A Rational Reaction

I am a Bostonian. I lived there most of my life. I was born there. My heart has been aching all week.

I heard about the bombs soon after it happened. I kept checking the news. I read about those who were killed. I saw pictures of people being carried away with sickening injuries. So many amputations. So many double-amputees. I was angry. I am angry right now. I want to cry.

We found the guys who did it. We found them! I have never seen such a huge coordinated effort by Bostonians against a criminal. We've had notorious murderers before (e.g. Whitey Bulger), but we've never cooperated on this scale. We've never wanted to find someone so badly as we did this time. Some of us wanted to see justice done. Others of us wanted to mete out violent holy vengeance. I leaned toward the latter.

Statistically speaking, your chances of dying of a terrorist attack in the US are extremely low. In fact, they have been continuously dropping since the 1970's (See chart #1:). So, why all the effort? Why mobilize everybody just to catch two murderers who murdered three people and injured a number of others? Not only did we mobilize the services of the entire city, citizens were told to stay in-doors, the subway was stopped, the busses were stopped, and the trains were stopped. Even taxis were taken off the road.

Behavioral economists often cite how bad we humans are at evaluating risk. They call us "predictably irrational". Most of us have a fear of shark attack, but not a fear of driving. despite the fact that our chances of dying in a car accident are indeed much higher. Should our response to a mortal threat grow in relation to its probability? Our emotions don't think so.

Human emotional response is a complex animal. Developed and fine-tuned over millions of years, human emotions have innate intelligence which some of our brightest minds are struggling to study and describe. My response to the Boston Marathon bombers is fierce. I feel white-hot hate for them. My feelings against the common murderer are nowhere near as strong. Why?

Some murders occur because some person A becomes angry with a person B over some conflict. A kills B. We throw A in jail, and we don't excuse it, but we all understand it at some level. A terrorist attack is fundamentally different. When you attack a random person, you attack *all* of us. We all react. We are all hurt. The marathon bombing was not something we could distance ourselves from. Any of us could have been there at just the wrong moment. We can't go to bed at night thinking, "I'll never get murdered because I'll never make a criminal angry at me." This we cannot say.

Consider also the effect of our response on future would-be perps. They will think twice, for sure. To him or her who pulls another stunt like this one: we gon' find you! All does not end well for those who mess with Boston. There are always those who want death-by-cop, but these two boys tried to get away with it.

We are a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. The message to all future terrorists is this: We the people will find you. Your end will not be glorious. Your end will not be infamy. Your end will be sad; just plain pitiful.

We respond as a whole when our innocents are attacked. We send a message by working together. I believe that the effort put forward to find the alleged bombers was warranted. I believe it was rational. A response to a threat need not be a linear function of its probability in order to be rational. Both the symbolic and the game theory aspects make it very rational.

I heard many quotes this week from people who are greater people than myself. Many of them wanted a peaceful capture of the bombers. Some wanted to understand them. Some even found human beauty this week.

"All [the terrorists] can do is show how good [the people of Boston] really are"
- Stephen Colbert


Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart Open Their Shows By Reacting to the Attacks in Boston

Why the Human Brain Is a Poor Judge of Risk

Obama on the people of Boston

One Response to “A Rational Reaction”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Your anger and that of the people of Boston is completely justifiable. But this is also perhaps a good opportunity to realise that there are millions of people who leave with the same fear and subsequent anger elsewhere on Earth. Too many times we choose not to see such suffering. I hope the Boston tragedy opens our eyes to what happens elsewhere as well. I wrote a short piece expanding upon this a little bit here.

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