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Bathtubs, Bee Stings and 9/11: Why Jeffrey Goldberg is Wrong About Terrorism

Say you’re an American who’s been alive for the last 10 years. You’re more likely to die from any of the following things than terrorism…

- Bathtubs

- Bee stings

- Being shot by a police officer

- Lightning

- Drunk drivers

- Moving heavy furniture

- Traffic accidents

And so on. Basically, terrorism is one of the least likely ways that you can die in America. But Jeffrey Goldberg doesn’t buy this argument:   

“...a bathtub death is in most ways not equivalent in impact to a death caused by terrorists. The death of someone in a bathtub accident is obviously a terrible tragedy for that person's family and friends. But unlike a death caused by terrorism, a bathtub death has few, if any, political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications.”

Researching the likelihood of dying from terrorism for an upcoming "Costs of Security" post, I stumbled upon this article from a years ago. Michael C and I disagree 100% with it so much, we had to respond. Why? A few reasons...

1. The Difference Between Terrorism and Other Ways of Dying is our Over-Reaction to it.

In Goldberg’s mind, terrorism matters because it has “political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications”, forcing us to take it more seriously than other ways of dying. But flip that around: because society takes terrorism more seriously than other ways of dying, it has political, economic, societal and constitutional ramifications. It’s a trap. We overreact to terrorism, and because we overreact to it, we should take it more seriously, but taking it more seriously causes us to overreact even further...

Goldberg actually makes the point for us. Which came first? The ramifications or the reaction? Goldberg, in his piece, cites the strain on the constitution caused by terrorism:

“And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights.”

It’s sort of a circular argument.The impact of 9/11 and terrorism on our constitutional liberties is exactly why we should treat terrorism like other forms of dying. If society treated terrorism like we did bathtub deaths--just another hazard in the modern world--then our Constitution and civil liberties wouldn’t be threatened.

2. Terrorism Has Foreign Policy Ramifications...Because Terrorism Guides our Foreign Policy

Goldberg claims terrorism matters because it has foreign policy ramifications. Goldberg wrote a New Yorker article falsely claiming a link between al Qaeda and Iraq.

So terrorism matters...because it has foreign policy ramifications...and politicians and pundits use terrorism to endorse foreign policy decisions. You see the loop again, right?

3. The Comparison That Totally Debunks Goldberg

For most ways of dying, it is hard to directly rebut Goldberg’s point. Deaths from terrorism don’t have a direct connection to say bathtub deaths or bee stings. (Unless terrorist start arming bees...) But what if I could find an example where it does?

Like, say, car crashes.

In America, car crashes kill around 30,000 people each year. Terrorism since 9/11 has killed less than thirty people a year, and even those numbers are inflated by including the deaths of American civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, terrorism has only killed 74 people. (And white Christian extremists have killed twice as many people through terrorist attacks than Islamic extremists...without the remifications Goldberg worries about.) The evidence is clear; cars kill more Americans than terrorists.

Here’s a thorny problem for people who fear terrorism: what if a miracle cure for car crashes existed that was also a terrorist threat?

Like the self-driving car.

Self-driving cars will see better and react faster than humans ever can. Unlike humans, self-driving cars will only get safer through improved sensors and programming. And they won’t even make it on the roads until they are proven to be safer than humans. They’ll never get tired, drunk, distracted or lose their senses to old age. Some car companies are also developing vehicle to vehicle communications, which will save even more lives.

Of course, the only thing can stop the clearly safe self-driving car is the one thing that Jeffrey Goldberg fears most: terrorism! Take this headline from CNBC, “Self-driving cars—the next terrorism threat?

Let’s assume the terrorist threat is real and, when self-driving cars are adopted, terrorist use them to successfully kill Americans. Say self driving cars cut the number of car crash fatalities in half, but terrorists successfully kill ten Americans each year by hijacking self-driving cars. Would the “ramifications” of terrorism mean those ten deaths matter more than the 15,000 saved lives? Perhaps those numbers are too extreme, but at what point do the saved lives from car crash fatalities outweigh the “ramifications” of terrorist deaths?

We’re comparing two ways of dying: the current reality of humans dying in car crashes versus the potential for humans to die from terrorism in self-driving cars. And the inevitable over-reaction to terrorism by the American people. Will self-driving cars cut down the number of traffic fatalities compared to the risk they’ll be used by terrorists? Absolutely, but the terrorism deaths will get a lot more news coverage. A lot more.

And that’s why this comparison is so needed.