The Samovar


Terrorism: Hysteria, Control, Profit
June 15, 2007, 2:38 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Manifesto, Media, Politics, Risk, Security, Security Theater, Terrorism

We shouldn’t be afraid of terrorism.

This is something I have written about before, but never really set out my reasons in detail.

We shouldn’t be afraid

John Mueller summarises:

… the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, until 2001 far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning. And except for 2001, virtually none of these terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Indeed, outside of 2001, fewer people have died in America from international terrorism than have drowned in toilets.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, however, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the U.S. State Department began its accounting) is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning—or by accident-causing deer or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. In almost all years the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

Mueller plots this data (colours added by me to make it look better in the tiny picture):

terrorism-graph.jpg

There is a massive spike in 2001 as a consequence of the WTC attacks. Data after 2003 is slightly more difficult to come by because after 2001 the methods of collecting terrorism data changed, and some claim that they were inflated. The NCST give this shiny graph of monthly fatalities from terrorist attacks from 1998 to 2004:

fatalities98-04.jpg

The MIPT data gives this for worldwide annual terrorism fatalities 2000-2006:

fatalities00-04-mipt.jpg

For the US and Western Europe only, they give this data (I’ve not included the roughly 3000 WTC attack deaths in 2001 so that the scale of the graph is right and you can see the detail more clearly) for 1968-2007:

deathsuseurope-notwtc.jpg

The graphs indicate that terrorism is on the rise, but even taking the most pessimistic view of things the numbers are still microscopic on a global or even national scale. For comparison, in the US there are 40,000 road deaths a year, in the UK there are 3000 a year.

The upshot of all this is that based on the evidence of what has happened so far, the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is negligible. If you want to worry about being killed by something, terrorism should be one of the last things on your list.

But what if things got much worse?

It’s possible that terrorist actions could get worse in three ways:

  1. they could become much more frequent
  2. they could get much more effective
  3. they could get hold of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons

The first scenario seems to be unlikely. Terrorist attacks are actually quite easy to pull off, and yet there aren’t very many. In America, you can buy high powered guns legally. All a terrorist would have to do is buy one and go crazy in a shopping mall. If you had a large number of potential terrorists, this would be a highly effective strategy but it hasn’t happened. This suggests that the number of willing would-be terrorists is actually fairly small, or that they are generally incompetent. There’s also no particular reason to think that attacks should become much more frequent than they are. The Iraq war has certainly done a lot to increase the number of terrorist attacks worldwide, but even doubling and tripling these numbers leaves the danger tiny.

The second scenario also seems unlikely to bring any great change. Increased numbers of terrorists might mean an increase in expertise and so an increase in effectiveness, but on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, this wouldn’t make an enormous difference. The largest and most effective terrorist attack ever was the WTC attack which killed some 3000 people, but far from being an indication of a new and more effective terrorism, it was more likely a freak event that was much more effective than expected. In a video released in December 2001 (although not everyone believes it is genuine), Osama bin Laden says:

(…Inaudible…) we calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. (…Inaudible…) due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.

In other words, what they expected to achieve with the attack was a tiny fraction of what they actually managed to achieve. That said, it could also have been much worse than it was if more people had been in the buildings for example. Along these lines, it might happen that at some point in the future another terrorist plot happens to succeed as well or better than this. It’s unlikely, but even if it did happen, it still probably wouldn’t make an awful lot of difference. To put it in perspective, a disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to happen once a month before the number of deaths was the same as the number who die in car accidents every year in the US.

So the only possible scenario we really need to worry about is that terrorists might get hold of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. This is not something I know anything about, so here I’ll just quote Mueller:

Chemical arms do have the potential, under appropriate circumstances, for panicking people; killing masses of them in open areas, however, is beyond their modest capabilities… Biologist Matthew Meselson calculates that it would take a ton of nerve gas or five tons of mustard gas to produce heavy casualties among unprotected people in an open area of one square kilometer. Even for nerve gas this would take the concentrated delivery into a rather small area of about three hundred heavy artillery shells or seven 500-pound bombs. A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin nerve gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people could cause between three thousand and eight thousand deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there was a moderate wind or if the sun was out, for example—the death rate would be only one-tenth as great. Although gas was used extensively in World War I, it accounted for less than 1 percent of the battle deaths. In fact, on average it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.

