Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth

[ by Charles Cameron — this post is about comparisons — what you make of them, and what they make of you, death calculus, and Handel ]



Scraped from my morning read, these two quotes — a tweeted headline from Breitbart and a gobbit of the Jerusalem Post — neatly illustrate a paradox I’ve been wrestling with, the way more profound souls wrestle with angels [link is to Rilke].

It’s the paradox of comparison.


On the one hand, I can barely imagine what it would be like to build — with, say, enough funds for a latter-day Manhattan Project — a Department whose job it was to monitor all activities and ensure even-handedness in the allocation of resources.

So that not ever would a Presidential aide on vacation receive a security detail until each and every ambassador had an equivalent force of marines around them at any given moment, in embassy or out.

I mean, what about consuls, or CIA heads of station — are they ambassadorial enough? Members of the cabinet on vacation? Members of the National Security Council? How far do we need to go with our even-handedness? Is Benghazi different from London? Londonistan?

How would one possibly assure oneself that no “hand” of government, left, right, center, upper, lower, or oblique to all of the above, ever arranged things in a way that compared foolishly with the way some other “hand” of government had arranged something more or less similar?


Let’s go to what my friend Bryan Alexander calls the death calculus. Since we’re interested in terrorism here, I’ll pull quotes from a couple of pieces that you can read in full if this topic interests you. Two paras from TomDispatch:

In 2008, 14,180 Americans were murdered, according to the FBI. In that year, there were 34,017 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. and, so the U.S. Fire Administration tells us, 3,320 deaths by fire. More than 11,000 Americans died of the swine flu between April and mid-December 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; on average, a staggering 443,600 Americans die yearly of illnesses related to tobacco use, reports the American Cancer Society;5,000 Americans die annually from food-borne diseases; an estimated 1,760children died from abuse or neglect in 2007; and the next year, 560 Americans died of weather-related conditions, according to the National Weather Service, including 126 from tornadoes, 67 from rip tides, 58 from flash floods, 27 from lightning, 27 from avalanches, and 1 from a dust devil.


The now-infamous Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his bomb-laden underwear toward Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, had 290 passengers and crew, all of whom survived. Had the inept Abdulmutallab actually succeeded, the death toll would not have equaled the 324 traffic fatalities in Nevada in 2008; while the destruction of four Flight 253s from terrorism would not have equaled New York State’s 2008 traffic death toll of1,231, 341 of whom, or 51 more than those on Flight 253, were classified as “alcohol-impaired fatalities.”

Two paras from a Salon piece [copied here sans links and emphases]:

“The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year,” said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

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