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Jun 17 2013

Terrorism by the numbers

I came across this short piece in Reason Magazine online from several months ago which puts terrorism and counter-terrorism into context. It’s stark. The odds of being killed in a  terrorist attack are lottery odds or higher. What’s even scarier is how much we spend on this crap and how many rights we’ve forked over to unaccountable, secret organizations of government spooks and private, for profit, contractors:

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. …Of course, the police and politicians will cite the lack of deaths from terrorism as evidence that their protective measures are working. Earlier this year, the conservative Heritage Foundation compiled a list of 39 terror plots that had been foiled since September 2001.

Making the huge assumption that all 23 plausible plots would have succeeded in killing an average of 100 Americans each, that means that 2,300 would have died in the last 10 years, or about 230 per year. (This implies a rate that is 10 times higher than the rate between 1970 and 2010, excluding the 9/11 attacks, by the way.) Even at this higher rate, your chances of dying in a terrorist attack would be about 1 in 1.7 million.

And how much does it cost? The article assumes with some justification that even if we exclude Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve spent a cool one trillion dollars and counting, on counter-terrorism since 9-11. I don’t know how much the government has spent on research for new treatments of heart and lung disease, diabetes, and cancer, but I bet it’s not a trillion dollars. Not with this crew of penny pinching Teabaggers obstructing everything under the sun.

Which means in the worst case hypothetical scenario, we’ve spent almost half a billion for each life saved. Double that to a round billion if you include the wars. I’m sure any sane person would happily forgo this protection for a tiny fraction of that dough. The loss in civil liberties is priceless.

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  1. 1
    machintelligence

    How much would you spend to not enter a lottery where the “winner” was to be killed and the odds were a million to one?
    And to answer the question “What will you do the next time terrorists attack the USA?” Watch it on TV like 99.9999% of the population. We are not good at estimating and appreciating probabilities.

  2. 2
    richardelguru

    Maybe the terrorists have taken a leaf out of St. Ronald’s strategy against the USSR—they are gonna spend us to destruction. (Or at least get us to spend ourselves to destructio.n)

  3. 3
    kraut

    Despite all that spending on surveillance, “counter terrorism” etc.: there was an attack in Boston [minor edit -- DS] by two young adults. So much for effectiveness.

  4. 4
    kraut

    Read Boston…I hate forums with no editing features. Middle ages or earlier.

  5. 5
    Pen

    You should try noticing how much fear has become an ambient part of the culture, not just in the media but in conversations between people. I notice it every time I’m in the US, especially on the east coast which was certainly more traumatised by 9/11. In the last few times I’ve been in the US exactly zeo bad things have happened to me but people have told me to be afraid of something several times a day on average. Sometimes even strangers from whom I hadn’t asked the time of day have done it. That’s the real terrorism, not the rare acts that kill a few people. It can only happen with the consent of the people concerned who’ve unfortunately now laid themselves wide open to just about any kind of protection racket.

  6. 6
    Pen

    zeo = zero
    Good point Kraut!

  7. 7
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Double that to a round billion if you include the wars

    Well, if you’re counting the wars then the net number of lives saved is negative several hundred thousand, so there’s that.

  8. 8
    jufulu

    While not a new thought, I think that a lot of our fear comes from the concept of American exceptionalism. A big part of the fear caused by 9/11 is the loss of innocence, it just doesn’t happen here in America. Continental America has seen so little in the way of foreign attacks that it was a shock to the system. At the same time, we have become blase to American on American violence (e.g. defend your castle laws) and the unseen deaths caused by other every day events.

    Now add the concept of one death is too many and the result is our over the top security fetishes. Maybe we aught to let the insurance actuarial techniques determine our levels of security. Hey if it is good for our medical needs it should be good for our security.

    I find it fascinating to examine how much fear is displayed by so many Americans. The fire arms debate is a perfect example of what I’m referring to, so many of the arguments are based on security (read fear).

  9. 9
    patrickslattery

    Toddlers Killed More Americans Than Terrorists Did This Year
    “Americans hate terrorists and love our kids, right? So you might be shocked to know that preschoolers with guns have taken more lives so far this year than the single U.S. terrorist attack, which claimed four lives in Boston.”
    http://www.opposingviews.com/i/society/guns/toddlers-killed-more-americans-terrorists-did-year

  10. 10
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Continental America has seen so little in the way of foreign attacks that it was a shock to the system. At the same time, we have become blase to American on American violence (e.g. defend your castle laws) and the unseen deaths caused by other every day events.

    Now add the concept of one death is too many and the result is our over the top security fetishes. Maybe we aught to let the insurance actuarial techniques determine our levels of security. Hey if it is good for our medical needs it should be good for our security.

    To a large extent this is true. A culture equips its members with various schemas for day to day life, and as long as things fall within the schemas, they are considered to be matters of course. Assholes with guns and car wrecks are both standard American schemas, but, as you point out, attack by outside forces is not.

  11. 11
    kraut

    “Now add the concept of one death is too many and the result is our over the top security fetishes”

    This is just laughable considering the violence associated with largely unregulated ownership of handguns (concealed weapons as compared to owning long rifles).
    Every attempt to put a dent into those figures by either safety training before acquiring a handgun or long rifle, or the subsequent registration is always defeated by a powerful lobby who gives a hoot about the victims, but much emphasis on the sacred right of unlimited gun ownership.
    Why is it that assault rifles with unlimited magazine capacity are needed for anybody?

    Why is it that in Canada you are permitted to own a handgun, but as a citizen without the need (police, security guards etc) to carry one on your body as part of a job you can only transport that gun to and from the gun range and have it in secure storage the rest of the time?
    Why is it that any gun in Canada has to be stored safely locked up unless in pursuit of a legal activity like hunting or at a gun range? And if you do not, and a weapon is stolen from your home and can be proven to have been unsecured – you as the owner are in as much trouble as the thieves?
    And why is it that despite gun ownership in Canada that is at least at the same level (long guns) as in the US that there are way less gun associated death?

    But there is simply more money to be made by arming the population to the hilt uncontrolled and unrestricted – and who cares about the bloody mess left behind – and more money to be made to hunt phantom terrorists (they exist, but by far not to the extend the populace is made to believe – and some are a direct result of US foreign policy, just watch the mess if they arm jihadis in Syria now) and set up a spy network that benefits who? Private contractors, of course, paid for buy the 99% who pay the majority of the taxes.

    America resembles more and more a banana republic where the only goal is the enrichment of the ruling class to the detriment of everybody else. And that scheme has been succeeding extremely well.

  12. 12
    kraut

    http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cfp-pcaf/res-rec/comp-eng.htm
    http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cfp-pcaf/res-rec/images/image22.gif

    the gun ownership rate in Canada is likely to be under reported, as the new controls that were established by the liberal party (now rescinded by the conservative) led many owners not to register their guns.

  1. 13
    The War On Warring On Things We Can’t Win Wars Against | Meddling Kids

    [...] got me thinking about this was an article on The Zingularity this morning (Terrorism by the numbers) and the actual odds that we are facing in the War On Terror. We are spending a ridiculous quantity [...]

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