Terrorists vs. Ladders


Benjamin Friedman writing in Foreign Policy asks: What are the odds that you will die in a terrorist attack?

Answer: Minuscule.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the odds are about 1 in 88,000. The odds of dying from falling off a ladder are 1 in 10,010. Even in 2001, automobile crashes killed 15 times more Americans than terrorism.

In his article, "Homeland Security," Friedman also makes some incisive points about how much money the Feds are wasting in a variety of futile anti-terrorist activities. In any, case I'm gonna keep a closer eye on any stepladders I run across.

NEXT: Economy Meets Ecology

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  1. Odds like these are always a little suspect. After all, the odds that I will die falling off a ladder are nowhere near 10,000 to 1, simply because I'm never on a ladder. Of course, that means that those who work on ladders daily have a much greater chance of dying. Ladders are pretty dangerous, but I can actually take action to lower any risk, unlike terrorism.

    To be honest, 88,000 seems incredibly low. For instance, the population of Philly is about 1.5 million, which according to those odds means that 1 in every 17 Philadelphians will die from terrorism. I wonder if those odds include massive nuclear or biological attacks, and if they include the entire world, which would make the case similar to the ladder.

  2. "According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the odds are about 1 in 88,000."

    ...and yet, people buy lottery tickets!

    I've made this point before, but given the choice between say, giving up the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and taking my chances with terrorists, I'd rather take my chances with terrorists.

    Notice the difference between that and saying that you'd rather die in a terrorist attack. ...That's the way the government sells Patriot, etc., but that's false advertising. It's not that you'd be willing to die, it's that you'd be willing to take your chances--just like when you get in your car.

  3. good points Stretch. What are these odds based on? The odds are too big to be based on historic info. How are the predicting the chances of terrorism? Does the CDC know something we don't?

  4. Oops, the odds still are suspect, but my point about 1 in 17 is wrong. Sorry.

  5. I'll tell you what, your chances of having your property taken by eminent domain to allow the construction of a shopping mall are much, much lower than the chances of dying a car accident.

  6. I should have said that only 17 people total will die in Philly, which is pretty good indeed. Taken for the US, that means that only about 3400 people will die from terrorism. Now that stat seems high.

  7. I just happened to be reading the New Zealand Herald. In the quote below, see the reference to NZ foreign policy.

    "Aucklander Amjad Ali, a Muslim school teacher, agreed the situation in Britain was of concern. After nearly 30 years of living here he doubted Muslims in New Zealand would support violence.

    Like other Muslims contacted by the Herald yesterday Mr Ali said there would be local discussions about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a range of views and strong feelings.

    'But migrants who come here love New Zealand. The foreign policy is such that I don't think New Zealand would be a target.' "

  8. I'm probably not understanding what these stats signify, but is that supposed to mean that one in every 10,000 people dies from falling off a ladder? I have to think that's ridiculously low. C'mon, how often can that seriously happen?!

  9. What are the odds of becoming famous on the internet for being videotaped having your head sawed off by a hooded Muslim? This is what concerns me.

  10. Tom Crick,

    I know exactly what you're saying about probabilities vs. human perception and action. My chosen profession (and, frankly, life) is all about probabilities. Most people don't think that way and society conditions us not to.

    99% of the population doesn't really know why they do a lot of things. Seems like emotion mostly. They get something to daydream about and a little thrill from a lottery ticket.

    The war against Islamists is real but grossly overblown. Comparable to or even bigger than the challenge of Communism? Give me a break!!! It seems like a form of porn for most conservatives who really long for the "good old days" of the Cold War.

  11. Ed,

    I think the chances are better of you being struck by lightning while falling out of bed into the waiting jaws of an Austrailain saltwater crocodile.

  12. Mik, it really depends how they calculated the odds. For instance, they may well have seen that deaths by ladder accounted for about 29,000 people, set it against the pop of the US and come up with 10,000 to one. Which, means that the odds of death for daily ladder users are much, much greater and for guys like me, much lower.

  13. Why does multiple regression analysis hate America?

  14. I'll one up you. Your odds of death by ladder are relatively low. The odds of NY citizens dying in terrorist attacks are higher than Alaskans or Arkansasns(??). The funding goes to Alaska instead of NY while Arkansasns prefered foriegn policy drives the terrorists and puts the NYers at risk (I know this is a god awefull simplification, just trying to make a dumb point).

  15. A better or more interesting analysis might be cost-benfit. How much are we spending per life spared in fighting terrorism? Then compare that to how much we spend to save people from car accidents. Without the cost, the probabilities justify anything you want, as Joe made a backhanded point of noting.

