It is look good legislation designed for politicians to get votes to pass a law requiring metal detectors and scanners at the doors of public buildings like the courthouse. By throwing up inefficient methods to combat “terrorism,” politicians can claim to the public they have done something to protect the public. In point of fact, all the politicians have done is waste tax dollars.
What is my basis for saying this?
In brief, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are about 1 in 20 million. As The Atlantic has explained:
- "The total number of worldwide attacks in 2011, however, dropped by almost 12 percent from 2010 and nearly 29 percent from 2007." (9)
- "Attacks by AQ and its affiliates increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011. A significant increase in attacks by al-Shabaab, from 401 in 2010 to 544 in 2011, offset a sharp decline in attacks by al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) and a smaller decline in attacks by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)." (11)
- "In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years." (14)
- Of 978 terrorism-related kidnapping last year, only three hostages were private U.S. citizens, or .003 percent. A private citizen is defined as 'any U.S. citizen not acting in an official capacity on behalf of the U.S. government.' (13, 17)
- Of the 13,288 people killed by terrorist attacks last year, seventeen were private U.S. citizens, or .001 percent. (17)
Of course, one reason people’s fears don’t line up with actual risks is that our brains are wired by evolution to make fast judgements which are not always backed up by logical reasoning. “Our emotions push us to make snap judgments that once were sensible—but may not be anymore,” Maia Szalavitz, a psychiatrist, wrote in Psychology Today (2008). Because fear strengthens memory, catastrophes such as earthquakes, plane crashes, and terrorist incidents completely capture our attention, Szalavitz explains. As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are. The drama and excitement of improbable events make them appear to be more common. The effect is amplified by the fact that media tend to cover what's dramatic and exciting. The more we see something, the more common we think it is, even if we are watching the same footage over and over.
So a person is as likely to be killed by his or her own furniture, and more likely to die in a car accident, drown in a bathtub, or in a building fire than from a terrorist attack.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has published, Background Report: 9/11, Ten Years Later. The report notes, excluding the 9/11 atrocities, that fewer than 500 people died in the U.S. from terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2010. The report adds, “From 1991-2000, the United States averaged 41.3 terrorist attacks per year. After 2001, the average number of U.S. attacks decreased to 16 per year from 2002-2010.”
Of course, the police and politicians will cite the lack of deaths from terrorism as evidence that their protective measures are working. Earlier this year, the conservative Heritage Foundation compiled a list of 39 terror plots that had been foiled since September 2001. Going through the list, about 23 of the plots might plausibly have resulted in terror attacks of one sort or another. Several were aimed at subways, military bases, and shopping malls. To get a feel for the number of people that might be killed in typical terrorist attacks, consider that four subway bombs killed 52 people in London in 2005; the deadliest attack on a military base killed 13; and blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killed 187 people in 1995.
Making the huge assumption that all 23 plausible plots would have succeeded in killing an average of 100 Americans each, that means that 2,300 would have died in the last 10 years, or about 230 per year. (This implies a rate that is 10 times higher than the rate between 1970 and 2010, excluding the 9/11 attacks, by the way.) Even at this higher rate, your chances of dying in a terrorist attack would be about 1 in 1.7 million.
Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller and Mark Stewart, an engineering professor at University of Newcastle in Australia estimated that the U.S. has spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security measures since 2001 (this figure does not include the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Assuming that 2,300 Americans might have been killed by terrorists inside the United States, this implies a cost of more that $400 million dollars per life saved. Professors Mueller and Stewart explain, “Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely.
However, terrorism is especially frightening (that’s why they call it “terrorism”), so the average citizen might want to spend double the usual amount to prevent a death. But still suggests that on a reasonable benefit-cost basis public and private spending is 20 times too much to prevent deaths from terrorist attacks. Now let’s retrospectively add the tragic 3,000 deaths from the 9/11 attacks to take into account the remote possibility that terrorists might be able to pull off another similarly spectacular assault; that still means that nearly $200 million is being spent per plausible life saved.
Since 2001, we all get to enjoy courthouse security theater and watch the public have to strip in order to enter our own courthouse. Now you must have proper “papers” in order to gain admission to taxpayer financed federal buildings; and federal minions have felt free to wiretap without warrants. As Human Rights Watch has concluded, “These post-September 11 laws, when viewed as a whole, represent a broad and dangerous expansion of government powers to investigate, arrest, detain, and prosecute individuals at the expense of due process, judicial oversight, and public transparency. Such laws merit close attention, not only because many of them restrict or violate the rights of suspects, but also because they can be and have been used to stifle peaceful political dissent or to target particular religious, ethnic, or social groups.”
America can never forget those who died tragically. But we should remember Franklin’s words and never give up our liberties out of irrational fear of terrorism.