There’s a prevailing fear.
A fear that claims terrorism is widespread. A fear that claims you’ll never know when the threat will strike, or where it’ll be. A fear that claims terrorism is a massive threat to the nation.
After the Paris attacks, this fear was rampant.
To the point of sickening.
If it happened in Paris (the 20th largest city in the world, mind you), it could happen in your county. Or shopping mall. Or highschool.
The terrorists are out to get you.
That’s the prevailing fear. A fear hyped up by recent terrorist attacks and political fearmongering.
But it’s a fear disconnected from reality.
It’s a disconnect that has yet to be discussed.
Is terrorism even statistically dangerous to the average American?
I would argue it’s not. For one, the math doesn’t add up. The likelihood of dying via terrorist attack is minuscule compared to everything else that can kill you (I’ll talk about that later).
But here’s the real question: if the math doesn’t add up, if terrorism isn’t as big as a threat as we’ve been told? Should our policies change? Should we alter how we deal with the threat of terrorism?
Let’s get into the specifics, then deal with that question.
How Likely are You to Die From Terrorism?
This is where you see the utter ridiculousness of the terrorism scare.
Excluding the 9/11 attacks, fewer than 500 Americans have been killed by terrorism, in the U.S. from 1970 – 2010. (source)
If you add in 9/11 deaths, 3,380 Americans have died in the US and overseas from 2001 – 2013. That comes to 1 in 94,675 chance of dying in a terrorist attack. (source)
Take out 9/11, which is an anomaly in the broader history of terrorism (casualty wise), and you’ve got a 1 in 800,000 chance of dying from terrorism.
I’d like to mention that those two numbers are my own personal equations. I just did math for you. Be thankful.
The libertarian website, Reason.com, calculated that you have a 1 in 20 million chance of dying by terrorism. They used a time-frame of 5 years, from 2006 to 2011.
These numbers depend on how you do the math.
But the results are always the same. The likelihood of dying from terrorism is very…unlikely.
You know what’s not unlikely? Dying from these random things…
You’re More Likely to Die from Lightning than Terrorism
Just in case you’re one of many Americans scared shitless by terrorism, here’s a list of what’s likely to kill you…
- Lifetime likelihood of dying in a car accident: 1 in 3,580,052
- Yearly risk of dying from falls: 1 in 21,000 (lifetime is 1 in 400)
- Yearly risk of dying from drowning: 1 in 80,000 (lifetime is 1 in 1,028)
- More Americans die overseas from car crashes than from homicide (source)
- You’re more likely to die from obesity than from terrorism (source). 100,000 – 400,000 deaths from obesity a year.
- You’re more likely to die from alcohol consumption. 80,000 deaths per year. (source)
- More likely to die from a lightning strike than terrorism. Lifetime is 1 in 71,600
- You’re as likely to be killed by your own furniture than by terrorism (source)
- According to recent numbers, you’re 9 times more likely to die by law enforcement than terrorism. (source)
Side note here, the numbers vary dramatically on the likelihood of dying from terrorism or [fill in the blank]. It all depends on which year you look at, and which numbers you use. A lot of the time, it’s hard to find up to date numbers on the myriad of ways you could die.
What doesn’t change is how many Americans have died each year since 2001 from terrorism. This graphic from CNN visualizes it pretty well.
More Americans Die from Gun Violence than Terrorism
One thing the CNN graphic shows is how likely death by gun is compared to terrorism.
From 2001 to 2013, over 406,000 Americans have died from gun related homicides, suicides, and accidents. The number of Americans killed by terrorism domestically and abroad, from 2001 to 2013 is 3,380.
Now get this, the number of Americans killed by police officers in 2015 is around 1,134. (source) That’s roughly a third of all Americans killed by terrorism in a 12 year period.
The irony is that not only are you more likely to get killed by cops, but more Americans have died at the hands of them.
More Americans have died by police officers, those who are technically supposed to keep us safe from terrorists, than from terrorists.
Ohhhhhh the irony. It stings.
How Fear takes Over & Reality Gets Ignored
As with anything that has the potential to harm us, it’s easy to blow it out of proportion.
For one, our minds suck at viewing potential danger realistically.
The panic that drove many people to shut down events after the Paris attacks is an example of this.
Could a terrorist attack happen in your area? Yes. Is there a high possibility that it’ll happen? Nope. There’s always the possibility that it could happen. The likelihood, however, makes that possibility microscopic (like a grain of sand).
To properly evaluate the potential for a terrorist attack, you’ve got to do several things.
- Know the likelihood of death by terrorism (i.e. do the math above)
- Analyze your location. Is it a possible target? Are there any big targets nearby? If there is, what attacks are likely to be used? Are those attacks threatening to you?
- How important are you to a terrorist?
- Who/what would the terrorists love to attack first?
- Where is your location in the list of top terrorist targets?
It’s easy to fall into fear. It’s easy to think it could “happen to me.”
Realistically, it won’t happen to you. So you should stop worrying about it and go rethink your life.
Should Math Affect U.S. Terrorism Policy
Ronald Bailey, from Reason, made a good point about the cost of combating terrorism.
“…the U.S. has spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security measures since 2001 (this figure does not include the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Assuming that 2,300 Americans might have been killed by terrorists inside the United States, this implies a cost of more [than] $400 million dollars per life saved. Typically when evaluating the costs of protective regulations, federal government agencies set the value of a life at about $9 million.”
Even if you doubled the acceptable value per life, and added in 9/11, the U.S. is still paying $200 million per life saved.
Even if these numbers aren’t 100% correct, that’s still a ton of tax payer money. Tax payer money being overspent on a threat that’s second-rate at best.
What about all the Americans killed by cops?
The costs to “combat” terrorism are astronomical. The unseen costs, even more so.
Who wants to do the math on how many Americans have died taking car trips instead of planes because of the increased cost and time? Not to mention how much airports have been affected by security theater (that protects no one, by the way).
If the threat of terrorism is more hype than not, it should affect our current policy choices.
When I’m more likely to die from obesity (thank heavens I’m as skinny as a stick) or police officers than terrorism. The discussion needs to change.
More importantly, our fear of terrorism needs to take a chill pill. Big time!