Don't Be Terrorized

You're more likely to die of a car accident, drowning, fire, or murder

Yesterday, British authorities broke up an alleged terror plot to blow up as many as ten commercial airliners as they flew to the United States. In response, the Department of Homeland Security upped the alert level on commercial flights from Britain to "red" and boosted the alert to "orange" for all other flights. In a completely unscientific poll, AOL asked subscribers: "Are you changing your travel plans because of the raised threat level?" At mid-afternoon about a quarter of the respondents had said yes. Such polls do reflect the kinds of anxieties terrorist attacks, even those that have been stymied, provoke in the public.

But how afraid should Americans be of terrorist attacks? Not very, as some quick comparisons with other risks that we regularly run in our daily lives indicate. Your odds of dying of a specific cause in any year are calculated by dividing that year's population by the number of deaths by that cause in that year. Your lifetime odds of dying of a particular cause are calculated by dividing the one-year odds by the life expectancy of a person born in that year. For example, in 2003 about 45,000 Americans died in motor accidents out of population of 291,000,000. So, according to the National Safety Council this means your one-year odds of dying in a car accident is about one out of 6500. Therefore your lifetime probability (6500 ÷ 78 years life expectancy) of dying in a motor accident are about one in 83.

What about your chances of dying in an airplane crash? A one-year risk of one in 400,000 and one in 5,000 lifetime risk. What about walking across the street? A one-year risk of one in 48,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 625. Drowning? A one-year risk of one in 88,000 and a one in 1100 lifetime risk. In a fire? About the same risk as drowning. Murder? A one-year risk of one in 16,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 210. What about falling? Essentially the same as being murdered. And the proverbial being struck by lightning? A one-year risk of one in 6.2 million and a lifetime risk of one in 80,000. And what is the risk that you will die of a catastrophic asteroid strike? In 1994, astronomers calculated that the chance was one in 20,000. However, as they've gathered more data on the orbits of near earth objects, the lifetime risk has been reduced to one in 200,000 or more.

So how do these common risks compare to your risk of dying in a terrorist attack? To try to calculate those odds realistically, Michael Rothschild, a former business professor at the University of Wisconsin, worked out a couple of plausible scenarios. For example, he figured that if terrorists were to destroy entirely one of America's 40,000 shopping malls per week, your chances of being there at the wrong time would be about one in one million or more. Rothschild also estimated that if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America's 18,000 commercial flights per week that your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000.

Even if terrorists were able to pull off one attack per year on the scale of the 9/11 atrocity, that would mean your one-year risk would be one in 100,000 and your lifetime risk would be about one in 1300. (300,000,000 ÷ 3,000 = 100,000 ÷ 78 years = 1282) In other words, your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered.

So do these numbers comfort you? If not, that's a problem. Already, security measures—pervasive ID checkpoints, metal detectors, and phalanxes of security guards—increasingly clot the pathways of our public lives. It's easy to overreact when an atrocity takes place—to heed those who promise safety if only we will give the authorities the "tools" they want by surrendering to them some of our liberty. As President Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." However, with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn't matter—because it doesn't really matter. We ultimately vanquish terrorism when we refuse to be terrorized.

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  • Tim Starr||

    This is a grossly misleading denial of the risk of terrorism. First of all, risk is a function of frequency and magnitude. Terrorism, like most forms of asymmetric warfare, has highly variable frequency and magnitude, and the main controls on that variation is our willingness and capability to stamp it out. Getting away with terrorist attacks sets a precedent and invites escalation. We would not take such a cavalier view of the risks of various forms of State intervention, so why should we do so for freelance statists?

    Secondly, your risk of death is hardly the only cost of terrorism. I was in Berkeley and Oakland on 9/11, but a customer (Morgan Stanley) of the company I worked for at the time (Red Hat) was based there at the time. Their office was wiped out, many of their assets lost, and their personnel had to be evacuated, if they were lucky enough to escape being killed. The total economic costs to the USA from the 9/11 attacks were at least a trillion dollars. Wiping out 50 or so US shopping malls per year would have a similar effect.

    In contrast, both the frequency and magnitude of risks such as car accidents are relatively constant, more predictable, and thus more manageable. That's because car accidents are unintentional; terrorism is the intentional killing of civilians.

  • ||

    @Tim Starr

    I am sorry but you seem to lack reading comprehension ability.

    The article is about simple cost versus value. It is about showing how over the top, American reaction to terrorism is, when even simple minimal efforts will suffice. Not making enemies in other countries, to begin with(Check out the origins of Taliban on google) will be a good start.

    That aside, you talk of the cost of 911 attack. Good point. What is the cost of all the extra effort involved and the time wasted in maintaining the sense of security? Well over several trillions.

    If your goal was to simply prevent deaths, cars kill more people than terrorists. The loss again in terms of property and potential skilled workers lost runs into trillions. Where is the equal response to that? Do we do profiling and background checks while selling cars to irresponsible dangerous individuals?

    Which other country in the world btw, has 50 shopping malls blown up every year? There are other equally wealthy countries e.g. say Japan, Singapore etc. What makes America such a target instead then? What makes it so different from Japan? How is India, that is a regular target of terrorism, managing?

    You issue challenges to find countries that survive after having 50 malls blown up. Why not name ONE country that has even 10 malls blown up? Stop making up nonsensical hypotheticals.

