Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 12, 2010

“6,700 Americans will die today”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on January 12, 2010

An outstanding column by University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.

The entire article is worth reading.  Here’s an excerpt:

It might be unrealistic to expect the average citizen to have a nuanced grasp of statistically based risk analysis, but there is nothing nuanced about two basic facts:

(1) America is a country of 310 million people, in which thousands of horrible things happen every single day; and

(2) The chances that one of those horrible things will be that you’re subjected to a terrorist attack can, for all practical purposes, be calculated as zero.

Consider that on this very day about 6,700 Americans will die. …

Consider then that around 1,900 of the Americans who die today will be less than 65, and that indeed about 140 will be children. Approximately 50 Americans will be murdered today, including several women killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and several children who will die from abuse and neglect. Around 85 of us will commit suicide, and another 120 will die in traffic accidents.

No amount of statistical evidence, however, will make any difference to those who give themselves over to almost completely irrational fears. Such people, and there are apparently a lot of them in America right now, are in fact real victims of terrorism. They also make possible the current ascendancy of the politics of cowardice—the cynical exploitation of fear for political gain.

Unfortunately, the politics of cowardice can also make it rational to spend otherwise irrational amounts of resources on further minimizing already minimal risks. Given the current climate of fear, any terrorist incident involving Islamic radicals generates huge social costs, so it may make more economic sense, in the short term, to spend X dollars to avoid 10 deaths caused by terrorism than it does to spend X dollars to avoid 1,000 ordinary homicides. Any long-term acceptance of such trade-offs hands terrorists the only real victory they can ever achieve….


After spending hundreds of billions of dollars and imprisoning millions of people, it’s slowly beginning to become possible for some politicians to admit that fighting a necessarily endless drug war in pursuit of an impossible goal might be a bad idea. How long will it take to admit that an endless war on terror, dedicated to making America a terror-free nation, is equally nonsensical?

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 12, 2010 @ 11:38 am

I disagree that “it is unrealistic to expect the average citizen to have a nuanced grasp of statistically based risk analysis.” In recent conversations with a broad range of Americans there is a signficant readiness to recognize that,

1. The successful bombing of Northwest Airlines 253 would have been much less than a catastrophic event; and

2. A serious effort to secure a public transportation system from any and all attacks is, probably, going to have troubling economic and social consequences; and

3. It is often better to recognize and accept risk than to deny or attempt to eliminate risk.

But while the vast majority of Americans may be so-inclined, this will not be reflected in media coverage of this or any future attack. Rather,the media coverage will amplify both the fears of a vocal minority and the political consequences of a more “nuanced” strategic position.

The media benefits from keeping us focused on shadows flickering across the back of the cave. They often create the shadows. I sometimes think the media — both mainstream and otherwise — is so motivated to the shadows that they are consciously or not building a bonfire between us and the pathway up and into the sunlight.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 12, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

Well Phil’s comment certainly nails the fact that risk assessment and risk reduction is not a strength of the MSM. But it also is a good reminder from Chris that the average citizen if interested can do the math and calculate the odds. Personally, with over 40,000 unnecessary medical treatment deaths a year occurring it amazes me how much faith Americans have in the fact that the medical profession can fix whatever. But hey again part of the Homeland Security mission is deterrance of those whose thinking tends towards terrorism and related activity. The system will never be a 100% safety net and Chris’ post indicates that reality. My problem is that neither Homeland Security or any government program is driven by rationale based on risk analysis or science or engineering but more by corruption of the process by those who would benefit financially. One example, have various screening technologies been assessed by the National Academy of Engineering or have they just been picked out of a hat by highranking personnel without adequate study in DHS and Congress. Everyone tells me that it is explosives not weapons that is the real issue in screening and sniffer and puffer technology is even better than whole body scans. What do I know? Please list all studies done by DHS on qualitative rankings of various screening technology? And is the S&T Directorate doing any work on Screening or is it just left to TSA to struggle with the technological aspects of Screening? By what I have read most of the screeners now in use are defective from manufacturing process or utilization! Does it make a difference? No not really. And by the way did not the Homeland Security Act of 2002 create a HARPA to match DARPA in DOD? I understand DARPA will be entering a new facility built on the old Bob Peck Chevy site in Ballston in Arlington? Maybe co-location?

Comment by Pat Longstaff

January 12, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

So, Phil, (and other interested readers) let’s put together a conference for media types and bring this iisue out into the open.

Comment by christopher tingus

January 12, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

I do concur w Pat that her suggested conference would result in a worthy discussion for such ideas to be shared….to understand realty.

When and where?

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 13, 2010 @ 1:42 am

Whatever the risk assessment process by individuals and governments it appears that the inability to perform skillfully such risk assessment is now driving certain government actions such as diversion of Project Bioshield funds to other types of preparedness. The lack of transparency of this administration behind such significant shifts–it looks like more of an effort to spend authorized and appropriated funds as opposed to dealing with difficult so called “wicked Problems” keeps interested persons from judging just how big the failures are in the federal government to do risk assessment. By the way the British government believes by its actions far and away, and is getting population and health preparedness up to speed, that Bioterrorism is the real future threat given all factors including costs, production, dessimination of pathogens. Swine Flu ops are being closely monitored in Great Britain for implications for bioterrorism preparedness. The British not only had no vaccine production problems, unlike US, and no distribution problems, unlike US, and no utilization problem, unlike US, but seem to really have grabbed the bull by the horns on public health. This effort makes meaningless much of what is occurring in health care reform which is driven by greed and other factors in US not public health needs. Another cold dose of reality for US in the making!

Comment by james

January 13, 2010 @ 4:52 am

Paul Campos doesn’t seem to understand that if the “War on Terror” where called off tomorrow thousands and thousands of Americans would die before the first quarter of 2010 was out. That is to say nothing of the economic cost of the inevitable attacks. Any honest discussion about the “War on Terror” should start with the fact that almost every day we are killing and capturing people who are planning attacks on America. Given breathing room and access to resources these people will kill Americans. This is an indisputable fact.
No coalition forces are dieing in Afghanistan in vain.
Lets move beyond calls to pull out of Afghanistan or end the “War on Terror”, and start talking about what we can do in addition to, not instead of, capturing and killing the people who would kill innocent citizens of coalition countries.

Comment by Ranger11

January 14, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

So……there is a fire-station in Osawatame, Kansas that has never had a fire alarm. This is in 100 years of existence.

There is a Police Station in a similar small town or county in Anywhere, USA where no crime has occurred in over 20 years.

Should we remove these entities from their posts? Or….are they there for purposes of making the citizens feel safe and to deter the possibility of crime.

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