Free Markets, Free People

Are We Needlessly Scaring Ourselves To Death?

I think we many times become overwrought about things without ever really taking the time to put the threat into perspective. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight throws some numbers out there for us to consider as we assess the latest terrorist attempt. Taking the decade of October 1999 to September 2009 (stats for this month and others following September are not available yet) and even including the 9/11 attacks (TSA didn’t appear until after those) there have been six terrorist acts or attempted terrorist acts involving aircraft. Silver breaks down the numbers:

Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.

These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles flown.

Wow. Not a huge threat. I take many more chances with my life in Atlanta traffic every day. But, to put it in even better contrast, how about the old stand-by: How do my chances compare to being struck by lightning?

There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

So in answer to the title is an unqualified “yes”. That’s not to say we shouldn’t maintain an awarness on flights of idiots like this last one and do precisely what the passengers did to thwart his attack. But then we know not to stand on a hilltop in a lightning storm wrapped in copper wire too. We take proper precautions, but we don’t obsess over it.

Given these stats and what we have to go through to fly now, I’d say we’re past the obsessive stage and into the downright parnoid stage.

We do this alot anymore. Maybe it is the proliferation of mass communication which seems to magnify the significance of the story without providing any context like Silver has. Guys like this latest wannabe bomber are not a great threat to us.

We average 50 commercial crashes a decade and have since the 1950s. Yet for all those decades we happily climbed on board understanding that our real chances of being in an airline crash were really very small.  And as you can see, given those numbers, your chances of being in a non-terrorist caused crash are significantly higher than those caused by terrorism. Yet it is the “terrorist” attack over which we obsess.

Life’s a risk. We know that and risk ours everyday. We do so because we know that in reality the risk we take is very low and not doing so would limit how we lived our lives to a very mundane and boring routine. We’d hate it. And we normally pride ourselves in understanding that we must take risks to live life to the fullest.

I can’t help but think that every attempted or failed attack like this one that drives the neurotic over-reaction that follows is considered a victory by our enemies. We need to quit enabling that.


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16 Responses to Are We Needlessly Scaring Ourselves To Death?

  • Talk about victories… the terrorists got Congress to pass the Patriot Act.

  • When the stoopid regulation does NOT work, make more stoopid regulations that WILL NOT WORK.

    Part of making slaves of everyone….

    Want to start our own “Liberty” airline?

    Walk up the stairs after exiting a side door before TSA. No searches, keep your guns, pocketknives, deodorant . . .

    Think you’d have any terrorists on a flight where half the passengers are armed?


    • Think you’d have any terrorists on a flight where half the passengers are armed?

      “That’s how you prevent your hijackings and skyjackings there. All you gotta do is arm all the passengers. You just pass out pistols when they get on the plane, and you get ’em back  when they come off. ”

      And a bonus:

      I can prove VD is more dangerous than guns
      — Oh yeah? How?
      How many people want guns?
      — Too many!
      Now smart guy, how many people want VD?

  • although i agree statistically you won’t be on the plane that gets attacked by a terrorist but if you are the chances of survival are pretty low provided the attack is successful.

  • On 9/11, the other possible targets .. the White House and Congress ?
    Would they be missed if they were hit now ? ….. it 9/10 all over again.

  • On 9/11, if they had their act together a bit more and people didn’t use their better judgment to leave the building, the death toll would have been in the 10’s of thousands.  Hijacked planes are a bigger threat than to those on the plan.  In fact, if its determined control of a plane is lost, it should be shot out of the sky.
    As for the odds, well let’s put it this way.  What are the odds you’ll have a warrantless wiretap applied to you?  Bush at his height did what? a couple of thousand?  That’s 1 in 100,000 and considering those were repeats of the same suspects, I’m sure the average person’s chance of being hit with one is probably a couple of magnitudes smaller.  So what’s the big deal?  The odds of being touched by many elements of the Patriot Act are just as small.  The chances are your privacy is going to be compromised by a friend or associate exposing you than by any warrantless wiretap.
    The difference is that its someone actively doing it to you.  Someone is actively violating your rights in a way that you didn’t know and agree to up front.  And that carries a different weight.  Just like if someone actively ends your life on a plane rather than dying by dumb luck.
    And one of the reasons it carries a different weight is if someone does it too you and gets away with it, they’ll do it to you again and again with both increasing severity and frequency.
    Maybe all the things done to respond weren’t right or effective.  I can think of a bunch.  And there’s no reason not to revisit them all.  But its wishful thinking imho to believe the terrorist attack phenomena would remain a fixed negligible quantity in the face of  a nonchalant  response.

