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Lies, Damned Lies and Anomalies: 9/11 and Statistics

September 11th was a statistical anomaly.

I’ll elaborate. First, I don’t mean to disrespect the victims of that horrible attack. They have my deepest sympathies. But when our country makes policy, particularly security policies that will spend trillions of dollars, we have to make those decisions based on facts, numbers, science and evidence. We can’t make them based on a statistical anomaly charged with emotions.

We’ve written before that terrorism isn’t an existential crisis. September 11th was so large and so lethal that we can’t see terrorism for what it actually is: a relatively minor threat to the average person’s life. Today, I want to put the 9/11 anecdote into context with the relevant statistics.

Wikipedia’s page listing deaths by human violence shows that, even for terrorist attacks, 9/11 was an anomaly. It killed four times as many people as the next attack on the list. When compared to the loss of life by natural disasters, terrorism doesn’t hold a candle. One hundred and five times as many people died because of the earthquake in Haiti than on 9/11. Seventy six times as many people died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Staggering.

It is remarkable that we spend so much on terrorism considering how seldom it occurs. The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism each year show a stunning lack of American deaths from terrorism. Except for 9/11, less than thirty American civilians have been killed by terrorism every year since 2000. How many Americans died because of terrorism in 2002? Twenty six people. 2009? Nine people. 2007? Nineteen people, but all nineteen occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. The State Department includes Iraq and Afghanistan in their totals of terrorist activity when both areas are really war zones. (What about before 9/11? Again, except for Timothy McVeigh, not much. 1999? Six people. 1998? Twelve people. 1997? Six people.)

2010’s numbers will be released by April, they shouldn’t be much higher. Again, 9/11 was a statistical anomaly.

What are bigger threats to the lives of Americans? Well, heart disease (stroke, diabetes and heart attacks) and cancer. Together, they killed over 1.2 million Americans. (All this data comes from the Center for Disease Control, using the most recent data I could find which is from 2007.) The usual comeback is that those are diseases of old age. Compare 9/11 to the list of yearly deaths from preventable causes of death in America.

Every year over 16,000 teenagers die. Over half of those are from automobile accidents, meaning that more than two and a half 9/11s kill our teenagers every year. Accidents in general kill 123,000 people every year. Influenza claims roughly seventeen 9/11s every year.

Homicides dramatically outpace terrorism-related death too. In 2009, the most current year of data compiled by the FBI, over 13,000 people died because of homicides. That is roughly four 9/11s. While the number of homicides has gone up and down, 13,000 is a number that roughly holds steady. This means that every year we face a threat four times worse than 9/11, but with nowhere near the federal funding that comes in for terrorism.

Terrorism is a threat, but just a tiny one. But as a society we hate statistics and love anecdotes. Statistics make us rational; anecdotes make us emotional. And the most common political emotion is fear. Or, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

23 comments

The other thing is how many people have died in the wars started after 9/11. At the very minimum 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died. Puts that in context I guess.


Terrorism, by its very definition, causes terror which is, of course, an emotional reaction. For similar reasons a lot of money is spent on AIDS treatments even though few people actually have or die from the disease in America when compared to other major diseases. Suggest to people that AIDS funding be cut and you’ll get some fairly violent reactions.

Statistically, if a terrorist exploded a car daily in the U.S. and killed 2 people each time you’d have an insignificant number of deaths but the response would be massive.

I think you miss the point in trying to make it cut-and-dry statistics because a daily car bombing would cause huge social and economic disruptions to the country versus, say, hundreds of car accidents per day. Thus even though statistically insignificant in terms of actual deaths the whole point of terrorism is to cause more physic damage if you will.

Regarding Iraqi civilian deaths, it’s estimated that Saddam murdered 500,000-600,000 of his own people so that puts things into context. If you include the Iran-Iraq war, add another 1.5 million onto that.


I agree that the major attacks are statistical anomalies, but that has a great deal to do with security. Granted, security in all realms is not perfect, but military bases have secure premises, nuclear power plants have even better security, and most commercial flights have at least one armed sky marshal. Security makes terrorist attacks anomalous.


Security didn’t work out too well in Beirut or Ft. Hood though.


Security won’t work all of the time, just like the police can’t stop every murder. It’s just something we have to live with.


Beirut was a war zone. War zones don’t belong in terrorism discussions. Fort Hood is as anomalous. Fort Campbell had a murder already this year on post. Most posts have. Add them up, they equal way more violence than Fort Hood.

The reason terrorism gets more media coverage is that it is more shocking. But that doesn’t mean we should spend more money to stop it. It is a self perpetuating cycle. Do you mean to tell me, harrison, that you like the government spending money on things that don’t make you safer? Wasting money? That seems like something we should all stop.

And if terrorists could reliably kill 720 Americans each year, that wouldn’t be statistically anomalous. It would be statistically relevant.

Oh and could you show me the resources that Saddam murdered 500,000-600,000 of his own people? I know about the Iran/Iraq war, that was a war.


Appears as though my response didn’t get saved.

There was a Civil War going on there and we were attacked by terrorists, hence it was terrorism. The reason for the bombing? according to Wikipedia:

Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the commander of the Marines in Beirut during the incident, has said that “the Marine and the French headquarters were targeted primarily because of who we were and what we represented.”

Regarding Saddam:

http://wais.stanford.edu/Iraq/iraq_death..

