A False Sense of Insecurity? How Does the Risk of Terrorism Measure Up against Everyday Dangers?

Article excerpt

DETERMINING HOW TO RESPOND TO the terrorist challenge has become a major public policy issue in the United States over the last three years. It has been discussed endlessly, many lives have been changed, a couple of wars have been waged, and huge sums of money have been spent--often after little contemplation--to deal with the problem.

Throughout all this, there is a perspective on terrorism that has been very substantially ignored. It can be summarized, somewhat crudely, as follows:

* Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.

* The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified, and counterproductive.


For all the attention it evokes, terrorism actually causes rather little damage and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic. Those adept at hyperbole like to proclaim that we live in "the age of terror." However, while obviously deeply tragic for those directly involved, the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, in almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists anywhere in the world is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. 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.

Some of this is definitional. When terrorism becomes really extensive, we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war. But Americans seem to be concerned mainly about random terror, not sustained warfare. Moreover, even using an expansive definition of terrorism and including domestic terrorism in the mix, it is likely that far fewer people were killed by terrorists in the entire world over the last 100 years than died in any number of unnoticed civil wars during the century.

Obviously, this condition could change if international terrorists are able to assemble sufficient weaponry or devise new tactics to kill masses of people, and if they come to do so routinely. That, of course, is the central fear. As during the Cold War, commentators are adept at spinning out elaborate doomsday and worst-case scenarios. However, although not impossible, it would take massive efforts and even more stupendous luck for terrorists regularly to visit substantial destruction upon the United States.

HISTORICAL RECORD It should be kept in mind that September 11 continues to stand out as an extreme event. Until then, and since then, no more than 329 people have ever been killed in a single terrorist attack (in a 1985 Air India explosion). And extreme events often remain exactly that--aberrations, rather than harbingers.

A bomb planted in a piece of checked luggage was responsible for the explosion that caused a Pan Am jet to crash into Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. Since that time, hundreds of billions of pieces of luggage have been transported on American carriers and none have exploded to down an aircraft. …