Properly developed and deployed, biological weapons could indeed (if thus far only in theory) kill hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—of people. The discussion remains theoretical because biological weapons have scarcely ever been used. Belligerents have eschewed such weapons with good reason: biological weapons are extremely difficult to deploy and to control. Terrorist groups or rogue states may be able to solve such problems in the future with advances in technology and knowledge, but the record thus far is unlikely to be very encouraging to them. In the 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that had some three hundred scientists in its employ and an estimated budget of $1 billion, reportedly tried at least nine times over five years to set off biological weapons by spraying pathogens from trucks and wafting them from rooftops, hoping fancifully to ignite an apocalyptic war. These efforts failed to create a single fatality—in fact, nobody even noticed that the attacks had taken place. For the most destructive results, biological weapons need to be dispersed in very low-altitude aerosol clouds: aerosols do not appreciably settle, and anthrax (which is not easy to spread or catch and is not contagious) would probably have to be sprayed near nose level. Explosive methods of dispersion may destroy the organisms. Moreover, except for anthrax spores, long-term storage of lethal organisms in bombs or warheads is difficult and, even if refrigerated, most of the organisms have a limited lifetime.

Nuclear weapons, most decidedly, can indeed inflict massive destruction, and it is certainly reasonable to point out that an atomic bomb in the hands of a terrorist or rogue state could kill tens of thousands of people. But it may also be worthwhile to note that making such a bomb is an extraordinarily difficult task and that warnings about the possibility that small groups, terrorists, and errant states could fabricate nuclear weapons have been repeatedly uttered at least since 1947, and especially since the 1950s when the ‘‘suitcase bomb’’ appeared to become a practical possibility. It has now been three decades since terrorism specialist Brian Jenkins published his warnings that ‘‘the mass production and widespread distribution of increasingly sophisticated and increasingly powerful man-portable weapons will greatly add to the terrorist’s arsenal’’ and that ‘‘the world’s increasing dependence on nuclear power may provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.’’

So why does nobody say this?

Some people have said this sort of thing, but not many and rarely people in prominent public positions. The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently got in trouble when he said:

There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.

US Senator John McCain wrote:

Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. . . Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?

So why is the perception of the terrorist threat so out of proportion to the real threat?

Well, one reason is that we’re very bad at estimating risk. We tend to overestimate the significance of dramatic and unusual events. News reporting multiplies this effect, because by its very nature it reports the news, the unusual, not the run of the mill risks we face every day which are actually much more significant. This begins to explain it, but it doesn’t really excuse our ignorance. Terrorism has been a major world issue for almost 6 years now, plenty of time for a more realistic view to have gained acceptance.

There are all sorts of reasons why it might not have, but the one I want to focus on is that it isn’t in the interests of anyone who might have been able to lower the perception of the terror threat to have done so.

The media aren’t exactly in the business of making things sound less dramatic and exciting than they really are. It is in their interests to exaggerate the threat. Perhaps more importantly than that, it is certainly not in their interests to portray the threat rationally and calmly. How boring would that be?

Similarly, politicians have much to gain from exaggerating the threat, and much to potentially lose by being reasonable about it. If they told everyone that everything was OK and they needn’t worry, what would the reaction be next time there was a terrorist strike? It wouldn’t matter if there were only a few casualties, fitting the general prediction that terrorist attacks will occur but won’t add up to anything like the number killed by everyday threats like cars and bathtubs, they would immediately be ridiculed and voted out. Not only that, but in the immediate aftermath of an attack, doing nothing is simply not a politically viable option, even if it is actually the least worst one. Actually, I’m not at all convinced that this need be so, but being reasonable about the threat, for a politician, is decidedly the more personally difficult and risky approach.

Politicians also rely on their advisers considerably, and these advisers are typically unelected and have much to gain from the increased control that the threat of terrorism can buy. Increased powers make the job of the police easier. Huge databases on us make the jobs of civil servants easier. Increased funding makes the jobs of the secret services easier. They have everything to gain from exaggerating the threat, and the politicians listen to what they say.

