rotating header

Friday, November 20, 2015

Terror, Risk, Math, and Ideas

A good while ago, I went on my first rafting trip on the Nile.  This was before the current dam was built, so the trip began just above a pretty intense waterfall.  In spite of our guide's brief instructions, and in spite of my shoulder-wrenching attempt to hold onto the ropes, I went out into the foaming rapid and felt myself pushed under the water for an uncomfortably long time.  In fact it felt a bit like drowning.  And I felt foolish, as a missionary mom, for throwing my life away on an adventure sport.  Later, however, I looked up the stats.  Rafting the Nile is in fact quite safe.  Injuries are rare and fatalities almost unheard of.  A very interesting article in Outside magazine pointed out that adventure sports are all about having a high perceived risk with a low real risk.  Flying out of the boat felt life-threatening, and yet the chances of it really being fatal were extremely low.  Driving from Kampala to Jinja was actually, by far, the most dangerous part of the day.

America is in a season of high perceived risk, somewhat similar to the Ebola scares a year ago.  Our assumed safety has been shaken.  We feel afraid, which is after all the point of terrorism, to induce terror.  The terrorists jar our view of a concert or school or restaurant or plane or train station or whatever from a place of enjoyment to a place of potential deadly risk.  Terrorists only need to nudge real risk slightly to get an exponential jump in perceived risk.  Particularly the organizations with excellent social media skills.

When we feel terror, there are two things that can calm our hearts.  The first is to get a factual perspective on real risk, and the second is to re-align our hearts and priorities with God's.

For the first, we need math.  It's no secret that I love math, and most truth boils down to some math, which along with music is the language of the universe.  In reading the barrage of anxiety and guilt, I think the basic problem this week is that we're forgetting the importance of the sample selection.  In 2015, if you take the sample of all terrorists, you are likely to find muslims.  However, if you take the sample of all Muslims, you are very unlikely to find terrorists.  

The most deadly terrorist groups are ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Quaeda with its subsidiary Al-Shabbab, the Taliban, and many smaller groups even down to our local ADF from the Uganda/Congo border.  There are others, of course, involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, or in drugs in SE Asia or Colombia.  But when gunmen run into a hotel and take hostages, the chances of them being from a Muslim-ideology group are reasonably high.  The problem is, that few of us will ever be in that situation, but almost all of us will be next to a Muslim in the grocery store, or class, or on the bus.  So what is really relevant to us is, what are the chances that a Muslim we encounter, or that a Muslim we allow to immigrate to the USA, is a terrorist?  Using the larger end of the scale for estimates of these groups, the overall chance in the world that a random Muslim is from a sect of that faith that embraces terrorist tactics is less than 1 in 1000.  Given the difficulty of immigrating to the USA, if you meet them here, the risk is much, much lower.  And given the fact that the vast majority of people in those groups are not necessarily there by choice, and not necessarily the small subset of front-line active terrorists, well, it's hard to measure numbers that small.

In medicine we have a concept called "number needed to treat" to see a benefit.  In this case, we would have to turn away a thousand, or maybe ten thousand, or tens of thousands of refugees in true need of life-sustaining chances, to save ourselves the risk of allowing one terrorist into America.

And that, friends, is where I think many of us would still differ philosophically.  For some of us, that level of exclusion on the basis of religion is an unacceptable human cost which is extracted from the vulnerable, to protect ourselves.  For others, that is the legitimate function of the state.  But as we agree to disagree, let's at least do the math to know what we're disagreeing about.

We are still left with the problem of feeling terror, and being manipulated by the fear that the terrorists induce.  We're still left with the uncomfortable possibility that fifteen years of fighting the war on terror since 9-11 has actually made the world less stable, with more failed states and refugees. And we are still left with the problem of reacting to the inhumanity of these organizations towards the people who face the real risk, namely their fellow Muslims and the Christian and other religious minorities within their reach.

The only thing that casts out fear, is perfect love.  Only a complete, unshakable confidence in a God who is redeeming this world in hidden ways, a God who can take the worst evil humans plan and wring something good from it, a God who will make all things new and well, can give us the courage to love each other in times like this.  Only a constant seeping in the truth can keep the lies running off like raindrops on a waxed car.  I'm reading these days in Daniel, where God reveals himself to people who are shockingly NOT in the chosen remnant, who are world-conquering and cruel and originating from places we now call Syria and Iraq and Iran.  Do any of us have a theology strong and true enough to combat the half-baked misrepresentations of God's character that are driving ISIS?  Can our grasp that God's love is not something scarce, something limited, push us into places that are not as safe as we'd like, so that the radicalizing rants lose their appeal to the next generation of Muslim youth?  We may need bombs, but we certainly need ideas.

I've seen a few examples these past two days.  A young woman we know practiced incarnation, traveling with a Syrian refugee family and producing this photo essay.  Another Serge colleague wrote this about helping a Muslim woman in his city change a tire, then realizing her tire had been intentionally slashed.  This may be what is looks like to be faithful in November 2015.  Let's ask God for mercy, for protection, but also for courage to follow in the footsteps of perfect love.

1 comment:

Joyce Porte said...

Excellent thoughts. You are so much closer to a mini-epicenter, yet your thoughts are more sane than many in my obscure part of the world.