    People don't assess probabilities rationally, but economics still matters. Cost-beneift gets people worked up about placing a dollar amount of human life and all that. I remeber a class I had on environmental politics: Cost-beneift on the Super Fund program was something on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars per probable life saved, while spending just a million on radon mitigation would reduce cancer in a comparable number of people. Similarly, the risks of dying from the toxicity of a Super Fund site were similar to the probabilities of being poisoned by stale peanut butter (which is indeed toxic in high amounts). But, ya know, pollution is bad and all...

  16. "I'll tell you what, your chances of having your property taken by eminent domain to allow the construction of a shopping mall are much, much lower than the chances of dying a car accident."

    The local public's chances of destroying my commercial developement is at least a hundred times higher than my chances of getting the city council to give me someone's home.

  17. I really want to rename this thread "Shiites and Ladders", but unfortunately that's not accurate.

  18. Off topic, but when the hell is that creepy bald-headed guy doing pushups on the right going to disappear? He's really creeping me out.

  19. 99.9% of all traffic accidents are caused by sober drivers.

  20. This analysis is goofy along a number of axes. A ladder that kills uncle bob in spectacular fashion doesn't get encouraged to try again. Without objectives to thwart per se, a strategy of deterrence may not work against ladders.

    Also, if I want to reduce my chances of falling off a ladder, I won't climb up one. It is the terrorist that finds you rather than the other way around.

  21. To summarize the article (each point corresponds to a point in the article):

    1. Americans should be primarily worried about heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
    2. The terrorists can only kill us slowly, not en masse.
    3. Because we haven't been attacked recently, we probably won't be attacked again.
    4. Our ports are safe.
    5. Corporations are safe.
    6. The Internets are safe.
    7. Al-quaeda is not a primary threat because there are other terrorist groups out there. But it turns out those other terrorist groups are also not a threat.

    As you can see, this deceptive paper is really about health care reform.


  22. My first thought was that the ladder stat meant that the odds of death were one out of every 10,000 times you climbed on a ladder. Now I have no idea what it really means...

  23. one out of every 10,000 times you climbed on a ladder. Now I have no idea what it really means...

    I have to think a terrorist would kill you after you climbed on them just a couple of hundered times.

    Therefore terrorists are more dangerous.


  24. As a Jew, I am very disturbed by the anti-Semitism that I encounter here. I don?t think it has anything to do with libertarianism, and I hope other bloggers will join me in denouncing it.
    One must make a very important distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. As a state, Israel does some things that are good and some things that are bad. Many legitimately argue that Israel?s occupation and oppression of the Palestinians is bad. To characterize opposition to the occupation as anti-Semitic is clearly dishonest and unfair.
    Those who peddle conspiracy theories that make Israel at least partly responsible for the terrorists attacks against the United States of 9/11 are anti-Semites who hide behind legitimate criticism arguments. They draw on a long tradition of anti-Semitic stereotypes: Jews are powerful, devilish clever, and will stop at nothing to exert their control over the world. All they have to do is put their ?theories? out there and suggest that ?we need more evidence.? In fact, they care nothing about evidence. They care only about planting dark suspicions about Israel?s?and by extension, Jew?s?role and intentions in the world. Don?t be fooled by the anti-Semite?s denunciations of racism. It?s merely an attempt to give this particularly vicious racism an aura of respectability.

  25. "Off topic, but when the hell is that creepy bald-headed guy doing pushups on the right going to disappear? He's really creeping me out."

    Thank you! I'm glad I'm not the only one who despises having that ad there. I alwasy have to scroll right past the second post when reading this at work because I don't want my co-workers to think I'm looking at gay porn.

  26. Hillel,
    Are you sure you have the right thread? I couldn't find that to which you refer.

  27. I'll tell you what, your chances of having your property taken by eminent domain to allow the construction of a shopping mall are much, much lower than the chances of dying a car accident.

    Yes joe but we can stop private property seizure completely. Car accidents will always be around.

  28. yeah, what are the odds of that happening?

  29. What about an unsecured ladder on a contractors truck as he drives down the highway doing 85? It's a good thing I spent that $1,000,000 on my tank so as to protect myself from loose ladders.

    Yes, I can drive, drive my very own tank, yes I can........

