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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The risks of terrorism: The problem with probabilities 


The next time you run across somebody who tells you that we are overreacting to terrorism because the odds of actually dying in a terrorist attack are somewhere between drowning in a bathtub and croaking from an infected hangnail, send them this link. But only if you give a rat's ass what somebody that stupid thinks.


10 Comments:

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Tue Aug 22, 10:40:00 PM:

This is a sound argument, and is increasingly being used in financial risk modeling. Low probabilities do not provide much comfort if the severity of the risk event, if it occurs, is high enough. I think we've reached that point with the terrorist threat.

The discussion brings to mind a talk I saw last winter by financial historian Peter Bernstein on risk where he explored this point with much eloquance. He also talked about the cockroach and the risk management approach it has used to survive through the ages. When the cockroach senses danger it "runs like hell."  

By Blogger Papa Ray, at Tue Aug 22, 11:18:00 PM:

I'm afraid there are way too many young Muslims that for one reason or other would like to get on the band wagon.

Call it adventure, quest for spoils, lust for western girls or just wanting to be one of the "in group".

Whatever the reason, the Islamic cause will have plenty of recruits.

Well, except for this guy...
The Hidden Iman Chickens Out

Papa Ray  

By Anonymous Wisconsin Dale, at Wed Aug 23, 07:25:00 AM:

Thanks for a silly article that starts out saying your chances of being killed by terrorists is very small BUT we should have a terrorism policy anyway because if something does happen, it could be bad. This reminds me of the joke about a man who tears up little pieces of paper and scatters them around his office. When asked " why are you doing this?" He replies that he does it to keep the wild elephants away. "But there are no wild elephants here," replies the questioner.
The paper shredder says "I know, see how well it works!"

I think we need to take people seriously when they say they wish to kill us. I think we need to be vigilant, too. But to defend a policy on terrorism BECAUSE there are few incidents and BECAUSE they could be bad when it happens is just plain silly.

The enemy is not trying to kill Americans in their beds in Montana. We need to get real about this. If the enemy was trying to kill Americans in small town America, they have been hugely unsuccessful.

That being said, we would be a foolish country indeed if we did not protect our infrastructure that moves people from one side of the country to another.

Let's be smart about what we do and protect America. But let's not use silly arguments like this to convince people of the rightness of our actions.  

By Anonymous Agricola, at Wed Aug 23, 07:46:00 AM:

If I was asleep in my bed in Montana, surely one of God's favorite designs, I would not be too worried about terrorism in the US either. But I live in another of God's better designs, Charleston, SC, which is also a major seaport where many, many containers enter this country. I absolutely am concerned about terrorism, particularly if the mad mullahs manage to build a small nucleat bomb that could be detonated in a container yard not more than 1 mile from my home.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Aug 23, 07:58:00 AM:

Wisconsin Dale -

I'm not suggesting that the linked article is a particularly good reason to support the war, but it is not a bad response to the people who oppose taking expansive and expensive steps to deal with terrorism because the statistical risk of dying was low, and argument that one often hears and which is particularly dumb.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 23, 09:09:00 AM:

One could argue though, if you do the math on what September 11th cost the United States in lost GDP,(the cost of the clean-up, market impact, productivity, etc.) conservative estimates would put that somewhere around one trillion dollars. The cost of the two wars we have fought since then have put over $450 Billion in productive dollars back into the economy (at the taxpayers expense) versus the net loss of productivity post 9/11. My conclusion is that if we do not take the war to the terrorists in places that add very little economic value (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) rather then fight them in places where huge amounts of wealth is created (NYC, London, D.C., etc.)those costs become insurmountable both financially and from the general public's well-being.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 23, 05:30:00 PM:

There's terrorism and there's TERRORISM. The rate of blowing up airplanes is (sort of) a known quantity, and can therefore be measured and weighed against the cost of airport security measures. Overall, I think most of our current airport security measures aren't really so onerous compared to the (slight) risk of a terrorist incident on my particular flight. I think a strong case could be made that you don't launch wars that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives based on this threat. (I believe the number of our own soldiers we've lost in Iraq has now exceeded the number of people we lost on 9/11, not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians).

However, there's also TERRORISM, with the nuclear threat (and perhaps biological threats) - and we really have no idea of the probability of that happening. You simply can't measure the statistics of that. So this is where our anti-terror resources must be targeted. Though as a daily rider of the New York subways, I sure wouldn't mind someone trying to develop better and cheaper technologies for detecting explosives.

jk  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Aug 23, 10:20:00 PM:

The decision to invade Iraq, rhetorical flourishes aside, had very little to do with Saddam's links to terrorism. That was just icing. And as such, it doesn't really belong in any discussion about anti/counter terrorism.

But the idea that we should be reactive (as opposed to proactive) and limit our policies to 'explosives detectors' and law enforcement is terribly flawed. We did that from our first experience with suicide bombs in Beirut up until 2001 and it got us nowhere; we were just painted as an easy target, a guaranteed trip to Paradise as long as you didn't fuck it up and get caught. And then, even if you were, you wouldn't be tortured, your home wouldn't be destroyed, and your buddies wouldn't be compromised. Hardly a deterrent. (though how you deter people who are not afraid, in fact eager, to die is another question altogether)

Passivity is not the answer.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 24, 03:23:00 PM:

"The decision to invade Iraq, rhetorical flourishes aside, had very little to do with Saddam's links to terrorism"

Is that the consensus in the right-wing blogosphere now? I admit that's news to me.

I'm all in favor of proactive actions -- like keeping track of every piece of Uranium and Plutonium in the world -- a tall order no doubt. But is it any taller than installing democracy in the Middle East?

jk  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Thu Aug 24, 07:22:00 PM:

No, I don't think that it is the conensus, but for reasons that have little to do with reality and far more to do with American domestic politics.

If we were going to pick a country to invade because of links to terrorism, we'd have invaded Iran or Pakistan, not Iraq. I think that Iraq was chosen because of its location, (Iranian border, nearness to American military staging grounds) history, (despised dictatorship = populace ready to welcome democracy; also, a somewhat better educated population in general than most other similar countries) resources, (oil, duh) was in repeated and gross breach of numerous UN resolutions AND the cease-fire that kept us from killing him the first time, (i.e. ready made cassus belli) and the fact that its leader was the world's number 1 boogey-man who pretty much everyone had agreed needed to go.

"But is it any taller than installing democracy in the Middle East?"

There was already democracy in the Middle East.  

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