Thursday, January 14, 2010

Terrorism, Irrational Fear, and Political Overreaction

The lifetime risk of being killed in a terrorist attack for any living person anywhere in the world is about 1 in 80,000. If the 9/11 attacks were to recur every three months for five straight years, the chance of being killed in one such attack would be 0.02 percent. These figures come from John Mueller's excellent book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press 2006). Since 2001, no successful external terrorist attack has occurred in the US. The shoe bomber and underwear bomber were both prevented from carrying out their attacks. The only successful attack that can arguably be called terrorism came from an internal source within the Army at Fort Hood.

Ronald Bailey, in this 2006 article on, put the risk of death from terrorism into perspective:
[H]ow 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.
Despite the low statistical risk of terrorism, the Transportation Security Administration finds it necessary to frisk 2-year-olds, whose names happen to match those on terrorist watch lists, according to a report in today's New York Times. Mikey Hicks, now 8 years old, was first subject to a frisk at Newark International Airport when he was 2. Not surprisingly, he cried. Mikey's mother seems to have a better grasp of reality than the government: “I understand the need for security, ... but this is ridiculous. It’s quite clear that he is 8 years old, and while he may have terroristic tendencies at home, he does not have those on a plane."

In yesterday's Washington Post, the always smart Fareed Zakaria had an excellent op-ed precisely about how this kind of government overreaction to what remains, in fact, a small risk "plays into the hands of the terrorists." We spend millions of dollars each day putting millions of airline passengers through unnecessary security screenings of dubious effectiveness looking for needles in haystacks. What we should be doing instead, according to Zakaria is to isolate the tiny percentage of suspicious characters and search them, not cause needless fear in everyone else."

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