, the more clamorous will be the populace and the more virtuous the political class. Ed’s comment likewise slices through the nonsense and reminds me of a comment made to me by a Mont Pèlerin Society member (I can’t remember who) at the meeting in Vienna in (I think) 1996: we were passing a a shop that had guns on display that way that bookshops present books — shotguns, rifles, pistols, whatever. The friend I was with looked at all this weaponry and turned to ask me: “Is that not the sign of a stable society?”
    Cheers
    Martin

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