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How Big A Deal Is Terrorism?

Via Will Wilkinson, a Cato-sponsored essay in which John Mueller makes an argument many believe but are afraid to voice -- terrorism doesn't do very much damage or kill very many people when the risk is put in context with other random calamities like car wrecks, lighting strikes, or bathtub accidents. I tend to agree. From the grand strategy point of view, the problem with terrorism is less that it kills inordinately large numbers of people (though, obviously, these deaths are tragic from the point-of-view of people who suffer them) than that it can be used as a tool to prevent us from pursuing goals we would otherwise like to achieve. Under the circumstances, vigilance against terrorism and efforts to hunt and kill terrorists are worthwhile things to do, but to make preventing terrorist attacks the organizing principle of our policy would be a mistake. What the main goal of a basically satisfied hegemonic power should be in the world is controversial, and I won't wade into that now, but the trick is to set a goal and think of ways to pursue it that keep the risk of terrorism both in mind and in perspective -- not to upend everything else in an effort to achieve a perfect defense against that isn't notably worse than many other kinds of problems.

My caveat -- and its an important caveat -- is that terrorism, unlike lighting strikes, demonstrate a huge degree of malice. If the people who perpetrated 9/11 had the opportunity to do something much more devastating, they would have. And a nuclear terrorist attack would not be a minor problem at all. But preventing this -- a catastrophic nuclear attack -- should be the focus of counterterrorism policy, and it's a focus that implies we should be more worried about finding and securing nuclear material than finding and killing terrorists.

October 24, 2004 | Permalink


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Via Matt Yglesias, a link to a Cato paper (PDF) that argues that the risks of terrorism are comparable to "lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts." Of course, terrorism is a deliberate, malicious human act that we... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 24, 2004 6:37:55 PM


Right. The main point--you do have to get to Allison, but then I'm only a fifth into it--is to tighten loose nukes. But Robert Wright has a point, too: the more jihadists there are more running about, the greater the chances of successfully planting the nuclear weapon in midtown Manhattan.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps just as there are always suicide bombers at hand, so also someone can be found, easily, to drive the truck into the parking structure (and even set a timer and be in New Jersey when it goes off).
A decade ago, Allison predicted a bomb would go off within a decade. That doesn't mean that Nunn and Lugar are not the wisest men around, and that Lugar's recent defense of Bush's implementation of Nunn-Lugar shouldn't be fisked. It's got to be the case that among the chief opportunity costs of the hugely expensive (see the recent estimates reported in today's Times) excursion into Iraq are resources denied Nunn-Lugar.

Posted by: Worried | Oct 24, 2004 1:18:16 PM

"In some respects, fear of terror may be something like playing the lottery except in

Right. And does anyone believe we can educate people out of playing the lottery? Reactions to terroristic events and irrational fears of terrorism are real and probably can't be eliminated; and this irrationalism has real very serious indirect economic and political consequences. A 9/11 every month for a year would only kill 15000 people but would likely destroy this nation in the form we know it. Much less damaging forms of terrorism would do disproportionate indirect damage.

Many people won't play index funds, but will attempt to beat the odds. A privatization of Social Security needs to assume this irrationality.

What is the point here? We live in the world where Iraq was invaded, with much American approval, as a response to 9/11. Rather than wishing the human race was more rational, or could be made more rational, sensible policy decisions need to take that irrationality into account.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 24, 2004 1:34:18 PM

What I love are the ideas that:

1. We can ever rid the world of terror.

2. The terrorists could defeat the U.S. (w/o people like Ashcroft doing it for them)

Posted by: MattB | Oct 24, 2004 1:46:55 PM

"these deaths are tragic from the point-of-view of people who suffer them"

It's obvious they're not tragic from your point of view. You don't need to specify.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 24, 2004 1:49:02 PM

I disagree. Malice is actually more significant than given its due here.

Terrorism is more significant than accidents because letting people get away with malicious acts carries with it bad consequences: it encourages escalation. If tornados got angrier every time they destroyed a trailer park unchallenged, then maybe these two things would be on the same level.