Finally, there is a whole sector of the economy that produces technology for fighting the ‘war on terror’. Billions of pounds are spent on this technology, and so the companies involved have very good reason, and ample resources to spend on lobbying and exaggerating the threat.

A word on policy

Most of what the government does in response to terrorism is actually ineffective or even counterproductive. Not only are they wasting billions on this and destroying civil liberties that define the nature of our society, but they might even be making us less safe.

A couple of examples of this. In the few months after 9/11, many people in the US would drive around the country instead of taking internal flights. As a consequence, it was estimated that 1000 more people died in traffic accidents than normal for that period of time. Bad advice to avoid planes and our inability to assess risks accurately cost 1000 lives, more than a third of the death toll of 9/11 itself.

After the Tube attacks in London, a policy of random searches of bags was instituted on the New York subway. On an average day, there are 4m journeys on the NY subway, so the chance of catching a terrorist if there were one (and there hasn’t been one yet) would be tiny. Could those police officers have been used more effectively in fighting ordinary crime? Nobody has done the calculations, but it seems likely.

Some have argued that although these measures are strictly speaking quite ineffective, they might have a deterrent effect. Terrorists might be put off from trying to blow us up because of the danger of getting caught. But is this really a sustainable point of view? Someone who is willing to blow themselves up in killing a few people would be put off by a tiny chance of having their bag searched? What would they have to lose? Even if their bag was searched, they could set off their bomb as the police officer approached.

What about the extreme risks associated to, say, a nuclear terrorist attack. Surely it’s worth doing anything we can to avoid that? The thing is, for new laws and powers to be effective, two things would both have to happen. Firstly, the terrorists would have to have the expertise and materials in the right place to pull of a nuclear attack that worked. That’s unlikely, as we’ve already seen. On top of that, the police would have to be able to stop this plot using the new powers, but not using the old powers. Bruce Schneier claims that in all cases of foiled terrorist plots so far, they were foiled using traditional methods of investigation rather than new anti-terror powers. Most of the time both of these things aren’t going to happen – either the terrorists wouldn’t be able to pull off the nuclear attack, or the police would have been able to foil the plot using the powers they already had.

Let’s think about some numbers. There’s no way of working out these probabilities exactly, so these numbers are just to give an idea. Suppose there’s a 1 in 100 chance that the terrorists had the materials and expertise to pull off a terrorist attack, and that there’s a 1 in 100 better chance that the police can stop it with the extra powers. This would mean that these powers would be effective only 1 in 10,000 times. If the chances were both 1 in 10 rather than 1 in 100, the new powers would be effective only 1 in 100 times.

The point is that when we’re thinking about whether or not to pass new laws or grant new powers to the police, we shouldn’t be thinking that these laws will stop a nuclear attack therefore they are justified even though they’re extreme, we should be thinking that these new laws might help to stop a relatively unlikely terrorist attack that might have been stopped anyway.

Is that worth undermining the nature of our society for?

Absolutely not.

(Note: this entry was edited slightly from the original posting to improve the last section, but no substantive changes were made.)

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6 Comments

To put the 2001 spike in context, it’s worth looking at the civilian casualty wildly for Operation Just Cause:

A U.S.-based independent Commission of Inquiry, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, estimated more than three thousand Panamanian civilian casualties.

The numbers are disputed. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_invasion_of_Panama

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I came across a minor example of the way Fear Of Terrorism has affected our lives the other day.

I’ve been commuting by train. Hurrying though the station barrier on the way home the other night, I produced the wrong ticket for inspection. The inspector gave me a minor ticking off for not having thrown it away. I pointed out that railway stations used to have litter bins. In the mid 90’s, the IRA undertoom a campaign of placing small incendiary devices in bins a few London streets (They also put in many more hoax calls. Eventually the police started calling their bluff). As a precaution, litter bins were ‘temporarily’ removed from all railway stations. The Good Friday Agreement is nearly ten years old. We’ve not got our bins back yet.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Funnily enough I was thinking about bins on the trains the other day because they have them here in France.

On the pointlessness of fear of terrorism – I have an upcoming entry about my experience with the Israeli airport security. Sneak preview: it’s frustrating and ineffective.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar




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