  • Although interesting your data is bad.  You speak of the airlines and deaths per ???.  The act of terrorism is not  an item in consideeration of miles flown or passengers or flights landings etc…
    The act of terrorism is totally out of the realm of whichyou speak.

  • In short, yes.  It’s sad, but true, that if someone is really determined to do harm, they likely will succeed.  Look at an airport security line and you see that the terrorists have succeeded.  They have us terrified.
    I’m all for keeping us as safe as possible, but many of our security measures are more about appearing to take steps to make us more secure, rather than actually making us more secure.

  • Just wondering, what we do when they set off the first anti-personnel bomb while people are standing in the long security screening line?

  • McQAre We Needlessly Scaring Ourselves to Death?

    I think jpm100 has a good answer:

    … [S]omeone actively doing it to you.  Someone is actively violating your rights in a way that you didn’t know and agree to up front.  And that carries a different weight.  Just like if someone actively ends your life on a plane rather than dying by dumb luck.

    And one of the reasons it carries a different weight is if someone does it too you and gets away with it, they’ll do it to you again and again with both increasing severity and frequency.

    What are the odds that any of us will be murdered?  Raped?  Robbed?  Does this mean that we shouldn’t hire police?  Build prisons?  Put locks on our doors?  Keep a 12 gauge next to the bed?

    What are the odds that our country will be invaded and occupied?  Does this mean that we shouldn’t maintain a very robust military?

    I don’t think that we are “scared to death” of terrorists.  I think that most of us understand that terrorism is a real threat that can be greatly reduced by the employment of prudent security measures that, while sometimes inconvenient, are a reasonable price to pay to have a better chance of arriving safely at one’s final destination AND stopping terrorists from having a “success” that only increases their bloodthirsty desire to try again.

    However, I think that the political class is most certainly “scared to death”… that either something bad will happen and they’ll lose their phoney-baloney jobs because of it OR that they’ll overreact and p*ss off the wrong voting block and lose their jobs because of that.  So, they enact security measures that range from the prudent (metal detectors, reinforced cockpit doors) to the ridiculous (random body searches of 80 year-old grandmothers), all in an effort to appear to be DOING SOMETHING!

    • Indeed, the horror of terrorism is much more than the fear of random death.  Normally I’m all in favor of making decisions based on actual risks.  But the problem with terrorism is that unlike car crash deaths, terrorist attacks aren’t random.  The people perpetrating these attacks are envelope-pushers: if they don’t get our attention at lower levels of catastrophe, they’ll just make them bigger until they get our attention.  Now when I see my kids starting to push the envelope, I have to bring the hammer down on them while they’re still doing minor behaviors, and make damn sure they understand that escalation will be punished even worse.  If I respond with only a proportional punishment, they figure that into their calculations of how much they can get away with.  Al-Qaeda are not children, but the principle is the same: when you have somebody pushing the envelope, they will escalate until you hold the envelope tighter than usual, and you want that point at which you crack down to be lower than your ordinary level of tolerance.

      • And yes, TSA sucks.  If I were designing a system specifically for the purpose of enhancing corruptibility, I’d scarcely do anything different.  They should, at minimum, be required to give a receipt when they confiscate your valuables, so that you can deduct it on your taxes or something.  I can’t tell you how many free “gifts” of expensive tools TSA employees got from us while my husband was traveling every other week with his tools.

  • 99 Million in ten years? NINE MILLION commercial flights EACH YEAR? 24,600 PER DAY?
    I don’t think so, unless you’re counting flights flown in the simulators.

  • Five crashes a year, including Illyushins in Doublecrossia is noted, but not a cause for alarm, unless you’re going to Doublecrossia on business. One more crash, in the US, with an otherwise reputable airline is a 20% increase in airline crashes, and being close to home, will get noticed.
    Terrorists are like assassins, you can kill them until one of them gets lucky, or you can go to the source and put a final stop to the whole thing. A policy of targeted assassinations against those fomenting this sort of thing will discourage the foot soldiers.

  • Since the chances of two bombs being on an airplane are pretty close to nil, you should always plan to bring one 🙂