Posted by: lucidish | Oct 24, 2004 2:08:44 PM

The Nazi / Islamofascist analogy has to be debunked too. Hitler had tight control of one of the world's great industrial powers, and what was probably the world's greatest military machine at that time, and he was within close striking distance of Paris, and soon enough, London. (Furthermore, we faced Stalin and Hitler successively).

Islam is more populous than Germany, but has very few industrial, technical, and military resources. Its financial resources are exclusively oil rent slush funds. Islam is divided into more than twenty states riven by multiple hostilities, whose peoples belong to a multitude of sects and movements and speak at least seven major languages, no matter how you count. Many Muslims have sympathy with jihadism, but in most cases that doesn't translate to actual support.

When I hear people worrying about their granddaughters being forced to learn Arabic and wear burkhas, I feel as if I were talking to hysterical, borderline-mentally-ill children. But this is a significant political demographic which includes many PhD's, and I also wonder whethere this country is going to destroy itself from within. Because these pitiful hysterics have much more influence on American military policy than I (or anyone I'd be able to talk to) have.

Hi, Rabbit! Speaking of the devil!

Posted by: Zizka | Oct 24, 2004 2:12:01 PM

It's obvious they're not tragic from your point of view.

Bleah. Every time someone dies before their time it's a tragedy. Some tragedies stay within families and friends, some get more publicity. Watching my friend die of AIDS, going to a funeral for a friend who OD'd or died in a car wreck, these are more powerful for me than watching TV. The point is that although we all do suffer from these public tragedies, we truly suffer when our friends and families are taken. Some of the public hand-wringing seems to be used as a bludgeon, making one think that there's little behind it but opportunism.

Nobody's pretending that terrorism isn't a problem that we have to deal with decisively, but we do have to recognize that we're being conned a bit, that terrorism is not the only risk to our health or happiness in the world.

Posted by: me2i81 | Oct 24, 2004 2:23:11 PM

Either we're in for long-term technological stagnation, or weapons of mass destruction are going to get progressively easier and cheaper to produce.

Which means that, unless you actually like long-term technological stagnation, we can't eliminate the prospect of terrorists being able to set off huge, city-killing explosions at some point within our lifetimes. Our only choice is to eliminate the terrorists instead.

Posted by: Ken | Oct 24, 2004 2:24:14 PM

Sure, Modern Crusader, in your world the tragedy of 9/11 can rationalize absolutely anything. So anybody who tries to put terrorism into perspective must just not care about the people who died. Makes perfect sense, I guess, if you're a crusader.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Oct 24, 2004 2:27:13 PM

The curious thing to me is that a lot of the super-hawks' support of a terrorism-centered foreign policy doesn't even really seem to be based on an estimation of the danger of terrorism to human lives, mistaken or not. These same people show very little concern about reducing car wrecks, or covering more people with health insurance, or reducing obesity, etc. etc. They don't seem, in other words, primarily motivated by a desire to reduce suffering. They seem primarily motivated by a very deep subconscious desire to be a brave cowboy fighting off a black-hatted bad guy.

It's a cartoon world they live in.

For this reason, an empirical assessment of the relative danger of terrorism will have no effect.

Posted by: Realish | Oct 24, 2004 2:30:28 PM

Our only choice is to eliminate the terrorists instead.

I am amaized at how this idea could become so popular. Clearly you can't eliminate 'the terrorists', unless you have a time machine.

You can only hope to eliminate the conditions that compel people to become terrorists, even Mr. Bush seems to understand it when he is talking about remaking the ME.

Of course he's been doing much more harm than good so far, but that's a different story.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 24, 2004 2:42:02 PM

"They seem primarily motivated by a very deep subconscious desire to be a brave cowboy fighting off a black-hatted bad guy."

Well, perhaps because they understand that an irrational fear is often not well mitigated or assuaged by reason and facts, but best countered by a non-rational symbolic act designed for emotional effect. I don't know how effective bombing Gaza or building a wall is, but I do understand that Sharon knows he has to do something.

When the three-year old says there is a bear under the bed, you can calmly tell her she is being irrational, or you can bend down, look under the bed, and shoo the bear away.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 24, 2004 2:46:55 PM

Dead is dead.

