Sunday, November 1, 2009

Which is Safer?

Last night, I got mugged a few blocks away from my Columbia Heights apartment. Maybe I looked like easy prey in my Halloween attire. In any case, a taser, gun and stolen wallet later, I began to ask the question: was I safer in the Middle East?

On one hand, I never felt unsafe in any of the countries I visited. It didn't matter what time it was, what I street I was on, what I was doing or who I was doing it with. I was safe (admittedly, girls often have a different experience). All in all, the only muggers in the Middle East tend to be the thieves who run the government and the thugs who work for it.

On the other hand, there is no hiding the political and religious violence that troubles nearly every country. While I was in Cairo, terrorists bombed the famous market/tourist trap Khan Khalili. When I was in Dubai, I met a dozen Palestinian children maimed during the January war in Gaza. In Israel, I saw a bomb removal squad detonate a suspicious package. And then there's crossing the street, an all together different kind of terror.

In comparison, political and religious violence is relatively rare in United States. But miscreants, muggers and murderers abound. They're so common place that a police officer told me to not bother reporting my mugging - too many of them to deal with.

So which is safer? The sporadic, sensational, arbitrary violence of the Middle East? Or the frequent, common, ho hum violence of the United States?

Objectively, I'd have to go with the Middle East (I have no data, just anecdotal evidence). But safety hinges not so much on objectivity but on a psychological state of mind. There is a certain perverse logic to mugging. They took my money so they can spend it. I can understand that. In contrast, it's much harder to rationalize a bomb that indiscriminately kills civilians to make a political or religious point. It is that incomprehensibility that makes terrorism so frightening. And, in turn, it is what gives the Middle East its over-exaggerated reputation for danger.

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