Terrorism Isn’t an Accident

Some writers have just caught on to what I have been saying for eleven years. For instance, Michael Brendan Dougherty says this about the London Bridge attacks earlier this month:

Imagine if Saturday’s three London Bridge killers had been British Nationalist party thugs, ramming their car through a Pakistani neighborhood. Would a single decent person have heard the news and immediately said, “Well, this number of dead people is statistically insignificant compared to those that die in car accidents. These punks can’t threaten our society!” Would anyone have asked, “Why are we talking about the killer’s politics? There are thousands of gun murders in America every year and those killers don’t have their politics talked about.” Would they have felt like singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” the next morning to conjure up a vision of a day when people of all political creeds can get along?

We all know the answer.

And yet, even before the victims on London Bridge had stopped bleeding, this was the reaction among society’s best, brightest and most morally self-assured members on social media. The pattern is by now familiar. Even as an Islamic terrorist killer’s proclamations about Allah’s will are still ringing in victims’ ears, these individuals are already declaring that the true danger from the attack is an Islamophobic backlash, and that you’re more likely to die by drowning in your own swimming pool than from a terrorist attack.

Do they know how callous that sounds? Do they not realize that sensible human beings react differently to a car accident than to a murder plot? Or that states and car manufacturers are constantly working to decrease the lethality of driving, while terrorists are constantly trying to improve the lethality of their enterprise? Terrorist acts have now become “the kind of thing that inevitably flares up and causes some damage before the experts put it out,” according to one media wit. Or consider Vox’s Will Wilkinson, who wrote that “If it is truly the case that the risk of death by Islamic terrorism can be reduced to approximately zero through official anti-terror zeal, that suggests the threat is manageable — indeed, that it is being managed.” [“Stop Comparing the London Attacks to Freak Accidents and Natural Disasters“, National Review, June 7, 2017]

Wilkinson proves, once again that he’s a world-class asshole. But Dougherty doesn’t decisively squelch the fatuousness of the apologists for terrorism. Stefan Kanter does a better job:

Sometimes the attacks are made with firearms. Sometimes they’re done with trucks on busy bridges or thronged thoroughfares or with bombs at rock performances or with pressure-cookers at marathons. Terrorists constantly revise their tactics, but the assurances from the media are unvarying.

Make America safe again? inquires a Newsweek headline. but America is already safe. The story goes on to explain that “the attacks in San Bernadino, California, and Orlando, Florida, certainly set people on edge, but Americans have a better chance at being killed by lightning or drowning in their own bathtubs than being killed by a terrorist.” In the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof falls in lockstep. “Most years in the U.S., ladders kill far more Americans than Muslim terrorists do. Same with bathtubs. Ditto for stairs. And lightning.” Boston Globe columnist Michael H. Cohen is more statistical but just as banal: “Even unintentional drowning—in bathtubs, lakes and swimming pools—kills more than 3,500 people a year, a number approximately 1,800 times larger than the number of people killed by terrorism.”

These soothing statements ignore a fundamental fact: bathtubs, ladders, and lightning don’t have as their object the murder and maiming of human beings—jihadists  do. Those who perish by accident are victims. Murdered people are prey. If it turned out that the ladder companies were putting teflon on the top rungs so people would slip off and die, then we would expect the government to respond swiftly to the threat, even if only a few people were killed this way. [“Lightning, Bathtubs, and Banality“, City Journal, June 29, 2017]

Not bad. Could be better. Like this post of mine:

Glen Whitman, an associate professor of economics and co-proprietor of Agoraphilia, amply demonstrates muddleheadedness in “Perspective on Terrorism”, where he says this:

At Cato Unbound, in response to a lead essay by John Mueller, Clark Kent Ervin rejects the comparison of the death rate from terrorism to the death rates from bee stings, lightning, drowning, etc. Ervin’s argument is so unpersuasive (to me) that I think it deserves a fisking.

It is undoubtedly true that Americans are far more likely to die from “bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer” than terrorism, but so what? … This statistical argument implicitly equates deaths from bee stings, lightning or close encounters with marauding deer with deaths from terrorism.

They should be equated. It doesn’t make sense to spend a billion dollars to prevent one death by terrorism if the same billion dollars could prevent ten or a hundred deaths by other causes. Death is death. It can be sensible to give different treatment to deaths by different causes, but only if there’s some reason to think one cause of death is more easily deterred than another.

Ervin may have made his case badly, but he is right and Whitman is wrong. To see why, let’s go back to Mueller’s statement:

Although polls continue to show Americans notably concerned that they or members of their families might die at the hands of terrorists, astronomer Alan Harris has calculated that, at present rates and including the disaster of 9/11 in the consideration, the chances any individual resident of the globe will be killed by an international terrorist over the course of an 80-year lifetime is about 1 in 80,000, about the same likelihood of being killed over the same interval from the impact on the Earth of an especially ill-directed asteroid or comet. At present, Americans are vastly more likely to die from bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer than by terrorism within the country. That seems pretty safe.

That seems “pretty safe” only because the United States (and many other countries) have taken affirmative steps to detect and thwart terrorist attacks before they occur. We have seen the enemy’s successes. But we are unaware of many of his failures because it is stupid to give the enemy an inkling of how we have achieved all of our successes.

Comparing the ex post death rate from terrorism with such unpreventable and/or random events as asteroid strikes, bee stings, lightning strikes, or deer-caused accidents is a classic demonstration of academic cluelessness. Those unpreventable and/or random events will occur regardless of terrorism. Terrorism is an additional threat — not an alternative one. The worst mistake we can make is to underestimate that threat.

Now, Whitman would say that we can spend less money on the war on terror and more to prevent asteroid strikes, for example, and that we ought to determine the right balance of spending between the two activities. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but a correct determination of the balance of spending cannot be made by using probabilities of the type cited by Mueller.

Asteroids, bees, lightning, and deer — unlike terrorists — are not sentient enemies. Ignoring those “threats” will not enable them to increase their “attacks” on us; they will do what they will do, according to the “laws of nature.” Ignoring terrorists, on the other hand, certainly would enable them — and encourage them — to increase their attacks on us. The apparently low probability of being killed by a terrorist is low precisely because we have spent a lot of money to make it low.

Moreover, we must continue to spend a lot of money to keep that probability low. If we fail to do so, we will then find out what it is like to be besieged — to live lives that are markedly poorer, filled with anxiety, and isolated from that large part of the world in which Islamism will have triumphed. [“A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism“, Politics & Prosperity (originally at Liberty Corner), September 20, 2006]

Six years later:

Cato’s loony libertarians (on matters of defense) once again trot out Herr Doktor Professor John Mueller. He writes:

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists. [“Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security”, Cato@Liberty, July 24, 2012]

Mueller’s “calculation” consists of an recitation of known terrorist attacks pre-Benghazi and speculation about the status of Al-Qaeda. Note to Mueller: It is the unknown unknowns that kill you. I refer Herr Doktor Professor to “Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown” and “Mission Not Accomplished.” [“Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)“, Politics & Prosperity, October 11, 2012]

It’s no wonder that good-old boys scorn pointy-headed idiots like Wilkinson, Kristof, Cohen, Whitman, and Mueller. They are to logic as “modern” music is to music: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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