The chance you, or your family dies from terrorists is slight. And as Bush has shown, the kill all the terrorists strategy actually increases the risk of death (more terrorist deaths after 9/11 than before, with Bush's strategy). Nukes are a problem, and they will be more easily obtained in the future. But they will NEVER kill more than disease.

The apotheosis of Bush's flawed perception of the "terrorist" risk is his handling of vaccines. Bush got a smallpox shot, thus increasing his risk of death (from complications) and failed to get a flu shot, further increasing his risk of death. And he thought that it was good policy for tax dollars to be spent on smallpox shots, but not flu shots.

You people, yeah I mean McManus, are drunk on fear. Ignore the terrorists (quietly locking nukes up as best as possible) and they will go away. Your attention to the matter is what the terrorists want. Why do you all hate America?

Posted by: epistemology | Oct 24, 2004 2:50:47 PM

Our only choice is to eliminate the terrorists instead.

Just make damn sure that you don't kill my family while you are trying to eliminate a terrorist, because all you will have done is replace one terrorist by another.

Posted by: Don Quijote | Oct 24, 2004 2:55:15 PM


and there is a third possibility if the 3 year old is afraid of a bear under the bed:

you can jump up and down frantically waving your hands yelling how death is inevitable, you can ever fully defend against the unkown, grab a shotgun from the closet and start blasting under the bed.

You have to do something, right?

Oh, and don't forget the wolves outside when the 3 year old goes out to play. They are lurking, lurking. Let's slaughter them all and let god sort it out. Let's drop the big one.

Posted by: epistemology | Oct 24, 2004 2:55:34 PM

Current US policy in the MidEast is very efficient in generating large numbers of angry young people, a significant subset of whom are willing to trade their lives for doing injury to us and our interests. But their anger and willingness to die is of little importance without the means to do substantial injury.

For example, I heard the Crazy Dolphin Lady yesterday saying that our children live in a world where they will always have to anticipate an unlimited and unending repetition of 9/11. Well, no, not if she meant deliberate crashing of large airplanes into large buildings. It has been 3 years now, and that disaster has not been repeated. Either those who would injure us have decided not to do so anymore, or they lack the means. Tightening up boarding security, hardening flight deck doors, and changing crew and passenger mindsets in a hijacking scenario make it several orders of magnitude more difficult to repeat 9/11, and perhaps impossible.

The only 'existential threat' to Western Civilization is nuclear holocaust (well, we are gonna have to fix that energy thingy, but there's time to work the problem). Ken says we've got to kill all the terrorists, because it isn't possible to stop the march of technological progress, and therefore WMD will become easier and easier to produce and use. In the nuclear world, that just isn't true. To produce weapons-grade stuff requires skill and much infrastructure; we know what to look for, and its really hard to defend.

Killing terrorists isn't so easy because (1) until they do something nasty, they look a lot like non-terrorists, and (2) killing them, especially with collateral damage, tends to create more of them.

Posted by: John Casey | Oct 24, 2004 2:57:50 PM

"Ken says we've got to kill all the terrorists, because it isn't possible to stop the march of technological progress, and therefore WMD will become easier and easier to produce and use."

Sadly, it is possible to stop the march of technological progress, or at least to drastically slow it down - it's been done in several fields - but it is not the least bit desirable.

"In the nuclear world, that just isn't true. To produce weapons-grade stuff requires skill and much infrastructure; we know what to look for, and its really hard to defend."

Now it does. If we don't condemn ourselves to stagnation, there will be other methods and tools coming down the pike, that might not be so easy to watch for, that will accomplish the same thing.

Posted by: Ken | Oct 24, 2004 3:12:39 PM

"You people, yeah I mean McManus, are drunk on fear."

Does anyone actually read my posts? I agree that terrorism is not a significant threat in itself. However my posts and Matt's cited article by Mueller are not about terrorism and anti-terrorism policy but about the domestic perceptions and politics of terrorism.

Epist thinks John Kerry can say terrorism is not significant and if you ignore them they will go away.....and fucking get elected.

