September 11th was a statistical anomaly.
I’ll elaborate. First, I don’t mean to disrespect the victims of that horrible attack. They have my deepest sympathies. But when our country makes policy, particularly security policies that will spend trillions of dollars, we have to make those decisions based on facts, numbers, science and evidence. We can’t make them based on a statistical anomaly charged with emotions.
We’ve written before that terrorism isn’t an existential crisis. September 11th was so large and so lethal that we can’t see terrorism for what it actually is: a relatively minor threat to the average person’s life. Today, I want to put the 9/11 anecdote into context with the relevant statistics.
Wikipedia’s page listing deaths by human violence shows that, even for terrorist attacks, 9/11 was an anomaly. It killed four times as many people as the next attack on the list. When compared to the loss of life by natural disasters, terrorism doesn’t hold a candle. One hundred and five times as many people died because of the earthquake in Haiti than on 9/11. Seventy six times as many people died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Staggering.
It is remarkable that we spend so much on terrorism considering how seldom it occurs. The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism each year show a stunning lack of American deaths from terrorism. Except for 9/11, less than thirty American civilians have been killed by terrorism every year since 2000. How many Americans died because of terrorism in 2002? Twenty six people. 2009? Nine people. 2007? Nineteen people, but all nineteen occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. The State Department includes Iraq and Afghanistan in their totals of terrorist activity when both areas are really war zones. (What about before 9/11? Again, except for Timothy McVeigh, not much. 1999? Six people. 1998? Twelve people. 1997? Six people.)
2010’s numbers will be released by April, they shouldn’t be much higher. Again, 9/11 was a statistical anomaly.
What are bigger threats to the lives of Americans? Well, heart disease (stroke, diabetes and heart attacks) and cancer. Together, they killed over 1.2 million Americans. (All this data comes from the Center for Disease Control, using the most recent data I could find which is from 2007.) The usual comeback is that those are diseases of old age. Compare 9/11 to the list of yearly deaths from preventable causes of death in America.
Every year over 16,000 teenagers die. Over half of those are from automobile accidents, meaning that more than two and a half 9/11s kill our teenagers every year. Accidents in general kill 123,000 people every year. Influenza claims roughly seventeen 9/11s every year.
Homicides dramatically outpace terrorism-related death too. In 2009, the most current year of data compiled by the FBI, over 13,000 people died because of homicides. That is roughly four 9/11s. While the number of homicides has gone up and down, 13,000 is a number that roughly holds steady. This means that every year we face a threat four times worse than 9/11, but with nowhere near the federal funding that comes in for terrorism.
Terrorism is a threat, but just a tiny one. But as a society we hate statistics and love anecdotes. Statistics make us rational; anecdotes make us emotional. And the most common political emotion is fear. Or, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”