Via Mike Allen, a Los Angeles Times story raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of post 9/11 homeland security spending, but falls short but failing to question what has become a standard argument used by those who oppose heightened, and therefore more costly, security measures: the specious, "More people are killed by (fill-in-the-blank) than by terrorists, so why do we worry so much about terrorism?" argument.
The "fill-in-the-blank" in the LAT story is bathtub death, but I've also seen pool drownings, kitchen accidents, and gardening mishaps used to make the case that we overreact -- and overspend -- when protecting ourselves from terrorism. The story frames the question this way:
A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and state governments are spending about $75 billion a year on domestic security, setting up sophisticated radio networks, upgrading emergency medical response equipment, installing surveillance cameras and bombproof walls, and outfitting airport screeners to detect an ever-evolving list of mobile explosives.
But how effective has that 10-year spending spree been?
"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.
"So if your chance of being killed by a terrorist in the United States is 1 in 3.5 million, the question is, how much do you want to spend to get that down to 1 in 4.5 million?" he said.
But Mueller's thesis fails to recognize is that a bathtub death is in most ways not equivalent in impact to a death caused by terrorists. The death of someone in a bathtub accident is obviously a terrible tragedy for that person's family and friends. But unlike a death caused by terrorism, a bathtub death has few, if any, political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications. In other words, a spate of bathtub deaths might cause state and federal governments to seek stronger regulation of bathtub manufacturers, and the bathtub industry might be forced to design safety features whose cost might be passed on to the consumer. But that's about it.