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:
IN A TYPICAL DAY:
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.
DEATHS FROM TERRORISM:
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.
WHAT THEN SHOULD BE DONE?
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?