Lastly, counter-terrorism spending is not a waste. Were we to reduce it to 0 I think we’d see a very different world as we only hear about the success stories for terrorists not most of the failures.


Also Bill Clinton’s Sec. of State says it was “worth it” to have 500,000 Iraqi children die because of her boss’ policies regarding the embargo of that country under Saddam.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM0uvgHKZ..

Had we removed Saddam as was authorized by the Iraq Liberation Act under Clinton’s term all those innocent children wouldn’t have died.


500,000-600,000 is the high end estimate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_right..

I have trouble using 600,000, because it is the upper end estimate. The highest estimate for civilian deaths since 2003 is over a million.


@ Harrison – Yeah, we only allow one link per post, it cuts down on spam.

On Madeline Albright, are you unilaterally against sanctions as a tool? When are sanctions okay or not okay? If children are dying Iran from sanctions, should the sanctions be lifted?


Also, I find it interesting there haven’t been any academic articles cited about how many people died under Saddam. Your link Harrison looks like 1990s HTML.


So you have trouble using 600 for Saddam’s murders but no problem with 1 million dead after the Iraqi war?

Sanctions can work if applied properly, but most countries don’t want to play ball. If there were real sanctions on gasoline in Iran that country’s leadership would fold like a bad poker hand.

Regarding Iraq… I have real problems when the president says things like this:

“If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.”

And he had authorization to remove him but does nothing. Clinton always did like to talk a big game but do nothing. After all, it was he who advocated Cruise Missile Diplomacy while groups like al Qaeda declared war on our country no fewer than three times.


Michael… it’s not the academically rewarding choice to show what a horrible dictator he was. There have been studies since, I just haven’t spent the time to look at them.

And many of the deaths since Saddam was removed were from different factions fighting each other… something they couldn’t do while he was in power so simply citing a number and placing defacto blame on the U.S. invasion is not intellectually honest.


@ Harrison – I do have a problem with the 1 million estimate. That’s why I brought it up, to show that the highest possible estimate is usually ridiculous. I prefer to go with the middle ground.

On Saddam, I assume the correct number is around 300,000, based on looking at the cumulative studies on wikipedia.


Either way, Saddam wouldn’t win any awards for his hospitality.


Nice thread on 9/11 – and I live in the New York City where, since 9/11, the Police Commissioner has transferred too many detectives into Counterterrorism, neglecting other areas crucial to policing the city.

In addition, he’s reduced the tactical and weapons training of Emergency Service personnel (SWAT/rescue) apparently to allow for time to increase their counterterrorism training.

The result – three accidental discharges in recent months, one which critical injured an elderly man.

I do anticipate terrorists will strike New York again and possibly in the subway – hopefully, it won’t be chemical or something worse.

However, I don’t think there’s a whole lot more we can do about this. After all, it wasn’t anything the NYPD did that aborted a bombing in Times Square last summer. The van carrying the bomb drove right into the heart of the city despite all the cops that are there 24-7. Luckily the device fizzled out and vendors alerted the police. The FBI took over from there.

Regarding Saddam. No, he wasn’t a very nice man, to understate the depravity of his soul. But we have supported other dictators that had their heart in the same nasty place when it suited our political interests.

It will be interesting to see how many more Iraqis die as we continue to pull out the troops – not only Christians but other ethnic/religious groups. Then we can reassess the death total of this war including Iraqi civilians as well as American soldiers.

What is interesting to me is how many soldiers view 9/11 as the “reason” and justification for their decision to join the military and go to war- to revenge the attack although New Yorkers didn’t “vote” for this war.


The Constitution doesn’t require governments to hold elections prior to making major foreign policy decisions so the issue is moot and you’re ignoring that hijackings did not simply cause damage to NYC. But, 100 of NY’s House members voted yes.


Which war? I don’t think New York congressmen and women voted for the war in Iraq.


Sorry got cut off there…

100 of their House representatives voted “yes.”

S.J.RES.45:

Further Resolution on Iraq – Authorizes the President to use all appropriate means, including force, to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolutions concerning Iraq, defend U.S. national security interests against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region.

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?..&

297 to 133 in the House and 77 to 23 in the Senate.


There is an error in the form… maybe it doesn’t like the percentage symbol.

100 percent of NY’s Senators voted yes and 64 percent of their House members voted yes.

Might want to check out your new form it has some bugs.


Back to the Saddam invasion, why does America poll so poorly with Iraqis if we were better than Saddam? Also, how does Saddam’s murder rate of his population compare with other dictators in the last twenty years. Compared to Darfur and Rwanda, he looks downright kind.

So the “Saddam murdered his people” argument is kind of moot, that isn’t the reason we went to Iraq, so it doesn’t matter.


New Yorkers (the people-with the exception of the majority who live in Staten Island) did not vote for George W. Bush, did not endorse the war in Iraq, and were not happy that their congresspersons voted to give George W. Bush unilateral power to do what he wished, including the invasion of Iraq and the institution of U.S. Patriot Act. This too me is a vote against the Iraq war. We all admired how Giuliani responded to the crisis. Before that time, he had become an unpopular mayor due to his arrogant handling of a number of issues in the city and his general attitude towards minorities. But that’s irrelevant. Sometimes our senators etc don’t speak for “us” and sometimes they do.


Michael, people always get upset with the landlord.