Will: Curb your pessimism

George Will
Washington Post

President Barack Obama’s tone of mild exasperation when tutoring the public often makes his pronouncements grating even when they are sensible. As was his recent suggestion that Americans, misled by media, are exaggerating the threat of terrorism.

The world might currently seem unusually disorderly, but it can be so without being unusually dangerous. If we measure danger by the risk of violence, the world is unusually safe.

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum recently reminded readers that in three decades of terror the Irish Republican Army murdered more than 2,000. And Italy’s Red Brigades committed many attacks, killings and kidnappings. Both groups had foreign support. The Islamic State is dangerous, but the West has faced, and surmounted, worse. The Islamic State poses neither an existential threat nor even a serious threat to any developed nation.

The Obama administration has not recently repeated its suggestion that Vladimir Putin should find an “offramp,” its evident assumption being that Putin inadvertently took a wrong turn, with tanks, into Ukraine. But with Russia, nuclear-armed and governed by an angry man, dismembering a European nation, surely the Islamic State ranks as a second-tier problem.

And a solvable one. An Egyptian diplomat, expressing his nation’s disdain for other Arab nations, once dismissed them as “tribes with flags.” Some of them, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, could go some way toward proving him wrong, by sweeping the Islamic State off the map.

Some Islamic State atrocities are comparable to the elaborately gruesome and protracted public executions (drawing and quartering, disembowelment, burning, beheadings, etc.) that were popular entertainments in the London of Shakespeare’s time.

Worldwide, violence has been receding, unevenly but strikingly, for centuries. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, ascribes the steep decline in violence to numerous factors — governments supplanting anarchy; trade supplanting plunder; rejection of “cruel and unusual” punishments; the decline of interstate war since 1945; the collapse of communism; the pacifying effect of prosperity and its pursuit; cosmopolitanism, meaning the decline of hostile parochialisms due to literacy, travel, education, popular culture and mass media.

As interstate wars declined, Pinker says, civil wars ravaged many newly independent countries. But “civil wars tend to kill far fewer people than wars between states” and “since the peak of the Cold War in the 1970s and ’80s, organized conflicts of all kinds … have declined throughout the world, and their death tolls have declined even more precipitously.”

Pessimism, Pinker says, may be a natural inclination: Imagine the good things that could happen to you today. Now imagine the bad things. Which list is longer? The world is a dangerous place, and can be made more so by America’s unforced errors, as in Libya. Errors can flow from panic bred by unwarranted pessimism.

George Will writes for the Washington Post.