In an editorial that newspapers across the US (including the Houston Chronicle, where it made the front page), mistaking it for a news story, picked up and published, AP editor Lisa Benac leads off with:
We are safer, but not safe enough.
The first part, if true, is a fact. The second part is a) an opinion that b) is controversial and c) is wrong. (You see, newspaper editors, how easy it is to tell the difference between fact and opinion? (a) and (b) are facts; (c) is my own opinion.)
Is it true that we are safer now than we were on September 11, 2001? Back in 2004 it was not true: more (“non-combatant”) Americans were killed by terrorists in the three years after 9/11 than in the three years before. But in 2009 the US saw 23 “civilian” casualties from terrorism, and in 2010 saw 24; those numbers are lower than in 2000, 2002, or 2003, but higher than in 1998 and 1999. (2009 and 2010 numbers come from the Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism; 1998–2003 numbers come from Patterns of Global Terrorism. Numbers for intervening years are not easily teased out. All of the numbers are small compared to, say, casualties from tobacco, alcohol, or motor-vehicle accidents.) Whether we count military casualties or consider them mere cannon fodder, it’s not clear whether we are safer or not.
Statistics and epidemiology might tell us if we are safer, but the sample is very small, and statistics and epidemiology would go out the window with one major attack. Regardless of how slippery the answer to the question, “are we safer” is, though, there is an answer.
But: are we safe enough? This is the stuff of propaganda. Whether we are safe enough determines whether we will act. “Safe enough” means not that we are perfectly safe, but that any increase in safety is not worth its cost. If we aren’t safe enough, we must do more to be safe. “Doing more to be safe” from the threat of terrorism means requiring the government to do more to make us safe.
Life is dangerous. It is almost invariably fatal. Some U.S. mortality statistics, to try to put things into perspective.
Here are the top 15 U.S. mechanisms (the CDC calls them “causes,” but I use “mechanisms” to distinguish them from the underlying causes I will discuss below) of death in 2007:
- Heart disease: 616,067
- Cancer: 562,875
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 135,952
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 127,924
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 123,706
- Alzheimer’s disease: 74,632
- Diabetes: 71,382
- Influenza and Pneumonia: 52,717
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 46,448
- Septicemia: 34,828
- Suicide (a manner of death, rather than a mechanism): 34,598
- Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis: 29,165
- Essential hypertension and hypertensive renal disease: 23,965
- Parkinson’s Disease: 20,058
- Assault (homicide—also a manner of death): 18,361
Obesity was associated with 111,909 excess deaths in 2000.
The leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2000 were tobacco (435,000 deaths; 18.1% of total US deaths), poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths; 16.6%), and alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths; 3.5%). Other actual causes of death were microbial agents (75,000), toxic agents (55,000), motor vehicle crashes (43,000), incidents involving firearms (29,000), sexual behaviors (20,000), and illicit use of drugs (17,000).
In 2000, there were 54 bee sting deaths in the United States. There are about as many fatal attacks by pet dogs every year in the United States as there are U.S. civilian deaths from terrorism worldwide.
About 350 people die at the hands of police every year in the United States. All else being equal, as a U.S. citizen you are ten times as likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. (All else is not equal: none of the U.S. terrorism deaths of the last decade occurred in the U.S.)
Terrorism deaths are different than the medical-condition-related deaths in that we might be made safer from disease without giving up freedom. For example, thousands of obesity-related deaths might be averted if the U.S. Government, in its food-related propaganda, abandoned the pretense that it is fat, rather than carbohydrates, that makes us fat.
Terrorism falls under the category, “assault (homicide),” but we see it differently even than your garden-variety homicide. 2,606 murders in September 2001 made more of an impression on us than the hundreds of thousands of murders in the years before or after. The American people have long been a willing, with a little coaxing, to give up their essential freedoms to be safe from murderers, but 9/11 rendered them downright eager: “whatever it takes!” they shout. To those who want the government to do whatever it takes to make us safer, we are not safe enough. The government is not making it impossible for us to be killed by terrorists, and “highly, highly, highly unlikely” is just not good enough.
Why? Why do we want the government to do “whatever it takes” to prevent terrorists from killing us, but not to prevent heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases (outlaw tobacco, and save the equivalent of sixteen 9/11s every year)?
Terrorism deaths are different than tobacco deaths, deaths from poor diet, deaths from alcohol consumption, deaths from sexual behavior, or deaths from illicit use of drugs: individuals don’t choose to be victims of terror. Terrorism deaths are different than deaths from microbial agents: we are not laboring under the delusion that we can scare away all the germs.
It’s hard to look at terrorism like we look at other causes of death because there are people out in the big bad world who, right now, want to see us and our children dead, and that is scary, especially to a people who, for the most part, have never traveled the world. Terrorism is sui generis. Never mind that even doing their worst terrorists have never been able to cause a hundredth part of the deaths that tobacco causes every year, or a tenth part of the carnage that car crashes cause.
When people like Benac opine that we are not safe enough, our papers print it as front-page news, and we eat it up. Because the world is a big, scary place, and math is hard.