Engaging Culture

Terrorism by the Numbers: How Big is the Real Risk?

My last few posts have been about the terrorism issue – largely because I’ve been fascinated at how much time the mass media has been spending on the underwear bomber – and then the absolute frenzy we’ve seen at airport security checkpoints as a result.  On Twitter, I quoted last week from the Wall Street Journal that “The President’s job isn’t detecting bombs at the airport, but neutralizing terrorists before they get there.”  Now today, in the Wall Street Journal, two articles – by Nate Silver and Paul Campos crunch the numbers to give us a realistic picture of the actual odds when it comes to terrorism versus other ways to die.  The result are some sobering (and fascinating) numbers I’ve pulled from both articles:

Today, about 6,700 Americans will die.  1,900 of the Americans who die today will be less than 65, and about 140 will be children. Approximately 50 Americans will be murdered today, including several women killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and several children who will die from abuse and neglect. Around 85 of us will commit suicide, and another 120 will die in traffic accidents.

Relative to the number of commercial departures world-wide, passenger deaths resulting from what I term “violent passenger incidents”—bombings, hijackings, and other sabotage—were at least five times LESS common in the 2000s than in any decade from the 1940s through the 1980s.

In the decade of the 2000s, only about one passenger for every 25 million was killed in a terrorist attack aboard an American commercial airliner (all of the fatalities were on 9/11). By contrast, a person has about a one in 500,000 chance each year of being struck by lightning.  In addition, there are about 200,000 convicted murderers walking free in America today (there have been more than 600,000 murders in America over the past 30 years, and the average time served for the crime is about 12 years).

Overall, academic and governmental databases report, terrorist attacks killed a total of about 5,300 people in the most highly developed nations since the end of the Cold War in 1991, a rate of about 300 per year. The chance of a Westerner being killed by a terrorist is exceedingly low: about a one in three million each year, or the same chance an American will be killed by a tornado. (The Department of Homeland Security’s budget is 50 times larger than that of the weather service).

Nor is it clear that the threat from terrorism is increasing. The years between 2005 and 2009 (313 fatalities), in fact, represents the second safest period on record since at least 1970. Surely some of this is because of improved vigilance and intelligence. As well, other once-threatening terrorist organizations—like the Irish Republican Army, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and the Libyan extremists who brought down the flight over Lockerbie, Scotland,—have become dormant or de-radicalized.

A little intelligence and a few drops of courage remind us that life is full of risk, and that of all the risks we confront in America every day, terrorism is a very minor one. Taking prudent steps to reasonably minimize the tiny threat we face from a few fanatic criminals need not grant them the attention they crave.  Continuing to play “Terrorball,” on the other hand, guarantees that the terrorists will always win, since it places the bar for what counts as success for them practically on the ground.

What do you think?

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  1. Of course “terrorism” is the tail wagging the dog. Barnum would be proud that the misdirection act lives on. Underwear bomber is a nice diversion for the overthrow of a democracy so intrigued with TMZ in HD we don’t notice our civil liberties being stolen one quorum call at a time.

    Should we be less vigorous? Of course not. Should we take the fight to source, as if it was a mystery who we should be fighting? Absolutely. Should we froth on every detail trickling from Rev. Blitzer and Bishop Beck? No. There’s more important things to follow, like the name of the hostess at Tiger’s favorite breakfast haunt.


  2. I think Franklin said it best, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  3. Terrorism seemed like a “tiny threat” on Sep. 10, 2001.  I don’t think the focus of our concerns should be about the number of attacks increasing or the theoretical possibility of one occurring as compared to being hit by lightening, for example, as much as it should be a concern over the magnitude of such attacks should one occur.  One bomb goes off in a plane at 20000 feet and 200-300 people are pretty much dead, period.  The effects are just limited to those within the blast radius, either.  Terrorism can cause political unrest or even spark a war (see Israel v. Hezbollah, and US action v. the Taliban after 911 etc.), with more resulting loss of life.  There is also a real chance today of terrorists  using nukes.  Hasn’t happened yet, but then again, we didn’t think they would use planes as guided missiles.  I’m sure there are a few rogue nations out there who wouldn’t mind seeing a mushroom cloud over D.C. and would happily supply terror groups with the necessary materials. 

    I agree that civil liberties are always a concern, but I don’t see a real tension between civil liberties and the Patriot act-type measures that even Democrats supported (until the election year, in which they caved to left-wing concerns).  I hear a lot of rhetoric but little substance on the “we’re losing our civil liberties” front.  Where are the documented instances of people losing their right to freedom of speech, press, religion or association because of legislative initiatives in Congress over the last 10 years?   I agree that balance is important – I just happen to believe that we are achieving that (even now in spite of Pres. Obama’s earlier dovish campaign rhetoric before he was elected).

    I’ve seen more questionable concerns over civil liberties coming from the Obama admin than Bush, i.e. when the Obama admin who urged citizens to actually contact the White House if they learned of people “distorting” facts on health care.   The White House was forced to end it soon after people learned of it.  And wasn’t it the Obama admin (Dept of Homeland Security) who signaled out pro-life veterans as potential terrorist threat groups?  Again, an apology was issued, but only because of the backlash.  That sort of thing should be disconcerting to everyone.

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