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Life would be vastly different if our phones warned us about the real sources of daily terrorism

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An entire city was mobilized by an Amber Alert to catch a terror suspect who threatened a population with bombs. But imagine how a population could get mobilized if we issued Amber Alerts to warn people of the real threats to our bodies and our democracy.

With the news that a suspect was in custody, the New York Times continued its fascination with “Amber Alert” technology. Police sent out an alert to millions of New York-area cell phones with information about the man they were searching for. Twitter was abuzz with numerous users reporting their reaction to the loud, ear-splitting tone of the alert and the “weird” sensation of hearing it going off on others’ phones simultaneously.

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For those of us who live outside New York, perhaps there is more familiarity with Amber Alerts. They are issued when police want to mobilize a population to be on the lookout for a missing child. The tone is startling — it is meant to be — when the agency issuing the alert is trying to get a cellphone user’s attention, it needs to be louder than a normal ringtone, or louder than ambient music, traffic noise, or conversation. That’s the point. It’s an alert that draws your attention to an event that is considered an emergency.

But the use of that noise to alert New Yorkers to the presence of a terror suspect among them must have added to the sense of fright that many were already feeling. As soon as the news broke of the initial bomb blast near a dumpster in Chelsea, speculation erupted that New York was under a terrorist attack. Donald Trump immediately made the bombing about Donald Trump, prematurely ejaculating that it was a terrorist attack, that this was proof that Muslims should be banned from the United States, and whipping up hysteria against immigrants, while insisting that all of this was happening because America was “weak.”

It is important to note that despite the fact that “terrorism” is dominating the headlines of American newspapers, not a single American died as a consequence of the plot. There were a number of injuries, but all of those injured by the dumpster bomb had been released from the hospital within 24 hours. In the meantime, the real sources of terror in American society — a rape culture that leaves huge numbers of women in peril every single day, and the police, who we are prevented from knowing exactly how many people die at their hands each year — exist without a single Amber Alert ever going off. I am not dismissing the fact that terrorist organizations pushing extreme ideologies exist that threaten Americans, but I think perspective is essential.

Imagine a world in which each time a woman was raped, an Amber Alert went off in her community alerting other women to the danger. Or imagine a world in which an Amber Alert went off each time an unarmed black man was shot by police? The cacophony would frighten us. Because that is real terrorism.

The term “terrorism” comes to us from the French. But the word “terror” has its origins in Latin,  where it describes fear so overwhelming and great that it induces trembling. Terrorism is the idea that something can instill such fright in you that you shake with fear. It is fear that is felt inside the body; it’s not an intellectual exercise, but something that one feels viscerally. Thus, the Amber Alert, which creates that tone that is “ear-splitting” can induce its own physical reaction in the person who hears it.

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Many know that the era after the French Revolution, which began on July 14, 1789, with the storming of the Bastille, was known as le Terreur, the Terror. It became known in English as the Reign of Terror shortly after the period when the Jacobins, those that took power after deposing and executing the French king, decided that those who opposed the new regime should be executed. The images of lines of nobles waiting to meet the guillotine have come down to us from le Terreur. “Insisting that their partisan views were identical to the national will, believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent. Political opponents were treasonous, stabbing France and the Revolution in the back,” the ironic result of the great democratic experiment in France was the imposition of a rule of law in which no dissent could be tolerated and in fact, was seen as the equivalent of treason. (And if this reminds one of the rage at Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who are refusing to stand for the national anthem, it bears thinking about.)

And yet, despite the fact that Americans are told on a regular basis to be on the alert against terrorists, the actual chances of being a victim of terrorism is smaller than winning the lottery. According to the Global Terrorism Database, between 2004 and 2013, excluding military deaths by terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, a total of 80 Americans died as a consequence of terrorism, 36 of those in the United States. To try to put this in perspective: in 2010, 8 American civilians died worldwide in terrorist attacks. That same year, 29 Americans died after being struck by lightning. One is almost four times as likely to be struck by lightning as to die at the hands of a terrorist. In 2011, 17 Americans died worldwide as a consequence of terrorism, and this number includes Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011-2013, 621 Americans died overseas — in automobile crashes. And yet, most people do not shake in fear at the thought of getting behind the wheel of a car, even if they’re driving in another country.

But for a woman, each day is a calculated risk. On average, there are 288,000 victims of rape and sexual assault per year. 90% of the victims of rape are adult women. Women who are enrolled in college, who are between the ages of 18-24, are three times more likely to be the victim of rape than other women. If a woman is between the ages of 18-24, and she is not enrolled in college, she is four times more likely to be raped. A woman who is an American Indian is twice as likely to be raped as a woman of any other race.

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Every two minutes, an American is sexually assaulted.

Imagine that an Amber Alert went off each time a sexual assault occurred. The din would be unbearable. And yet, we don’t refer to rape culture as terrorism.

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Or, consider one’s chances of being shot by the police if you are a black male in America. At the moment, the U.S. doesn’t have an accurate database for police killings. But the Guardian, a British newspaper, has been counting. As of September 19, 2016, 781 Americans have died at the hands of police since January 1. Of those 781, 32 have been unarmed black men. So, in a ten-year period, 36 Americans died on U.S. soil as a consequence of terrorism. But, in a nine-month period, 32 unarmed black men have died at the hands of police. For an unarmed black male, the chances of dying at the hands of police are much greater than dying as a consequence of a terrorist attack.

Again. What is the definition of terrorism? And why does an Amber Alert not go off each time an unarmed person dies after dealing with the police? It is important to note, that of course this is not all police. But for those Miami police who ask to be relieved of their jobs because they don’t like Miami football players who refuse to stand for the anthem, or for those citizens who threaten the lives of little boys because of the anthem, or for those who want Megan Rapinoe dismissed from U.S. soccer for her participation in the protest, the question remains: why are you so afraid of the threat of foreign terrorists when the real threats are on the streets surrounding us every day?


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