The Mathematics of Cowardly Confection

Recently in the news we’ve seen a person close to the heart of a presidential campaign make an abhorrent attempt to frighten some people while offhandedly dehumanizing a whole lot of others. Some might even call an act like that deplorable. But I want to also call it cowardly, based on near-universally accepted standards of the people of the United States of America. Or, at the very least, the values so frequently espoused by said people. The question has been put to us: would you eat a handful of candy if you knew some of those candies were poisoned? Without the colorful metaphor, the question is really about how we would act when there is a chance of being harmed by those actions. And the context was the growing refugee crisis that challenges the world, our nation, and ourselves as moral individuals. A bowl of candy seems concrete, but the quantities in question are fuzzy. So, what kind of chances are we really talking about? The Cato Institute calculates that “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.” Comically, you’re 15 times more likely to be killed by a coconut this year. But coconut deaths are so unusual that the comparison isn’t helpful. A more familiar comparison: the chances (according to the National Safety Council) you’ll be killed by someone assaulting you with a firearm are 1 in 358 per year. Or maybe you’ll die in a car accident (1 in 113 per year). Or maybe you’ll just decide to kill yourself (1 in 97 per year). I don’t know how to impress upon you how much less likely you are to be killed in a refugee terrorist attack than you are to be shot, hit by a car, or just kill yourself (together, a 1 in 46 chance). The difference between 3.64 billion and 46 is staggering. It’s like having one person a year dying from a refugee terrorist attack and 80 million Americans dying in shootings, car crashes, and suicides. Eighty million Americans dying is like every single person not living in cities, plus every American living abroad — all dying together in one year. Compared to one person dying. The numbers are worth considering, but what gets lost when we use a dehumanizing analogy (maybe not unlike other dehumanizing comparisons to candy in our recent history) is that we’re talking about helping people who are suffering and dying by giving them a temporary place to escape oppression and death. We laud people who take on much more risk for an ideal that includes the welfare of others. We erect monuments and bridges and buildings and set aside days and march and sing songs in order to tell the world that we appreciate the selfless acceptance of significant and serious risk in the service of an ideal that includes the safety and security of other people. We often call those people heroes. We clearly have principles that give us examples of people motivated to take on risk when others will benefit. What about if the risk is so minimal that it’s even difficult to comprehend its infinitesimal nature, but it will secure the lives and safety of others? Generally we identify a person as a hero when they take on a large risk for little personal gain. You can hardly call a person a hero for taking on a 1 in 3.64 billion chance to help refugees. It’s such a small risk. That person barely noticed a change. You’d probably say it’s simple human decency for someone to offer help to those in need at essentially no risk. It may have meant the life of some refugees, but we don’t call that heroism.

What do you call a person who refuses to take on the risk to do what’s decent? I call them a coward. And the smaller the risk they refuse, the greater the cowardice. That’s how it works. Heroes grow in stature at the cost of their sacrifice. Cowards grow in contemptibility as they lower the threshold of the risk they’re willing to bear. The greatest leaders believe in the American people, help us become our best selves, inspire us to worthwhile and meaningful (if not heroic) acts. What person makes the argument that you shouldn’t take on the least bit of risk to help others in need? What must that person think of you if he believes you’ll be swayed from the ideal that Americans value life because of a fear that is so comically small that it’s dwarfed by the chance that you’ll be killed by a coconut this year? No leader that will further American ideals.

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