We will always have terrorists

The cancer of ISIS is metastasizing. As it losses its caliphate in the Levant, it is being reborn here and there across the globe. We will always have it or its successors or something like it, in the same way that we have always had gangs, mafia, murderers, and thieves. We can and should minimize their number and the damage they do but we will never eliminate them. The real issue is determining where we want the balance between freedom and security.

There are many reasons for the eternal existence of criminals and their crimes but one is that we are unwilling to create the police state and its repressive and intrusive measures that would be needed to eradicate them totally. In short, we prefer to live relatively free and accept some risks of terrorist acts relative to a safer alternative with significantly curtained freedom. As we evaluate government policies to protect us from terrorists, it is worth reviewing and keeping in mind where we have drawn the line between the risks of freedom and the restraints of greater and greater degrees of security. The line is always under review and adjusted a bit this way or that depending on conditions.

Some data from the U.S. helps us keep perspective. Over the past twelve months in the U.S. 104 people were killed by terrorists, 6 of whom were killed at the hands of Islamists. In comparison, 37,461 people died in automobile accidents in 2016. In response to the risk of death on the highway we regulate the right to drive, requiring a license, and enforce speed and other traffic regulations but we have not prevented people who qualify for a license from taking the risks of driving. A year ago I shared some interesting data on the causes of unnatural deaths in the U.S. in the following blog: https://wordpress.com/post/wcoats.blog/1025

On average 2,500 people choke to death per year while eating, yet the activity remains relatively unregulated.

Protection from terrorists

My heart goes out to those in London who died at the hands of the British born citizen, Adrian Russell Elms, now going by the name of Khalid Masood. May Keith Palmer, Leslie Rhodes, Kurt Cochran, and Aysha Frade rest in peace. Whether he was a terrorist or a mentally disturbed citizen, he inflicted terror. How should we react?

Like health care reform, some topics never seem to go away. Indeed, striking the right balance between freedom and security is and should be under constant review. However, some approaches should be rejected out of hand. Trump’s travel ban would not have helped (hopefully it will never be implemented). In fact, his disgraceful gesture is a political stunt that does harm if anything at all. His rumored ban on carrying laptops and tablets in the cabins of flights from ten Middle Eastern and North African (predominantly Muslim) cities, while the same items may be checked and thus carried in the hull of the same plane is incomprehensible (other than as a protectionist measure, as only non American carriers fly from these cities). Beyond jeopardizing the cooperation we need from these countries to more effectively combat terrorism, these two measures are hurting our tourism and “jobs in America.”

Reasonable measures should be taken to detect and deter organized terrorist undertakings, without undermining our privacy and freedom of movement. But most attacks since 9/11 have been by lone wolves who didn’t have any actual contact with terrorist organizations. Anyone can decide to drive their car or truck into a crowd as was done in France, Germany and now England. No one in their right mind would suggest extending a travel ban to all road travel in the U.S. as a way of keeping us safe. U.S. traffic deaths have fallen significantly from 54,589 in 1972 to 35,092 in 2015 but dramatically exceed any from terrorists. With the advent and wide spread use of driverless cars such deaths will plummet dramatically in the future. But we accept that risk and drive anyway. No sane person would propose keeping every one home as a safety measure. In any event over 25,000 people die from accidents in their home in the U.S. every year. “Our risks from terrorists”

A full, rich life entails taking calculated risks. It is prudent to limit risks were the cost of doing so is not excessive in terms of our freedom of movement and quality of life. We need to keep this in mind when considering the measures we want our government to take to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

A related but different issue is how best to defeat ISIS, al-Qaida and the like. During his presidential campaign Trump stated that: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” “Trump on terrorists families.” Such an approach does not accord with the lessons of experience (aside from being repulsive and violating international law). Combating terrorist groups requires cooperation from the countries in which they operate and from the people in whose neighborhoods they live, etc. The International Crisis Group has distilled these lessons in the following report. From its executive summary they state that Trump’s “administration… should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.” “Counter-terrorism pitfalls-what US fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda should avoid”



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.