A False Comparison Between Terror Deaths and Bathtub Deaths

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.

9-11 Ten Years LaterThe "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.

Deaths caused by terrorism, on the other hand, can have a profound effect on society and the economy. The deaths of ten people in bathtub accidents won't cause people to fear leaving their homes; but imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater. And imagine if it happens more than once. The economic impact could be devastating; the impact on the emotional health of parents and children would be profound. Bathtub deaths are preventable through individual action and self-awareness. The average citizen, on the other hand, is relatively helpless in the face of a car-bombing, mass shooting, or hijacking (yes, the passengers rose up on one of the four airplanes hijacked on September 11th, and they prevented mass death below, but they still died themselves).

And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights. Bathtub deaths have no such ramifications. Terrorism places terrible stress on intergroup relations; bathtub deaths do no such thing. And an effective terrorist, in this age of easy access to chemical and biological agents, could cause death on a scale much larger than 9/11. We will never see a dramatic spike in the number of bathtub drownings, but we could very well see such a spike in terror-caused deaths. Most people intuitively understand the difference between a bathtub's ability to cause mass mayhem, and a terrorist's ability to destablize society.

On the story's larger point, that much of our spending is wasteful, duplicative, and poorly-targeted, you're not going to get much of an argument from me. What is needed is better, smarter, spending, not necessarily a massive letting-down of our guard. Terrorism's capacity to affect the functioning of our society, and to fray the bonds that tie citizens together, and to cause mass-casualty events that would dwarf 9/11, makes it a unique and dangerous challenge.