By Xander Snyder
Have you been paying attention?! We’re all gonna die! The world is falling apart. Terrorist attacks have rampaged through the United States, killing innocent civilians. Freedom, the American way itself, is at risk. 2016 has been a year of disaster, and a security failure.
At least, that’s what The Terrorists™ want you to think. This makes sense: terrorism is the strategic application of fear against a society to influence policy outcomes. Terrorism isn’t unique to the 21st century. It’s been around since ancient times. Terrorism is often an effective tactic for the weaker power in an asymmetric power struggle. Resorting to terrorism is a recognition by one party that they lack the resources to apply normal applications of force. So is the case with modern terrorism: its minimal impact on Western societies is effectively obscured by the outsized fear it causes.
With the relentless onslaught of seemingly unending terrorist attacks, it seems like this year may never end. But what do the numbers tell us?
Wow, look at how many more people have been killed in the last three years, compared to every year since 2002. In 2016, we’ve seen a 500% growth rate in terrorist deaths relative to 2014. This is a clear exponential trend that, if it continues, will bury America in an onslaught of extremist religious attacks. Out of curiosity, how does that compare to another rampaging scourge that has blighted our fair country in the 21st century?
Note: I only show up through 2014 in the above chart since that is the most recent year that the CDC provides data. My source for terrorist deaths is current through 2016. This discrepancy is accounted for below in Figure 6.
Stop what you’re doing immediately to recognize the severity of this problem: lightning is killing up to 23x more people per year on average than terrorism. Think about how much of the government defense budget could have diverted to preventing deaths by Zeus.
But what’s even more deadly than lightning?
Bees! Always threatening to fly in your general direction. But the fact is that in all years since 9/11 (more on 2001 below) we have been far more at risk from an infrequently-considered sweetener producer than people harboring insane ideologies.
To make the comparison across different death types clearer, Figure 4 will show the total amount of deaths from each death type from 2002-2014.
How about for good measure, we stack the cards, and include terrorism deaths from 2002-2016 and only lightning/bee sting deaths from 2002-2014?
Those dastardly honey-bringers. They will be the end of us. But I hear you say: “surely, these aren’t comparable? One is a violent, intentional death, and the others are mere side effects from nature.” First off, don’t call me Shirly. Second: you, dear considerate reader, have a point. We should probably instead look at terrorism deaths versus other violent deaths of the non-terrorist variety:
You’re far more likely to be killed by an “ordinary” run of the mill homicide than a bee sting. But since we’ve established how dangerous bee stings are relative to lightning, and how dangerous lightning is relative to terrorism, it’s worth stopping to recognize the severity of the risk of homicide compared to terrorism. 200 times more dangerous, to be exact, if only I had done my math right. But I didn’t. I forgot to include 2002-2013 in the homicide count in Figure 5. It just shows homicide deaths in 2014. If we looked at homicides on comparable terms to bee stings and terrorism, how does it look?
The risk of homicide, when compared in comparable terms to terrorism, lightning, and bee stings, is far more threatening to life and wellbeing. 2,865 times, in fact! Given how deeply the topic of terrorism influences domestic politics, this chart is fascinating to me. It’s a potential glimpse of one of two things: Americans are simply not aware of the relative risk from terrorism or they’re aware but believe that the specific, minimal threat from terrorism is worth the outsized attention and dedication of resources.
These people may have a point. As Henry Kissinger explains in his recent book World Order, radical Islam is not just an isolated threat. Its fundamental doctrine requires a restructuring of the world order, from one that today is largely based on Westphalian principles that respect geographical boundaries despite potentially clashing belief systems, to a universalist one that requires the complete domination of global society by a single unquestionable doctrine. Periods of human history that have seen conflicts driven by competing universalist doctrines have suffered immensely. Usually, regional orders that learn to respect one another’s territorial boundaries encounter less devastating conflicts, as it allows for more predictable international calculations and, over time, relatively greater stability.
Nevertheless with such a discrepancy in risk we must question the outsized attention that terrorism draws in daily life and especially our political scene. Why does this happen?
Terrorism is, frankly, terrifying. It’s right there in the name. It’s scary to think that there are people out there intentionally trying to kill you. What’s more, it’s a novel threat, and as Steven Pinker points out in his mind-blowing compendium on the history of violence “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” novel threats have a tendency to gain a greater portion of our focus due to their unusual nature. Further, since they are noteworthy they will command more media coverage than commonplace occurrences.
To illustrate this point, think about a society with a yearly ritual: a shaman randomly selects balls from a spiritual journey jar. Nearly all the balls are grey, and therefore insignificant, and without unique symbolism or meaning. However, there are a few red balls, and these are omens of ill fate. Whenever a red ball is picked, it’s a big deal, since it almost never happens. So the media covers all the times that the shaman picks a red ball, but ignores the grey ones.
