Blogs > Liberty and Power > Calm Down, Get a Hold of Yourself

Oct 25, 2004 8:38 am

Calm Down, Get a Hold of Yourself

Terrific article in the new Regulation magazine, putting the risks of terrorism in perspective. John Mueller collects the known knowns and the known unknowns about how much sleep we ought to be losing about dying in a terrorist attack. Mueller's answer: not much. And we ought to spend more time worrying about the risks of overreaction.

Here's Mueller:

Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

Does 9/11 portend a sea change in the prevalence of that risk? Mueller sees no good reason to think so:

Although there have been many deadly terrorist incidents in the world since 2001, all (thus far, at least) have relied on conventional methods and have not remotely challenged September 11 quantitatively. If, as some purported experts repeatedly claim, chemical and biological attacks are so easy and attractive to terrorists, it is impressive that none have so far been used in Israel (where four times as many people die from automobile accidents as from terrorism).


Accordingly, it would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, in an article last year in American Scientist, wrote that they determined there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate that an American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America's safest roads--rural interstate highways--one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.

In that regard, John McCain has it right (the first and last time you'll ever read that sentence from me):"Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud!"

All of us, post-9/11 have at one time or another, suffered from shameful bouts of Security Mom hysteria. But worst among us are the conservatives. I caught a snippet of Hannity on the way home the other day saying something like, whatever your position is on social issues, you have to vote for Bush, because without security, we won't be around to debate things like gay marriage. He may not be smart enough to know better, but the rest of us ought to be.

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More Comments:

M.D. Fulwiler - 10/26/2004

yes, terrorists are a minor threat if they are just using conventional explosives, but the equation changes if they can detonate a nuke...that i really worry about.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/25/2004

We all know (except those who dont want to know) who profits from the terrorism hysteria: military-industrial
complex, oil profiteers, and Big Business, in general.
And, of course, their appointees in the White House.