If the left apparently believes that emotion, irrationalism, and symbolism should play no part in politics they are utterly doomed, because the electorate out there does not have the time or inclination to make well reasoned judgements on correct policy.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 24, 2004 3:19:13 PM

If we don't condemn ourselves to stagnation, there will be other methods and tools coming down the pike, that might not be so easy to watch for, that will accomplish the same thing.

True, but I don't think we really can 'condemn ourselves to stagnation'. I am sure some pretty nasty stuff can be cooked up just in a school lab or even your kitchen. Food and water supplies can be poisoned without any hi-tech stuff. And so on.

The only way to go is to make more friends and fewer enemies.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 24, 2004 3:25:26 PM

...the electorate out there does not have the time or inclination to make well reasoned judgements on correct policy.

This appears to be correct. That's why democracy is a bad form of governing. Seriously.

Constitutional monarchy is the way to go. I think I would make a darn good monarch. You wouldn't regret it, folks, just give me a chance. Please.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 24, 2004 3:31:38 PM

"In the end, it is not clear how one can deal with the public’s
often irrational — or at least erratic — fears about remote dangers.
Some people say they prefer comparatively dangerous
forms of transportation like the private passenger automobile
(the cause of over 3 million American deaths during the 20th
century) to safe ones like commercial airliners because they feel
they have more “control.” But they seem to feel no fear on buses
and trains — which actually are more dangerous than airliners
— even without having that sense of control and even though
derailing a speeding train or crashing a speeding bus is likely to
be much easier for a terrorist than downing an airliner."

Matt is right, epist is right, Mueller is right. It doesn't matter that you are right, because George Bush understands that human beings are not entirely rational and so he is the one who controls the budget, the military, and the foreign policy.

But at least you have the comfort of being right.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 24, 2004 3:31:56 PM

bob mcmanus:

I do read your posts, and enjoy their erudition. But you waffle on this; at times worrying about all the terrorists in the mideast "swamp" and at times worrying about the over-reaction in this country to a new major terror strike (won't happen any time soon). I really think you overestimate the actual risk of a significant terror attack here.

And I am NOT registered, don't vote, am not trying to advise the Kerry campaign. If I were, I would advise them to more explicitly (and dishonestly, but hey, that's politics) link Bush to the Saudis, making the case that Bush is covering up for the real 9/11 terrorists:

-the terrorists and bin Laden were Saudis
-Bush family makes millions from Saudi Arabian deals
-Bush won't insist on FBI interviewing the 9/11 terrorists' families in Saudi Arabia to please his Saudi masters, etc.

Americans are xenophobic and need someone to hate. Kerry needs to give them the "raghead, sand niggers" (as I have heard people in my medical practice deplorably call them) in Saudi Arabia.

No, Bob, I am no squishy liberal, and don't get involved in politics directly. Read my posts. I am much more concerned with metaphysical and epistemological questions: the REAL issues.

Posted by: epistemology | Oct 24, 2004 3:38:24 PM

I agree with McManus that the Democrats have to learn to deal with the 20%-50% of the electorate which votes on the basis of intuitions, hunches, vibes, whims, phobias, and obsessions. One reason I like Michael Moore is that he seemed to have the capacity for that kind of communication. The same reason that a lot of genteel liberals hated Moore.

The macho act is part of that. And part of the macho act is whaling on the Republicans when they try to pull shit. As the estimable Bartcop asks, "How can the Democrats defend the American people when they can't even defend themselves?"

Posted by: Zizka | Oct 24, 2004 3:43:53 PM

The "War on Terror" is more closely connected to the "War on Drugs" than to the intent to prevent terror attacks.
Simply look at the damage done by drugs and by terrorist attacks in relation to the cost in lives and treasure of the efforts to erradicate them.
Neither of these "Wars" has any real hope of solution.
The main victims in both these efforts are various third world populations, along with the curtailment of civil liberties in our own society.

Posted by: jay boilswater | Oct 24, 2004 3:57:02 PM

Fafnir has a good take on this: A Big Ol Dog for President. Enjoy.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 24, 2004 4:32:03 PM

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