Our Risks from Terrorists

“’The free movement of good people also means the free movement of bad people. Expect Schengen to dominate the EU debate next year,’ Nigel Farage, a leading British anti-E.U. campaigner, wrote on Twitter, referring to the area that allows for border-free travel in most of the European Union.” Washington Post /2016/12/23/

Fear of terrorists may destroy the EU or limit some of its finer features. In addition, government measures to protect us from terrorists often restrict our privacy and potentially our freedom from government interference with our lives. How should we determine the best balance between freedom and security when confronting terrorist threats? Answering that important question should start with putting the risk of death from terrorist attacks in broader perspective.

From 2001 to 2014, 3,043 people were killed on U.S. soil as the result of acts of terrorism. Almost all of them (2,990) died on 9/11/2001. An additional 369 Americans have died from terrorist acts abroad (excluding Afghanistan and Iraq) for a total of 3,412 souls. This is a terrible loss but should be seen in the perspective of other risks we face and accept.

Over this same period 440,095 died on American soil from guns. Put differently, for every person killed on American soil by terrorists, 1,049 were killed with guns.

Over the same period 534,137 people died in car accidents in the U.S. The good news is that deaths from car accidents have been steadily declining over this period, falling by 22%. Since its peak of 53,543 in 1969 deaths on American highways have falling by 39% . Given that automobile accidents are caused almost totally by human error, the expanding use of driverless cars will cause this figure to plummet.

Poisoning (drug overdoses) comes in second as the cause of deaths in the U.S. with around 39,000 deaths annually in recent years.

Falling kills around 25,000 people annually in the U.S. Most of these falls occur in the home. Two thousand seven hundred people die in fires annually and 2,500 choke to death per year while eating.

We rightly take practical measures to reduce all of these sources of unnatural death. Measures that pass the cost/benefit ratio test differ for each cause of death. In the case of guns, the right to bear arms is balanced with various approaches to regulating that right. Taking account of the use of guns for self-defense (as opposed to hunting), it is not obvious whether wider gun ownership increases or reduces public safety. No one has proposed outlawing cars.

Preventing terrorist attacks is devilishly hard. Attempting to guess who might commit a terrorist act (particularly in cases of isolated individuals who perform these acts alone – so called lone wolfs) aside from being basically impossible, can be extremely expensive with significant risks to our privacy and freedom as we have seen. I will not attempt to advise on how best to deal with the threat of terrorism. Rather, I want to stress how tiny the risk of a terrorist death is in both absolute terms and relative to all of the other accidental deaths we face. You are more than 100 times as likely to choke to death as to be killed by a terrorist and no one is proposing that we stop eating (which would also be fatal). Nor should we significantly restrict the freedom of movement in the world. We should not overly put our privacy at risk or significantly change our life styles and public policies in order to try to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 2003 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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