September 11: Remembering Lives and Liberties Lost 15 Years Ago

Fifteen years later, we really do have "nothing to fear but fear itself"


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The terrorist hijackings of four airline flights and subsequent crashes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania took place 15 years ago this weekend. We still mourn the nearly 3,000 Americans who were murdered then and share the sorrow of those who lost family and friends. Those attacks, however, changed our country in ways that have significantly undermined our cherished liberties.

The indignity of imposing TSA security theater at airports is the least of it. Security checkpoints are everywhere requiring citizens to show ID and undergo screenings by metal detectors in order to enter practically all public and many private buildings. But even worse are the secret erosions of our rights as citizens not to be surveilled by our government. We now know that the federal government is engaged in pervasive unconstitutional domestic spying on essentially all Americans.

The monetary costs of "Homeland Security" are estimated to run about $75 billion per year. The "black budget" of the federal government's "intelligence community" exceeds $52 billion annually. The percentage of it that is spent on spying on Americans is not clear, but is certainly billions, if not tens of billions.

Since the September 11 atrocities, 94 Americans have been killed in domestic attacks by violent jihadists, which are the kind of attacks against which our elaborate security apparatus purports to protect us. And doubtlessly, some of those efforts have been effective. For example, the conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database that claims that there have been 89 jihadist plots in the U.S., including both successful and thwarted ones since 9/11. It should be noted that many of the plots in the Heritage database were instigated in "sting" operations by uncover law enforcement agents. In any case, the New America Foundation lists 10 in which people were killed.

To get some idea of the risks to American lives that have allegedly been fended off by surrendering our liberties and our tax dollars, let's do a few rough calculations. For a worst case scenario, let's assume that the 79 unsuccessful terrorist attacks had been instead as bad as the Orlando Florida massacre earlier this year, that is, 49 dead. If all those plots had succeeded that would mean 3,871 Americans would been killed by jihadists over the past 15 years. That would mean that your chance of being killed in a terrorist attack would be 1 in 83,182 during that time. While not directly comparable, that's in the same ballpark as your lifetime risk of dying in a shark attack or of a lightning strike.

To get a far more reasonable estimation, let's average the number of deaths per successful terrorist attack since 9/11. That would be about 9 deaths multiplied by 79 attacks yielding 711 deaths since 9/11. Your risk of dying of terrorism would therefore be 1 in 452,883 over the past 15 years. Another way to think about it is about 2.5 million Americans die annually which adds up to 37.5 million since 9/11, which means that actual jihadist attacks have accounted for only 0.00025 percent of deaths in the U.S. over the past 15 years.

Forgetting for the moment the costs to our liberties, let us calculate the cost per life saved by the vast amounts our government spends on anti-terror security. Researchers at Brown University estimate that Homeland Security expenditures have been $548 billion higher—this is not counting the $5 trillion in post-9/11 war expenditures—than the trajectory they were on prior to the 9/11 attacks. This means that homeland security spending has been about $142 million per death averted, assuming my high calculation of 3,871 possible terrorism deaths since 9/11. That rises to $771 million per life saved from terrorism using my lower figure of 711 deaths. The usual threshold for setting the benefits and costs of a safety regulation is about $10 million per life saved.

Setting aside mere tax dollars, the costs of 9/11 to our liberties are incalculable. Instead of calming and urging us to defend our values, our leaders opted to instill fear and ultimately have given the terrorists their greatest victory: The ongoing of corrosion of our individual freedoms and constitutional rights.

As we solemnly remember those who died 15 years ago of those despicable atrocities, let us renounce fear and vow to defend our liberties against all enemies foreign and domestic.