The “What If?” Syndrome

Have Americans become overly cautious?


The recent controversy over the NSA listening to pretty much everything everyone is saying or doing over phone, email and the internet raises an important issue – well, actually it raises a lot of important issues, but one in particular stands out to me. Our government is compiling billions of records on millions of people and in the process endangering our privacy just on the off chance that some terrorist might be planning to attack us and might use one of the channels the government is monitoring to communicate something about it and the NSA might pick up on it. Maybe. Now I’m all for keeping abreast of what Al-Qaeda plans to do with its summer vacation and all, but doesn’t a massive, privacy invading domestic spying program that is rife with the potential for abuse and – if whistleblower Edward Snowden is any indicator – run by marginally qualified temps seem a bit overwrought given the situation?

My point here isn’t to debate the intricacies of national security, but rather to illustrate the point that so much of our society – our thoughts, our habits, our policies and laws, our actions, our everyday life – is based on the concept of “What if the worst case scenario happens?” We are constantly regulating, insulating, mitigating and inoculating so many aspects of what we say, do, think and, perhaps most importantly, allow against the mathematically tiny possibility that maybe, possibly, theoretically something bad could happen to someone somewhere, and if it does, somebody might get sued over it. Because that’s what it all comes down to isn’t it? We’re just making sure our own asses are covered – just in case. Because what if today is the day the s--t hits the fan?

This is not to advocate for some libertarian fantasy world in which every man and woman is an island, free from rules and regulations, reliant only on him or herself with no safety net, no oppressive government with its intrusive, unnecessary taxes and bureaucracies and fire departments and school systems. We need rules and order. We need protections. Sometimes we need government agencies to implement those protections. We need to be prepared for the worst case scenario because – as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Newtown have all proven – sometimes the worst case scenario does happen. But we can’t base our everyday lives around preventing the mere possibility of it, because in the grand mathematical scheme of things, the likelihood of it happening is so tiny and remote, and the effort it takes to guard against it is so all-encompassing and inconvenient that it stifles the functioning of a healthy and free society. It would be like never traveling by air just so you can guarantee that you’ll never die in a plane crash. Sure, we all know that when something goes wrong on a flight it goes really wrong, but when you measure all the thousands upon thousands of takeoffs and landings every single day against the number of times a plane actually crashes, is the safest option really the most sensible one?

The bean counters and bureaucrats who attempt to stultify our dynamic society by guarding against the “what ifs?” come from both sides of the political spectrum – they just find their threats in different places. The conservative hawks seek to shield us from the harm others may do to us, while the liberal nannies aim to protect us from ourselves. In both cases, the threats are greatly exaggerated – not so much in their capacity to inflict damage, but in the likelihood that the dangers they represent will come to pass. Whether it’s domestic spying programs or anti-smoking laws, the police state or the nanny state, the indignant moral crusader or the sniveling bureaucrat – it’s all about making sure that no one is left holding the bag should something bad happen. But if it never happens, how much have we lost in the process?