After the recent California mass murders, Donald J. Trump has called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. That might take a while; critical thinking is difficult in emotionally charged atmospheres. Good judgments require comparisons with well-chosen benchmarks.
For example, Pakistan had an infant mortality rate of nearly 180 per 1000 in 1960, and less than 60 per 1000 in 2010. Is cutting the rate by 200% an impressive performance? That depends on our benchmark. Bangladesh, Iran and Egypt, starting out from a similar position have done much better, achieving 40, 22, and 20 respectively. Many African countries have done much worse. In comparison with all countries of the world, Pakistan has held steady rank in the bottom quarter, doing neither well nor poorly. By changing the benchmark, we can call this performance good, bad, or average.
Our view of reality is shaped by media, which dramatizes events to create a hugely disproportionate picture of what is happening on the world stage. The cold and dispassionate statistics bear no relation to the images created by the headlines. Statistics on deaths by violence show Pakistan at 6.64 per 100,000, which is only slightly above the USA at 5.56, and well below more than 50 countries with more than 10 deaths per 100,000. Yet going by headlines would lead one to believe that Pakistan is the most violent country in the world.
Instead of statistical calculations, public responses are shaped by emotions. Failure to understand the crucial importance of comparison can have catastrophic consequences. After the 9/11 tragedy, large numbers of the American public switched to driving cars for long trips instead of flying. Statistically, the risk of dying from a car accident was about 60 times greater than the risk of dying in an airplane accident. It has been estimated that the fear of flying led to over a 100 extra deaths in car accidents monthly.
A Washington Post article entitled “Mass shootings are distracting from the real danger of guns in America” shows that deaths by terrorism are a tiny percentage of total deaths by firearms: Suicide: 19,800; Murder: 10,500; Mass shootings 462; Right Wing Terrorists 12; Islamic Terrorists 19. The website War on Irrational Fear states that dogs kill six times more people than terrorists in the USA, and bathtub falls kill 100 times more, but we do not declare war on dogs or bathtubs. Since 9/11 there have been a total of 52 incidents of Islamic terrorism in the USA, of which 27 were created by FBI entrapment. The response to terrorism has been so far out of proportion as to be mind boggling. A New York Times article entitled “9/11: The reckoning” estimates that the US response to 9/11 has cost USD 3.3 Trillion. Strangely, there is no mention of the human cost of millions of civilian lives destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Global outrage over a few European lives contrasted with neglect of daily deliberate killings of hundreds of muslims shows that muslim lives don’t matter. Indeed, ISIL or Daesh are not the only ones with bloodlust for killing random innocents; US senator Ted Cruz has promised to avenge San Bernadino by bombing the Middle East until the sand glows in the dark.
This is not to minimize the significance of the San Bernadino shootings. Rules of war, laid out explicitly in Islamic teachings, prohibit soldiers from killing innocent non-combatants, especially women, children and the elderly. Meaningless violence against random citizens represent a degree of radicalization and extremism that has not been witnessed among Muslim societies in the past. Encouragingly, over time, the Muslim response to unprecedented barbaric and senseless violence is shaping up as a nearly unanimous rejection. Recent polls by Pew show that across the globe Muslims are overwhelmingly opposed to Islamic State. We can hope that, as Noah Feldman writes, this is “the last, desperate gasp of a tendency to violence that has lost most of its popular support.” Contrary to the image conveyed by newspapers, Muslims account for only a tiny percentage of the enormous amount of death and destruction currently going on. Thus rejection of wars and violence should be a top priority for humanity as a whole.