    You attempt to belittle the loss of families who lost loved ones to car accidents by saying that they don't matter because those deaths were mere accidents. Very well. But if you find intentional deaths of 911 so much more terrible, what have you done to avenge them? You say getting away with terrorist attacks sets a precedent and invites escalation. with it. Sure. But hasn't Osama bin Laden done exactly that? He has gotten away with it. By your own logic, you fail. Correct?

    And terrorists have indeed won. You are completely terrorized. Look up the meaning of the word terrorist sometime in dictionary. Your own government spies on you. You get humiliated, strip-searched, sexually molested regularly by pat-downs all in the name of mere privilege of traveling around. You have to be careful of what you talk about around airports.

    Nice of you to make light of motor-vehicle related deaths. How big of you. How exactly are they being "managed" though? If that is the case, why are your chances of dying in a car accident still much higher than dying in a plane crash/terrorist attack ? Why all this obsession with just planes then?

    You are a moron. You fail at even basic logic. Stop taking drugs and watching too much TV. Seriously.

  • ||

    Ironically, doing the something that we have done, has increased terrorism (killing innocents and giving terrorists money and access).

  • Bob||

    @Tim Starr

    You're absolutely right that terrorism has a variable frequency and magnitude, and we need to do some things to prevent major catastrophes. But our general responses are idiotic. Terrorists find a small hole in security, and we institute sweeping new policies that invade privacy and often don't actually address the failures that allowed the terrorists to get through.

    As for the "cost of terrorism," well the 9/11 attacks cost at least a trillion dollars because of the stupid results of fear, not because of direct losses. If people actually were rational as the author of this article is, the costs would have been orders of magnitude less, and certainly much less than the economic costs that the new security protocols have. Beyond the cost of scanners and personnel, how much productivity is lost by making millions of people stand around doing nothing for hours each day in the name of "security"? If you really want to start economic analysis, "security" in response to terrorism has cost us a LOT more.

    Lastly, given the frequency of terrorist attacks (and threatened ones), it is rational to conclude that the threat is MUCH lower than our governments seem to indicate. Either that, or most terrorists are complete idiots. There are plenty of minor flaws in the bureaucratic security apparatus we've set up, and any reasonably intelligent person could figure out dozens of ways to terrorize people. The fact that we don't have a shopping mall blown up every week (which would be SO easy compared to the occasional crazy person with a bomb on a plane) demonstrates how miniscule the number of actual terrorists must be.

    You're probably fighting a war and spending trillions of dollars against a couple hundred truly crazy people out of the billions of people in the world. The rest of the "terrorists" are either not willing to act or not smart enough. The only rational response is to ignore them.

    But you're living proof that the terrorists have won.

  • Tim Starr||

    I've no defense for stupid "security" measures, but they don't prove there's no need for any security measures at all.

    The frequency of terrorism is largely a function of how willing we are to resist it with an active violent defense. We've foiled plenty of plots since 9/11; without any security measures, they would've succeeded.

    As for the alleged irrationality of the market response to 9/11, you find me a country whose economy has thrived while having 50 shopping malls blown up each year. I seriously doubt you'll be able to find one.

  • Tim Starr||

    Oh, and as for the "the terrorists have won" BS, that's a ludicrous exagerration. I haven't seen many women in Burkhas lately, even though I live in Fremont, CA, which has a rather large Muslim population.

  • ||

    @Tim Starr

    What gave you the idea that terrorists want you to wear burkhas? They simply want you to be afraid of them. That is what is the dictionary definition of terrorism. Since you are scared out of your wits, of them, they have obviously won their goal. Your freedoms are now history. Osama is still well and alive and has not been punished.

    As for the nonsensical plots and frequency, how many terrorist attacks were there before 911? You didnt have any of these over-the-top security measures before that, right? So where were all the attacks before 911? So much for preventing hypothetical "highly frequent" attacks.

    The key point that your limited brain seems to be unable to grasp is that all these "security measures" are being taken against AMERICAN citizens! Apparently as per your government, all you citizens are possibly terrorists. And you see nothing wrong with this. If it was just foreigners being subjected to all these over-the-top security measures it was perhaps understandable. Those who didn't like it would simply not visit America. Is it that hard to simply check if the guy boarding is an American citizen or not?

    Hell if you wanted to be anal, you could even subject first generation immigrants(anyone not born on american soil) to the extra security checks. For the citizens, the pre-911 type X-rays for guns/weapons would be enough.

    It is incomprehensible why a moron like you would defend the government doing this to its OWN citizens. Are you insane? Hundreds of American citizens are launching terrorists attacks on their own country? Since when?

    You seriously need help.

  • Dead Guy||

    Just found this article. Chances of being murdered are much greater than being killed by terrorists. What a relief!!!

  • Eric Smith||

    kids, your chances of dying in any given year are slimmer than you think, look at the grid and look at your age to see the average likelihood of death this year
    http://www.yourlifesolution.co.....log/?p=139

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  • ||

    The rather curious thing about the "terrorist" attacks is our gov refusal to have a scientific unbiased inquire into who actually did 911. Even our present illustrious President Obama absolutely refuses to question George Bush's and companies assumption that the sand people piloted 2 planes into lower Manhatten towers and somehow 3 towers collapsed into mounds of dust.

  • AL M||

    Excellent essay!
    Now how do we get the public to read it and comprehend it?

  • AL M||

    Doesn't anybody monitor this site for spam?
    Sheesh, give it up you wastrels!

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  • Ariel||

    actually, the chances of anybody dying on an airplane is 1 in 11 MILLION.

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