In real life, there are millions of grey balls, events that happen so frequently that they aren’t worthy of media attention. This is fair: the media has limited resources. But it means that, by definition, you will hear almost exclusively about unusual events, which can lead to a focus on uncommon risks that may be less of a threat.
Recognizing the bias media places on unusual events, if we were to step back and look at the data, what would we learn about death risks that are most likely to affect us?
Death for most Americans is far more likely to come from a health condition rather than violence. In Figure 10 above, I am comparing 12 years worth of cumulative deaths for Homicides, Bee Stings, Lightning, and Terrorism, to only 1 year the top 5 causes of death (Heart Disease, Cancer, Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease, Accidents, and Stroke), according to the CDC.
Just to round out our analysis, let’s look at 12-year data for Top 5 Causes and all the rest:
I don’t know about you, but if I were to just follow the news, I would be far more worried about getting murdered than heart disease. But after seeing the numbers, I think I’ll worry less about extremists and more about getting in that run 5 times each week. Heart disease is a far more fatal condition than violent crime.
I know what you’re thinking: all of this analysis excludes the year 2001, which was subject to the worst terrorist attack the United States has ever encountered. Let’s look the number of deaths in 2001 from terrorism and other causes:
Clearly, you were more likely to die from a terrorist attack in 2001 than lightning or bee stings. But you were still nearly 6 times more likely to be killed from a “regular” homicide, and 34x more likely to die from an unintentional injury (driving is particularly dangerous, as is accidental poisoning).
America’s outsized focus on certain risks can be measured by the amount of resources we spend trying to prevent them. Erik Fogg put together a compelling chart showing how many dollars we spend trying to prevent the top 5 causes of death versus terrorism (I added the emphasis on red on 4 out of the top 5 causes):
Notice that the Y-axis is skewed, because it would otherwise make all other bars invisible. The US spends an outsized amount of money on preventing violent crimes, and terrorism in particular, relative to the risk of death they represent. In terms of the top 5 causes of death in the US, we’ve made progress in some, but not in others:
Since 2002, we’ve made progress in heart disease (696,947 in 2002 to 614,348 in 2014), and stroke (162,672 in 2002 to 133,103 in 2014). However, we’ve seen an increase in annual deaths from unintentional accidents (106,742 to 136,053), chronic lower respiratory disease (124,816 in 2002 to 147,101 in 2014), and cancer (557,271 in 2002 to 591,699 in 2014). All told, this is a net decrease of 26,144 deaths related to the top 5 causes.
Again, it’s worth making the point that there are likely good reasons to spend an outsized amount money on certain types of risks. Terrorism may not present, on average, substantial risk to life or limb, but it may carry the risk of outlier attacks that kill tens of thousands. Further, terrorism presents dangers that aren’t strictly related to US mortality. Many terrorist groups aim to remake regional or world order in a way that could overturn structures that have maintained relative peace since WWII (and, in some ways, since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, that established the modern concept of a nation state). An assault on the established institutions that maintain (relative) global stability is clearly not in America’s interests, and therefore needs to be opposed, perhaps to a greater degree relative to other fatal risks.
There’s also the danger that terrorism poses to other countries:
To the extent that the United States feels either an obligation to attempt to provide security for other countries more afflicted by terrorism than itself, or believes that it is in its national interests to do so, it would therefore make sense to spend more to prevent terrorism. If this is true (which it almost certainly is to an extent), then viewing dollars spent per US death wouldn’t capture the full global impact that the United States thinks it is having in countering terrorism.
When thinking about how we allocate our time, energy, and resources, the vital question is: what problem are we trying to solve? Decreasing unnatural, preventable deaths? Or decreasing certain types of fatal risks because they carry broader geopolitical implications?
We can walk away from these relative death risks in one of two ways. The next time you become fearful about the risk of terrorism, you can take that fear and be 55,600 times more afraid of heart disease. Or, you can think how frightened you are day to day of heart disease now, and be 0.000018x less fearful about terrorism. The second approach, to me, seems more optimistic, and it lets us take back control of the narrative from those wielding extremist ideologies.
- Source: https://www.thereligionofpeace.com/attacks/attacks.aspx?. I used this webscraping tool to download the data in an analyze-able form.
- I knew that internship at the NSA would pay off.
- This doesn’t actually take into account the potential difference of risk of different demographics to different types of death risks.
- Think: 30 years war, the French Revolution/Napoleon, WW2, the Cold War (a bunch of not really cold but nonetheless deadly non-nuclear conflicts).
- Good attention to detail. A lucrative management consulting career awaits you.
- Technically, the Treaty of Westphalia was actually a collection of 3 Treaties: The Peace of Münster, The Treaty of Münster, and The Treaty of Osnabrück.