I feel like I pointed a rocket in one direction, lit the fuse, and watched it veer off in an entirely different direction.
I'll answer my own question.
I think this thought experiment demonstrates that government and society do not process threats consistently. 3,000 dead due to terrorist attacks (9/11) seemingly justifies two wars and a complete overhaul of our homeland security apparatus, while the average American doesn't take coronavirus seriously and is willing to flout social distancing orders as they wish.
Another example: every time there's a school shooting, our political system renews its long-standing (and vicious) debate over gun control. Meanwhile, far more Americans die of obesity every year than from gun violence. Yet, because widespread public health problems rack up body counts slowly and quietly, they are overshadowed by the flashy, high-profile tragedies.
Basically, our policy process disproportionately focuses on acts of violence and other high-profile crises, neglecting more serious systemic threats to our collective well-being. Or to put it another way, our policy process is guided by emotions rather than a moral framework applied logically and consistently.
This is a good observation, and it is a huge blind spot of humans in general. Even within the school shooting debate, look at the type of guns focused on. 'Long guns', or 'assault rifles' are an object of constant fixation and terror, with numerous frenzied attempts to regulate them. But if you look at countries that do have tight gun control laws, and base policy on a more accurate risk assessment, the most heavily regulated categories of gun are not semi-automatic rifles or even shotguns. It's handguns. This is because semi-automatic rifles are involved in a tiny sliver of overall gun deaths, with handguns being used in the overwhelming majority. The reason for this is simple; handguns are easily concealable and more widely owned. But gun control advocates are fixated on so-called 'assault rifles' because of reasons that have nothing to do with a rational avoidance of risk. Reasons that would probably be more efficaciously explored through Rorschach tests or on the psychoanalyst's couch.
It reminds me a bit of an excerpt from a fantasy novel which I once read, in which an artificial intelligence responded to being asked whether it dreamed:
'I am a calculating machine which has calculated how to think. I do not dream. I have no neuroses, no hidden depths. My consciousness is a growing function of my processing power, not the baroque thing that sprouts from your mind, with its hidden rooms in attics and cellars.'
It's a central problem of applying any utility calculus to human action. Humans aren't machines, however much some of us may want to make them so. We have different perspective, shifting biases, subdued emotional structures that direct and guide not just our actions but the very ways in which we process information and make decisions. Even (or perhaps, especially) the would-be tinkers of mankind, who seek to 'fix' these defects, are hopelessly lost within them. It's as Eric Hoffer once wrote:
'The sick in soul insist that it is humanity that is sick, and they are the surgeons to operate on it. They want to turn the world into a sickroom. And once they get humanity strapped to the operating table, they operate on it with an ax.'