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December 29, 2004

Spending Too Much on War on Terror

The last three years has been a lesson in how blind people can be to the real risks that effect humanity. Reactions to one event has meant we have increased spending by hundreds of billions of dollars in a "war against terror" -- including a war in Iraq with pretty tangential relationship to that danger -- even as we refuse to spend the money that would address many other risks of just as immediate danger to human life and where spending money would have even more guaranteed benefits.

No amount of spending by the world could have prevented much of the immediate human devastation that we have seen due to the Tsunami, but the fact that we are talking tens of millions of dollars in aid in response, rather than tens of billions shows how out of wack our priorities and respect for human life are. Millions of people now face the danger of death from disease due to lack of water and other resources; money spent right now will save innumerable lives.

In the longer term, we face many broad threats to health and the environment that are far more worrisome than Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Yes, we all worry about a suicide bomber with a nuclear bomb, but we just saw a natural force with greater force devastate a large chunk of the world-- and the US government response is $35 million?!!! Global warming may or may not add to worries of other natural phenomena that may devastate the world in the future, but given the possibility, shouldn't we be investing the same kinds of money heading off even the possibility in the same way we head off even the possibility of a terrorist attack?

I live in New York City and I don't think a terrorist bomb is the greatest threat to my life on a daily basis. And when I travelled in Thailand, terrorism was not the big danger in my life. Actually, as anyone who travels in developing nations know, the biggest day-to-day worry was avoiding drinking the local water, for fear that it would make me sick or even kill me. Think about it-- for billions of people in the world, they are threatened day to day by the water in their taps that we take for granted every day.

And disease in the developing world is not just a problem for "them." In a world of AIDS and rapidly mutating diseases that are increasingly resistant to older drugs, a mass pandemic bred in the mass poverty of developing nations will wreck mass death in the lives of the developed world. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 675,000 Americans, ten times as many as were killed in World War I. The 1957-58 Asian flu caused about 70,000 deaths in the United States, followed by the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu, which caused about 34,000 U.S. deaths. The Centers for Disease Control have estimated that a new pandemic would kill between 89,000 to 207,000 people in the United States.

So why are we spending hundreds of billions on a war in Iraq in the name of speculative prevention of terrorism, when the same money spent on fighting environmental disruption and disease prevention would have so much clearer and guaranteed benefits for preserving our lives and those in the rest of the world?

It's time to get over 911. It was a terrible tragedy which highlighted some areas of security where the US needed to devote more resources. But there are many other threats -- yes MORE IMPORTANT than the threat from terrorism -- that we are neglecting in favor of the "war on terror."

Maybe the Tsunami will be a wakeup call to Americans that those who worry only about the most recent tragedy will be unprepared for the next.

Posted by Nathan at December 29, 2004 08:47 AM