  30. This article commits a logical fallacy. It assumes that the risk of dying in an act of terror is constant and can be deduced by extrapolating the number past deaths from terrorism into the future. The problem is that you can't judge the future risks of terrorism by the number of deaths in the past. You can use this sort of logic with static things like ladders. A ladder today is just as safe or dangerous as one five years ago, so the extrapolation is generally valid baring some explosion in ladder use or quantum leap in ladder safety. Terrorism is different. The risk of terrorism can go up or down dramitically from year to year or decade to decade. The fact that only a few thousand Americans have died from terrorism in the past 15 or so years says nothing one way or another about the possiblity that Al Quada has a nuclear weapon it is about to explode in Houston tommorow. Clearly, if it did, your chances of being killed in a terror attack are a lot higher than this article admits. All these statistics really say is that in the past, comparitively few Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks. An valid but generally useless statistic for trying to judge future risks.

  31. the odds of me dying of natural causes is much greater than by a terrorist attack. we should be more worried about breathing than terrorists.

  32. John - luckily I don't live in Houston, so my chances of dying in a terrorist attack there are exactly zero.

    But I understand what you're trying to say.

    Still, I agree that it should be looked at from a cost-benefit angle. Not even counting the horrible infringment on individual liberty, the cost of all this anti-terror bullshit isn't worth it, I would imagine. If our government really cared or was smart (two things obviously, it is not), they would have simply shifted their intelligence and police priorities. Instead, they're still going after porn and drugs, when all they should be after is terrorists.

    Of course, real police and intelligence work is hard, so they cherry pick things that are easier to go after, and say that it really has to do with terrorism.

    Completely dishonest. And a real shame people aren't smart enough to realise just how little regard our overlords really have for us.

  33. "We're spending it to keep us safe from terrorism" is the new "It's for the children".

  34. Seriously, does anybody have any real information on how the CDC determines probabilities? Their website isn't much help.

    Also, what kind of timeline do these odds offer? Are we talking 10000 to 1 in a lifetime, or some shorter period of time? And I imagine these probs only apply to the US, but I'm not sure of that.

  35. Math is hard.

    News, particularly soap opera news, brings the most bizarre story in the country into your own neighborhood, where you can worry about it.

    It used to be that only people in rare neighborhoods would worry about rare events that way, and you'd only get a few dysfunctional neighborhoods. Most people in most neighborhoods would be normal.

    Now everybody is dysfunctional.

    Among the things you don't have to worry about are Pit Bulls, lightning, tornados, sharks, being a murder victim, child molesting, and dying in a fire

  36. Hillel,

    Not only are you off topic, now you're being an idiot. Yesterday we were talking about Israeli government prior knowledge of 9/11. NOT that "Israel was at least partly responsible for the terrorists attacks"

    Other governments engage in conspiracies. Why not Israel's? All conspiracy theorizing about the Israeli government is obviously not a form of anti-Semitism.

    Here are three articles about the Israeli government prior knowledge of 9/11, one from the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, and the other two are from Haaretz. a popular Israeli newspaper.

    Spy Rumors Fly on Gusts of Truth


    Spies, or students?


    Odigo says workers were warned of attack


    Hillel, are you now going to accuse Haaretz and the Forward of anti-Semitism?

  37. Yes joe but we can stop private property seizure completely. Car accidents will always be around.

    Comment by: MyNameIsAsh at July 14, 2005 04:53 PM

    I'm sorry to report, we can stop neither, because both Pandoras are out of their boxes already (If Mona will excuse my phraseology).

    We could cut way, way back on car accidents if governments would stop spending our money on roads.

  38. So, noting:

    1) My chances of being personally harmed by terrorism are tiny.

    2) My chances of being harmed by flagrant abuse of eminent domain are tiny.

    Might I also add:

    3) My chances of being hooded, manacled, and dragged off to Gitmo are tiny.

    I guess there's nothing much to worry about, huh?

  39. Personally, I think this is great news. If I get get caught standing in the middle of a road with a truck bearing down on me, I just have to remind myself that there's only a 1 in 10,000 chance that I'll be killed.

  40. "We could cut way, way back on car accidents if governments would stop spending our money on roads"


    We could also cut back on car accidents, and even more so fatalities, if govt. were to pass and enforce a law not allowing any private vehicle to be made that went over 20mph, with punishment being confiscation and imprisonment. Plus we use less fuel. See, green really is better.

  41. Yugo,
    Blue is better.
    Laws don't work.
    Traffic signals likewise.
    Why did government run over railroads as if they were Little Nell, tied to the tracks?

    Did Sam put you up to posting here?

  42. Is Ben related to Milton?

  43. In case any of you care at all about the Hillel - Rick Barton exchange: Barton is a liar and a misleader. His post is designed to give the impression that Jewish publications have conceded that the Israeli government know about 9/11 in advance. Not so.

