The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror

When confronted by far deadlier threats, Americans are much less willing to cede freedom and privacy.

new york lights.jpg

The image is still powerful, isn't it?

So are the anger, and the memories.

Most Americans don't just remember where they were on September 11, 2001 -- they remember feeling frightened. Along with anger, that's one emotion I felt, despite watching the attacks from a different continent. That week, you couldn't have paid me to get on a plane to New York or Washington, D.C. Even today, I'm aware that terrorists target exactly the sorts of places that I frequent. I fly a lot, sometimes out of LAX. I've ridden the subway systems in London and Madrid. I visit Washington and New York several times a year. I live in Greater Los Angeles.

But like most people, I've never let fear of terrorism stop me from enjoying life's opportunities and pleasures. I wouldn't have my current job if I hadn't moved to New York for graduate school in 2005, and then to Washington a couple of years later. It isn't that I never thought, or worried, about the fact that those cities are prime targets of terrorism. Rather, my intellect got the better of my fears, something that happens every time I get on a commercial airliner and remind myself that it's far safer than making the same trip by car; or every time that I jump into the Pacific Ocean, knowing that, as terrifying as sharks are, it's unlikely I'll be killed by one.

As individuals, Americans are generally good at denying al-Qaeda the pleasure of terrorizing us into submission. Our cities are bustling; our subways are packed every rush hour; there doesn't seem to be an empty seat on any flight I'm ever on. But as a collective, irrational cowardice is getting the better of our polity. Terrorism isn't something we're ceding liberty to fight because the threat is especially dire compared to other dangers of the modern world. All sorts of things kill us in far greater numbers. Rather, like airplane crashes and shark attacks, acts of terror are scarier than most causes of death. The seeming contradictions in how we treat different threats suggest that we aren't trading civil liberties for security, but a sense of security. We aren't empowering the national-security state so that we're safer, but so we feel safer.

Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism. But consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack -- by far the biggest in its history -- roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S.

Let's put that in context. That same year in the United States:

  • 71,372 died of diabetes.
  • 13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.

That's what things looked like at the all-time peak for deaths by terrorism. Now let's take a longer view. We'll choose an interval that still includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history: 1999 to 2010.

Again, terrorists killed roughly 3,000 people in the United States. And in that interval,

  • roughly 360,000 were killed by guns (actually, the figure the CDC gives is 364,483 -- in other words, by rounding, I just elided more gun deaths than there were total terrorism deaths).
  • roughly 150,000 were killed in drunk-driving accidents.
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Measured in lives lost, during an interval that includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history, guns posed a threat to American lives that was more than 100 times greater than the threat of terrorism. Over the same interval, drunk driving threatened our safety 50 times more than terrorism.

Those aren't the only threats many times more deadly than terrorism, either.

The CDC estimates that food poisoning kills roughly 3,000 Americans every year. Every year, food-borne illness takes as many lives in the U.S. as were lost during the high outlier of terrorism deaths. It's a killer more deadly than terrorism. Should we cede a significant amount of liberty to fight it?

Government officials, much of the media, and most American citizens talk about terrorism as if they're totally oblivious to this context -- as if it is different than all other threats we face, in both kind and degree. Since The Guardian and other news outlets started revealing the scope of the surveillance state last week, numerous commentators and government officials, including President Obama himself, have talked about the need to properly "balance" liberty and security.

The U.S. should certainly try to prevent terrorist attacks, and there is a lot that government can and has done since 9/11 to improve security in ways that are totally unobjectionable. But it is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute. In 2011*, 32,367 Americans died in traffic fatalities. Terrorism killed 17 U.S. civilians that year. How many Americans feared dying in their vehicles more than dying in a terrorist attack?

Certainly not me! I irrationally find terrorism far scarier than the sober incompetents and irresponsible drunks who surround my vehicle every time I take a carefree trip down a Los Angeles freeway. The idea that the government could keep me safe from terrorism is very emotionally appealing.

But intellectually, I know two things: 

  1. America has preserved liberty and privacy in the face of threats far greater than terrorism has so far posed (based on the number of people actually killed in terrorist attacks), and we've been better off for it.
  2. Ceding liberty and privacy to keep myself safe from terrorism doesn't even guarantee that I'll be safer! It's possible that the surveillance state will prove invasive and ineffective. Or that giving the state so much latitude to exercise extreme power in secret will itself threaten my safety

I understand, as well as anyone, that terrorism is scary. But it's time to stop reacting to it with our guts, and to start reacting with our brains, not just when we're deciding to vacation in Washington or New York, but also when we're making policy together as free citizens. Civil libertarians are not demanding foolish or unreasonable courage when they suggest that the threat of terrorism isn't so great as to warrant massive spying on innocent Americans and the creation of a permanent database that practically guarantees eventual abuse.

Americans would never welcome a secret surveillance state to reduce diabetes deaths, or gun deaths, or drunk-driving deaths by 3,000 per year. Indeed, Congress regularly votes down far less invasive policies meant to address those problems because they offend our notions of liberty. So what sense does it make to suggest, as Obama does, that "balancing" liberty with safety from terrorism -- which kills far fewer than 3,000 Americans annually -- compels those same invasive methods to be granted, in secret, as long as terrorists are plotting?

That only makes sense if the policy is aimed at lessening not just at wrongful deaths, but also exaggerated fears and emotions**. Hence my refusal to go along. Do you know what scares me more than terrorism? A polity that reacts to fear by ceding more autonomy and power to its secret police.


* Said Ronald Bailey in a piece published in September of 2011, "a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist."

** Everything in this article would be just as true if I published it and you read it the day after the Boston bombing -- but it sure would feel less true, wouldn't it? That's why, if there's a terrorist attack today or tomorrow, it would be foolish for us to react based on our feeling at that moment.