Almost every day, I see someone arguing that we shouldn’t worry about terrorism so much because your chances of being killed by a terrorist are less than your chances of being killed in an auto accident, or by slipping in the bathtub, or some such comparison. Barack Obama, according to The Atlantic, “frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”
Indeed, this argument was even being made shortly after 9/11, even being made by people with obviously high intelligence and mathematical knowledge. Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, recommended scrapping “the whole ‘homeland defense’ thing” as “cost-ineffective.” According to the WSJ, Minsky calculates that the cost of preventing each terrorist-caused airplane fatality would be around $100MM, and that “we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures.” Whatever one thinks about the performance of Homeland Security as an organization, as a matter of logic Minsky’s argument was just plain wrong, as are its present-day equivalents.
Calculations of probability must be based on assumptions about whether the rate at which some phenomenon is occurring is static or is subject to change. Based on the numbers of influenza in 1914, you might have concluded that you were not at material risk of dying from this disease. In 1918, things looked very different. The dynamics of the disease led to a very rapid increase in the probability of infection.
If the FAA receives some service difficulty reports indicating that cracks have appeared in the wing spars of a few aircraft that have reached about 10,000 hours in service…aircraft of this service level representing a small portion of the total production for this model…they’re not going to dismiss it with ‘well, no biggie’ and wait until substantial numbers of planes reach 15,000 hours or so and have the wing spars actually break in flight. They’re going to analyze the situation and quite likely issue an Airworthiness Directive against the aircraft, requiring inspections and remedial action.
The wing spar case is an example of a process in which the mere passage of time can change the probabilities of the adverse event occurring. The influenza case is an example of a malign positive feedback loop, i.e., a vicious circle–the more people become infected, the more other people they infect. Positive feedback loops tend to have exponential growth patterns until something stops them.
In the case of terrorism, it should be obvious that successful terror attacks act as encouragement for future acts of terror–definitely a positive feedback loop. Remember what Osama bin Laden said about people wanting to side with the ‘strong horse’? Moreover, terror attacks are demoralizing to the target country in a way in which random accidents are not. There has already been a chilling effect on free speech driven by the desire to avoid angering the Islamists.
Bookworm offered an interesting take on this topic:
Obama gets the human lizard brain completely wrong. This morning, at Power Line, I read something that meshed beautifully with a theory I’ve had for some time about the difference between crime and terrorism. Scott Johnson notes that Obama, posturing as an intellectual, likes to offer these words of wisdom:
“In his long, long exposition of Obama’s foreign policy, [Jeffrey] Goldberg relates that Obama ‘frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”
We normal, sensate humans understand that there are drug dealers and crazy people and jealous spouses and garden-variety thugs out there, each of whom is capable of killing, but we also understand that they are not engaged in a concerted effort. Likewise, we know that accidents happen and that, while we try to protect ourselves, fate may have other ideas.
But what we understand equally well is that there is a single ideology at play in the world today, that its adherents gain power through mass killing, that they are beginning those mass killings in America and, unchecked, that they will escalate. We understand this because war goes back deep in the human psyche, to a time before history and even before words. Our little Spock-in-Chief needs to get with the human program and recognize that our fears aren’t irrational but are, in fact, highly rational.
I don’t think it’s so much the lizard brain that’s missing among the ‘terrorism doesn’t matter all that much’ crowd, though, it’s the more mammalian aspects of the human mind, those that make possible empathy–empathy both in the sense of understanding the emotions of others and in the sense of caring about what happens to others.
So the ‘terrorism isn’t really that important’ argument not only demonstrates a lack of good emotional response, it also demonstrates a lack of clear mathematical and logical thinking. If you’re going to be a Spockian Vulcan, at least be a competent Vulcan.
One other point: I often see the ‘terrorism doesn’t matter all that much’ argument propounded in away that suggests those who believe terrorism is a critical issue are motivated mainly by fears for their own personal safety. In reality, of course, it is possible to be concerned about terrorism mainly because of its potential impact on the whole country, indeed the whole of civilization…while at the level of personal and family safety being more concerned about at-least-partially-controllable things like automotive and bathtub safety. A person who lives in a remote rural area where he is personally quite safe from urban- and infrastructure-focused terror attacks may actually still care about what happens to the country and the civilization of which he is a part.