New Poll Shows Most Americans Support Public Surveillance


Credit: Silver Spoon

The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll reveals the disturbing attitudes many Americans have towards surveillance post-Boston Marathon bombings.

Some highlights:

  • 78 percent think that surveillance cameras are a good idea.
  • Only 20 percent think that the government has gone too far restricting civil liberties while fighting terrorism. 26 percent don't think the government has gone far enough.
  • 24 percent think that an attack on the U.S. in the coming months is "very likely." 

All of these figures should worry civil libertarians. It is stunning that after the PATRIOT Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that 26 percent of Americans think that the government has not restricted our civil liberties enough in the name of fighting terrorism.

It is also concerning that 24 percent of American adults seem to think that more attacks are "very likely" in the coming months, especially given that terrorism is very rare in the U.S. Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey did some calculations on the chance of someone in the U.S. being killed in a terrorist attack in September 2011:

In 2010 (the latest report), 15 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks; nine died in 2009; 33 in 2008; 17 in 2007; 28 in 2006; and 56 in 2005. The vast majority of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks died in the war zone countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. So the sad tally of Americans killed by terrorists around the world since 2005 comes to a total of 158, yielding an annual rate 16 Americans killed by terrorists outside of the borders of the United States.

Taking these figures into account, a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

Terrorist attacks are disturbing, tragic, and horrible, but they are very rare. It's a shame that such rare events are capable of not only allowing many people to ignore facts and overestimate their chances of being killed in a terrorist attack, but that they also allow for people to be more sympathetic to civil liberties being restricted. Reason contributor Garrett Quinn, who was in Watertown, Mass. during the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, could not find a single Watertown resident who was uncomfortable with being told to stay inside while the hunt for Tsarnaev took place.