WASHINGTON, D.C. — If I had to pick the one thing that has changed most in the 28 years I’ve been coming to Truro, it would be the fear factor. Specifically, fear of sharks.
Sure, there have been more important, more subtle shifts: beach erosion, economic inequality, craft beer, and the internet all come to mind. But this inflated selachophobia sticks out. It is out of character. It has changed the summertime mood. And it may say something about how the country has handled the current pandemic.
As individuals and as a society, we use more emotion than intellect in responding to threats. We respond disproportionately when there is a vivid enemy — Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, immigrants from south of the border, the great white shark.
The boogie boarder killed by a great white in Wellfleet in September 2018 was the first shark fatality in this area in 82 years. You know the fallout from that sad event, and you have your own opinions about the sort of existential threat sharks pose on Cape Cod.
Still, allow me to offer some facts to put the great white threat in perspective. In Barnstable County, 16 people died in traffic accidents in 2018, 14 in 2017, and 18 in 2016. Seventy-eight Massachusetts pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2018.
Between 2010 and 2018, 444 Cape Codders died from opioid overdoses.
You get the idea. Statistically and rationally, death by shark is far too remote a thing to worry about. Driving on Route 6? Be afraid.
Nationally, the equivalent of the great white shark is Islamic terrorism. Over the past four decades, including 9/11, the odds of dying by any form of foreign terrorism are roughly the same as getting eaten by a shark. Excluding 9/11, the odds that you’ll die by foreign terrorism in the U.S. are about the same as you biting a shark.
To battle this remote threat, the U.S. military has sacrificed 7,000 lives overseas since 2001. U.S. spending on the war on terrorism since 2001 comes to some $6.4 trillion. We are still spending something north of $100 billion annually.
Spending on the prevention of infectious diseases and pandemics has totaled around $1 billion a year recently.
We now know that the Trump administration has tragically and scandalously bungled the novel coronavirus pandemic. But it is also true that the country has skimped on building a proper prevention infrastructure.
It isn’t hard to understand why. There is no political capital to be gained by spending on preventing disaster, but there’s an enormous advantage in providing disaster relief. In spite of the AIDS tragedy, for most Americans “pandemic” was, till now, an invisible, third-world-sounding possibility with no enemy to conjure and demonize. No Osama bin Laden. No great white shark.
The great invisible threat this country is now ignoring, of course, is climate change. Anyone who has walked Outer Cape beaches for the past 30 years knows the truth of that.
It is likely, though not certain, that this country will be better prepared for future pandemics.
But is it possible that the Covid-19 crisis will change how Americans collectively think about what we might call sharkless threats? Climate change. The extreme economic inequality that threatens social cohesion and our basic democracy. Gun violence.
History does not yield optimistic answers. But the Great Pandemic of 2020 might yield some fresh wisdom.
So, the next time you hear someone fretting about fear of swimming on Outer Cape beaches, tell them to drive more carefully on Route 6.
Journalist Dick Meyer, a nonresident taxpayer in Truro, is the author of Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.