Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Keeping Terrorism In Perspective

It is our human nature to be poor judges of relative risk. Something in our instinct gives way too much signficance to rare extraordinary events. We have all met people who are afraid of air travel, terrified at the prospect of a plane crash. This is a sympathetic but completely irrational fear. The odds of dying in a plane crash are vanishingly small. In 2013, 3 billion passengers flew in planes and 210 people died in plane crashes. Fewer people die in plane crashes than are struck by lightning. In contrast, over a million people died in motor vehicle accidents. And ironically, nearly all of those afraid of flying don't think twice about getting into a car. It is a quirk of our brains that our "gut reaction" to the relative danger of flying versus driving is wildly out of proportion. The same is true for our gut reaction to terrorism. Since 9/11, terrorism has claimed the lives of an average of 18 Americans per year. While each and every death is regretable, when making public policy, it is imperative to keep things in proper perspective. Death by terrorist attack is significantly less likely than being killed by lightning strike, and as has been wryly observed, more Americans are killed by toddlers with firearms than are killed by terrorists. While we need to take the threat of terrorism seriously, we also need to avoid the trap of being overtaken by fear. Indeed, stoking our fear is the goal of terrorists, and ultimately their most powerful weapon. If the terrorists inspire us to incur undue costs, burdens, and limitations, then they will have won.

I am not advocating that we abandon counterterrorism measures altogether. But I do advocate two things: First, let's take a deep breath and keep terrorism in perspective, and second, when we do address terrorism, let us assess the effectiveness and the cost/benefit of the measures we take. For keeping proper perspective, we should keep in front of us the relative risk of what we are addressing. Consider: 18 Americans die per year on average due to terrorism, while 990 Americans were shot by police officers in 2015. About 1100 Americans die from extreme heat or cold each year, over 11,000 Americans were killed by firearms (not counting suicides, which add about twice as many more), 147,000 Americans died of chronic lower respiratory disease (mostly tobacco-related), an estimated 250,000 Americans died from medical errors, and over 600,000 Americans died of heart disease. While mortality is not the only dimension that should be considered, these proportions are worth keeping in mind when we make policy decisions about how much money our nation should spend addressing each problem.

We need to be asking questions such as "is it worthwhile to spend $1.2 billion per year to operate body scanners at airports?" A 2011 assessment of risks, benefits, and costs of homeland security measures published in the journal Homeland Security Affairs argued that "a great deal of money appears to have been misspent and would have been far more productive—saved far more lives—if it had been expended in other ways." What's worse, they note that some counterterrorism measures may actually claim more lives than they save: "Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year." Fifteen years after 9/11, we need to take a hard look at risks, costs, and benefits.

When we do decide to invest in counterterrorism measures, it is important that we look to the data to guide rational decisions about which measures to take. At the moment, focus on radical Islam is sucking up all the oxygen in the room. But is that even the right focus? In the 15 years since 9/11, America has suffered 277 killings from 120 extremist events. The majority of those deaths (158 / 57%) and events (89 / 74%) were perpetrated not by Islamist extremists, but by far right extremists, like the Charleston church massacre, the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, and the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting. Why doesn't the White House give us a list of those events? Even if we think that jihadist terrorism deserves special importance, why scapegoat immigrants? If we look at all of those who committed domestic jihadist terrorist acts since 9/11, the vast majority (84%) were US citizens or permanent residents, with the majority of them being native born citizens. And if you look at those who actually committed deadly attacks, they were entirely US citizens or permanent residents, not a single refugee among them. Even if you look to the countries where these terrorists' parents came from, you don't find the "usual suspects". As has been widely noted, not a single deadly attacker since 9/11 has come (or even had their parents come) from any of the seven countries targeted by the recent executive order. Looking at the data, it's hard not to conclude that the executive order is utterly misguided pandering to fear. What's worse is that the scapegoating of immigrant communities will actually hinder our ability to prevent attacks in the future. The most successful prevention of jihadist attacks has proceeded from intelligence provided by informants in ethnic communities who share the language and the culture and are in the best position to provide valuable information. If we continue on a path of baseless demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, we will alienate the trust and good will of the people we need most to help keep us safe.

As a school boy I first learned the famous FDR saying "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", but it is only in the past year that I have truly come to appreciate what he meant. Our nation is at a crucial juncture where we must decide whether we will be a nation of facts or a nation of fear. Our finest leaders have always been the ones who have appealed to our highest ideals, not those who appeal to our basest instincts. Osama bin Laden's goal with the 9/11 attacks was to inspire such fear in the American people that we would bankrupt ourselves in expensive and productivity-choking extraordinary measures, and that fear would drive us to surrender our freedoms for "security", and to abandon our prosperity by retreating behind walls. After 15 years and bin Laden's death, for the first time I worry that he may yet succeed.

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