Essay — From the June 2017 issue

Safety in Numbers

The mathematics of predicting war

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I went to fetch some new chickens the other day. The birds were Rhode Island Reds, homely and reliable, and so meek that it took the breeder and me only a few minutes to get eight of them into the metal crate in the back of my station wagon. They huddled together at the center of the cage, craning their heads like a single many-headed creature scanning the horizon for predators. The jouncing of the car on the rocky driveway broke up the scrum, leaving each hen to fend for herself. Some tried to fly out the top of the cage, others threw themselves against its sides. I switched on the stereo to drown out the noise. But the Neville Brothers did better than that, calming the hens so that they settled onto the floor of the crate.

We wound our way past greening lawns and fields. I leaned my elbow out the open window, let the mild air wash my face, took in the bright white clouds and the azure sky — a May-in-December afternoon almost gorgeous enough to make me glad for global warming, and certainly enough to make me glad for the day, for the road, for the Nevilles and the chickens, and for the absence of traffic at the intersection with the highway I had to cross to get home. Its four lanes were empty, as if Moses had parted the traffic for me. But just as I started across, I heard the urgent bleat of a car horn. Something flickered at the periphery of my vision, behind me and to the left. I thought of a concept I had once taught to undergraduates: inattentional blindness, the failure to see something obvious when you are preoccupied. The term was perhaps most famously illustrated by two Harvard professors who conducted an experiment in which almost half of their test subjects, shown a video of a basketball passing drill and instructed to count the passes of one team, failed to discern a person in a gorilla suit walking through the game. I braced for the crash.

Illustrations by Darrel Rees

Preoccupation was not going to kill me, however, at least not today. Even before my memory had faded, I found myself safely on the other side of the road. I looked in my mirror. The highway was as empty as it had been a moment before. The horn sounded again. It was the rise to the second verse of “Fire and Brimstone.” The title made me laugh.

The mild pleasures of sky and balmy air and locomotion returned in an amped-up form only one stop shy of ecstasy. Terror had stripped away dullness, and, like a whetstone restoring the edge of a knife, rendered life sharp and shiny. I was almost grateful to it.

But only almost. We’re built for terror, as witness the slowing of time, the flooding thoughts, the reflexive mashing of the accelerator, the adrenaline surge. We’re also built to ignore it, which is a good thing considering everything there is to be terrified of. Car wrecks, of course. But also an aneurysm that will wipe you out in the middle of a sentence, the cancer that will take its sweet time to eat you alive, or just the knowledge that somewhere out there is a bullet with your name on it. All the species of terror, most of them variations on one theme: death itself, the dizzying, horrifying, ungraspable prospect of nonbeing. Maybe the din of life has drowned out the tocsin of your impending demise, or thoughts of heaven have turned its music sweeter, or you’ve come to ignore it as you ignore a jackhammer outside your window. In any case, you’ve managed to soldier on. You’ve learned how to keep your eye on the game instead of on the gorilla.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

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