Monday, July 4, 2016

How Scared Should We Be of a Terrorist Attack on American Soil?

September 11, 2001 made its imprint on the psyche of the American people. It's why the American people have had the pleasure of experiencing the Patriot Act, a metadata-collecting NSA, fighting two wars in the Middle East, a Terrorist Screening Database, and a Transportation Security Administration that makes traveling by plane all the more intolerable. It also shifted how we view that argument between security and liberty. More recently, we have heard about ISIS on the news and other terrorist attacks throughout the world. All of the aforementioned events have also shaped how we view patriotism. Unfortunately, the fear caused by terrorism has shifted patriotism in a mentality of "either you're with us or against us." It makes me wonder if we are truly safer, and even if we are, does it matter if the end result is fear? If we end up being more fearful as a result, then the terrorists truly have won. Given that 49 percent of Americans are worried that a loved one would be a victim in a terrorist attack, I do have to wonder just how much "the terrorists have won." This brings me to another enthralling question: just how much should we be fearful? Another way of framing the question: what is the probability of the terrorism taking place on American soil?

Much like with public policy in general, prevalence plays an important role in whether we should pursue public policy. If it is a solution with a problem, much like with transgender bathroom bans, then the answer is clear cut. If the problem is highly infrequent, we still need to answer whether the magnitude of the highly infrequent occurrence justifies an intrusive public policy. According to the Global Terrorism Database from the University of Maryland, 124 individuals have died in terrorist attacks on American soil since 9-11, and this includes the attacks in San Bernardino and Fort Hood. On average, that is a little over 8 people dying from terrorist attacks every year. The number of terrorist attacks on American soil has actually dropped since 1970 (see below). If we need to put these numbers in further perspective, depending on the year, an American is about as likely to die from being struck by lighting or as likely to be crushed to death by a television as they are to die in a terrorist attack. When looking at causes of death, Americans are much more likely to be killed by their own habits related to diet, exercise, smoking, or alcohol, much of which is preventable with a healthy lifestyle.

And what about those terrorist plans that were thwarted? According to the Heritage Foundation, there were 64 plots foiled since 9/11. Let's assume that these plots were not foiled, and let's assume that each hypothetical plot took a wildly liberal estimate of 100 American lives. That totals to around 6,400 American lives in the past fifteen years. While any life taken is unfortunate, the amount still is but a fraction of the number of people who die from car accidents or gun suicides on an annual basis.

Why don't we put the costs into perspective? The United States government has spent about $100 billion a year on counter-terrorism initiatives, which comes to about $1.5 trillion spent since 9/11. Let's take the Environmental Protection Agency's estimation that the actuarial cost of a human life is $9.1 million. And since the $9.1 million figure is in 2011 dollars, why don't we adjust for inflation and make that $9.72 million? That means that the cost of preventing that death toll of 6,400 lives should have been $60.26 billion. The fact that we spent $1.5 trillion on counter-terrorism measures means that we overspent by about $1.4 trillion!

Keep in mind that I am not saying that we should take measures to prevent such attacks, but that when we do, we should do so in a way where the benefits exceed the costs. The sad truth is that terrorist attacks will happen for years to come. The silver lining is that dying from such attacks is highly improbable. Terrorist attacks are scary because they are designed to create fear. Those who commit these acts of terror want us to be scared. If we give into that fear, the terrorists do win. The best thing we can do on the Fourth of July, and indeed, every day? Live our lives. Show that freedom, love, happiness, tolerance, and democracy trump hate, fear, and terror. If we conduct our lives in that manner, the terrorists lose.

Happy Fourth of July!

July 15, 2016 Addendum: Heritage Foundation released updated statistics on terrorist attacks. According to the numbers they just released, the number of terrorist attacks is now at 89 attacks since 9-11. Even with this upward revision, that means that only $86.51 billion should have been spent, which still means we overspent by about $1.4 trillion.

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