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Why We Shouldn’t Exaggerate the Scale of Terrorism

John Mueller

Whenever terrorism
is being reported on, some effort should be made to put the issue
in context. It only takes a few words: Since 1970, an
American’s chance of being killed by
a terrorist
in the U.S. is one in four million per year. Since
September 11, 2001, it is one in 50 million per year.
But it
almost never happens. Instead, there is a strong tendency to
inflate the dangers
presented by, and the capacities of, the terrorists who may be
lurking out there.

There is a strong
tendency to inflate the dangers presented by, and the capacities
of, the terrorists who may be lurking out there.

In the years since 9/11, jihadist terrorists have managed to
kill about six people a year within the United States —
including the recent
atrocity in Manhattan
. These
deaths
are tragedies, no doubt. But some comparisons are
warranted: lightning kills about 46 people a year, deer-caused car
accidents another 150 and drownings in bathtubs around 300. While
violence from terrorism presents a
concern for the United States, the scope of the hazard is so
limited that it is a considerable stretch to even label it a
“threat.”

“We can’t have another 9/11” remains a
conversation-stopper, though that event remains an extreme outlier:
scarcely has any terrorist deed before or since visited even
one-tenth as much destruction, even in war zones. It is possible to
argue that the damage committed by jihadists since 9/11 is so low
because “American defensive measures are working,” as
national security analyst Peter Bergen has put it.
These measures should be given some credit, but it is not clear that
they have made a great deal of difference.

It is certainly possible that a few of those in plots that have
been foiled would have been able to get their acts together and
actually do something. But while our extensive and very costly
security measures may have taken some targets off the list for most
terrorists — commercial airliners and military bases, for
example — no dedicated would-be terrorist should have much
difficulty finding other potential targets if the goal is to kill
people or destroy property to make a statement. The country is
filled with them, and the attack in Manhattan showed this to be
unfortunately and irremediably true. Even still, the capacities of
would-be terrorists
in the U.S. are singularly unimpressive. As RAND’s Brian
Jenkins concludes:
“Their numbers remain small, their determination limp, and
their competence poor.”

As we mourn the lives lost — and sort through our fears
after acts intended to inspire them — we must also remind
ourselves that it was an exceedingly rare event.

I once asked a man at the National Institutes of Health how much
he would pay to eliminate a disease that killed six people a year.
He looked at me as if I’d lost my senses.

a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a political scientist at
Ohio State University, is the author of Overblown, Atomic Obsession and, with Mark Stewart, Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism and
Are We Safe Enough?