Should we be terrified of terrorism?

A nice piece by the Cato Institute on terrorism’s real and imagined impact (pdf):

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.

[Via The Tattered Coat]

9 replies on “Should we be terrified of terrorism?”

Which is completely immaterial. People make this mistake when they discuss the rationality of being afraid of flying: they think that the number of deaths is what fear should be based on. It isn’t. The reason that people are entirely rationally more afraid of flying than of driving is not the likelihood of an accident but the chances of survival in an accident. If you’re on a plane and something goes wrong at 30000 feet, you die, and you have no control over whether you die. If you’re in a car and something goes wrong at 80mph, you might well survive, and you at least have the possibility of doing things that might save your life.

If you’re in a pub and the guy next to you has an allergic reaction to peanuts, you’re fine. If you’re in a park and someone nearby is struck by lightning, you’re fine. If you’re on the road and one of the other cars hits a deer, you’re probably fine. And you can avoid peanuts if you’re allergic, not go outside in thunderstorms, and drive slowly in deer-infested areas in a car with the latest braking technology.

Short of never, ever leaving the house, you cannot do anything to alleviate the risk of being killed by terrorists.

I might also point out the huge investments of money, time, and legislation that have gone into lightning conduction and research, nut contamination prevention, road warning signs, and anti-lock brakes, airbags, etc — which tend to imply that these are serious problems that kill sufficient people to make those investments worthwhile.

Unfortunately you are still shagged if you run into a deer spitting peanuts and firing lightning from its antlers.

Jo, I agree to an extent – terrorism wouldn’t work if people were able to consider nothing but stats – but I think the article makes a reasonable point about risk/benefits: given that there’s an almost infinite number of ways to commit a terror attack (off the top of my head: undetectable, ceramic credit card knives; plastic wire garottes; etc et etc) you soon reach a point where you have to admit that total, 100% security is impossible. That’s the argument I found interesting: where do you stop? At what point do you say “well, it makes sense to do X Y and Z, but beyond that’s just daft”?

I saw some of this on various US boards yesterday where frequent flyers were saying “oh FFS, this is going to be such a pain in the arse now” and they were getting *hammered* by others: “oh boo hoo you can’t take your stuff on a plane YOU WANT US ALL TO DIE YOU SELFISH ASSHOLE” and all that. Whereas the point, to me at least, seemed fair enough: once the immediate threat is over, it’ll really suck if the temporary security restrictions aren’t removed.

Short of never, ever leaving the house, you cannot do anything to alleviate the risk of being killed by terrorists.

Oh, I know, but I think it’s the lottery thing in reverse: terrorism is scary but the risk is so infitesimally small that it’s not worth worrying about to the point where you never, ever leave the house. I’ve never worried about terrorism when flying (or when spending any time in Norn Ireland, come to think of it). Crashing, an engine falling off or a pilot making a catastrophic error, on the other hand, scares the willies out of me.

You’re right, we’ve had loads of safety things in cars and so on, but again you’ve got the risk/benefit thing: we accept a certain level of risk, because if we were to eradicate the risk altogether we wouldn’t have vehicles at all. We’ve mandated some things – ABS in new cars, seatbelts, etc – but we still seem happy to accept that hundreds of thousands of deaths are the price worth paying for freedom of movement. I think it’s quite interesting because obviously the death toll from various things is high, but because it doesn’t all happen at once in a spectacular and shocking way we don’t really bother about it. It’s a bit like worrying about whether the milk in your coffee is organic when you smoke 80 fags a day :)

Oh, it linked itself. Ok, I don’t know how to turn this into a well formated link and frankly I… etc, etc, you know the drill.

A point I was going to make, made more succinctly by Mr Bliss:

If they arrested the people planning to carry it out, why the need to shut down half the world’s air travel?

But is that what it takes to utterly banjax the transport infrastructure these days… getting caught planning to banjax it? Surely by that definition, our security services have guaranteed a 100% success rate for all such plans. Either you get caught and everything gets shut down. Or you don’t get caught and everything gets shut down.

> our security services have guaranteed a 100% success rate for all such plans.

All such plans being those nefarious plots to cause people quite a bit of inconvenience while travelling. For Al Qaeda, however, inconvenience is a mere beneficial side-effect to their plan, which is to kill infidels. I don’t see how the security services have advanced that cause on this occasion.

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