    The Forward article he referenced said that "Sources emphasized that the release of all the Israelis under investigation indicates that they were cleared of any suspicion that they had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks, as some anti-Israel media outlets have suggested."

    The article says that Israeli intelligence provides good information on "radical Islamic networks" to US intelligence agencies.

    That article is not about Israeli knowledge of September 11, but about Israeli non-knowledge.

    One of the Haaretz pieces is about a rumor that some Israeli art students in the US are actually intelligence agents, and mentions what it refers to, without attribution and with no stated factual basis, as "speculation" that they may have known in advance about 9/11.

    The other Haaretz piece has nothing to do with Israeli government knowledge about 9/11, but instead just says that two employees at an Israeli instant messaging service got messages from an unknown sender before the attack, warning of it.

    I don't see Barton as a regular reader of Forward or Haaretz. He got those references from some web site run by people who comb Jewish publications for snippets they can use against Jews.

  44. I have no idea if the odds are right, but it's kind of beside the point. People on ladders have some measure of control - they climb past the last designated safe step, or get on their ladder in the rain, or otherwise use the ladder apart from its instructions. You can't exactly control your fate once you're on a plane or the subway if a terrorist is there. I'd think a publication and blog that extols personal control and responsibility over one's life would understand the difference.

  45. Ak Mike:

    His post is designed to give the impression that Jewish publications have conceded that the Israeli government know about 9/11 in advance.

    My post intended no such thing. I obviously intended it to show that sources that manifestly aren't anti-Semitic are reporting on the issue. And I most certainly did not get those references from "some web site run by people who comb Jewish publications for snippets they can use against Jews." You are some kind of paranoid!

    And you are the one who has lied and misled about those items. For example, the fact of Israeli intelligence agents arrested who were posing as Israeli art students in the US before 9/11 is well reported and not a "rumor". Anyone who actually takes you seriously can access these and many other sources here:


    or read Justin Raimondo's scholarly and careful survey of the issue in his book:

    Terror Enigma: 9/11 And the Israeli Connection:


  46. It's always amusing to watch how threads diverge. Not that I'm innocent.

    Math is hard. I remember when I was trying to learn to solve partial differential equations in grad school. It was loads of fun.

    If you took a ball pien hammer and spent 20 minutes trying to pound a hole through a sheet of 1/4" plate steel, you would have had the exact same emotional experience as having tried to solve a partial differential equation.

    Ultimately, I did get good at pounding holes through plate steel.

    Ron's stats are easily debatable, along with most of the stats you find in the MSM. But his basic message is on the mark -- general US reaction to the whole threat of terrorism is way over blown.

    Not only that, but now everybody is worried about ladders too. Darn you anyway Ron.

    At least the lottery is only a tax on stupid people....

  47. As I hinted in an earlier post on this thread, think of how cost efficient and mathematically easy it would be to change the US foreign policy that is pissing off terrorists.

  48. beyond the obvious point that terrorists are trying desperately to increase the numbers they kill, while ladders are not, there is the fact that not all deaths affect us equally.

    the death of someone falling off a ladder affects me virtually not at all. the death of someone from a natural disaster, even the death of 250,000 or so from the tsunami, is sad but again doesn't directly impact me much. the death of an innocent person from terrorism is an infuriating attack on freedom and outrages me very much. so why would i be wrong to overemphasize terrorism?

  49. An valid but generally useless statistic for trying to judge future risks.

    fair enough, but the ceiling isn't unlimited. there is no indication that terrorism CAN exceed a certain number of deaths per capita per year -- in fact, that terrorism may be self-limiting in this regard.

    it's certainly fashionable among the simpleminded to think of terrorists as "nuts" or "wacko" or some other epithet du jour that indicates total unresponsive mindlessness. and we've been encouraged to demonize islamist terrorists particularly in this way to facilitate certain ideological, economic and foreign policy goals of the american political elite.

    but terrorists aren't crazy (or crazier than we are, anyway). they have definable, material goals and are pursuing them with the means they find most effective. al-qaeda has a manifesto that is quite pragmatic (not that anyone here has read it) and demands of us which are, by and large, very earthly.

    and they understand as well that there are limits to what they should do in the pursuit of those goals -- just as the soviet communists understood that starting ww3 would not meet their material objectives, even as it might have possibly manifested some of their ideological goals.

    a lot of the abject fear here re: islamist terrorism is based in this misunderstanding of the aims of the actors w/r/t the west. if you're silly enough to reduce them to mindless monsters, then i can see why you'd be as afraid of them as a romero zombie invasion. but they aren't -- and once that is understood, a lot of the ridiculousness and absurdity that currently infects american thinking on terrorism can abate.

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