Free Markets, Free People
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.
Or am I?
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that the thwarting of the attempt to blow up an Amsterdam-Detroit airline flight Christmas Day demonstrated that “the system worked.”
Asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley on “State of the Union” how that could be possible when the young Nigerian who has been charged with trying to set off the bomb was able to smuggle explosive liquid onto the jet, Napolitano responded: “We’re asking the same questions.”
Napolitano added that there was “no suggestion that [the suspect] was improperly screened.”
Apparently he was screened exactly as he should have been according to TSA guidelines. Yet he got on the aircraft with explosive underwear.
The only reason the flight wasn’t blown out of the sky is he had a faulty detonator. And, as with the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, it took other passengers to subdue him.
So what part of the system worked?
Oh yeah, the “let’s overreact and make stupid new rules” part:
Among other steps being imposed, passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item aboard the plane, and domestic passengers will probably face longer security lines.
The restrictions will again change the routine of air travel, which has undergone an upheaval since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001 and three attempts at air terrorism since then.
As James Joyner notes, since 2001 there have been 3 attempts in tens of thousands of flights and our reaction is to make flight even more miserable than it already is for little if any security gain. Radley Balko points out:
In addition to keeping with its usually tradition of making policy on a reactionary basis, this one wouldn’t even have done anything to prevent the attempt over the weekend. The guy was in his seat when he tried to light the explosive device. And the passenger who confronted him got out of his seat to do it.
Ah, but that doesn’t matter. Our new rules will “ensure” that no aircraft inbound to the US will be blown out of the sky in the last hour. No word on what might happen the preceding 2 to 14 hours (depending on the origination of the filght) prior to that.
The last word from Balko:
For all the crap they put us through, this guy still got some sort of explosive material on the plane from Amsterdam. He was stopped by law-abiding passengers. So TSA responds to all of this by . . . announcing plans to hassle law-abiding U.S. passengers even more.
That is all that has “worked” in “the system”.