How Much Risk of Terrorism is There, and What’s it Worth to Stop it?

Bruce Schneier:

John Mueller and his students analyze the 33 cases of attempted [EDITED TO ADD: Islamic extremist] terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11. So few of them are actually real, and so many of them were created or otherwise facilitated by law enforcement.

The death toll of all these is fourteen: thirteen at Ft. Hood and one in Little Rock. I think it’s fair to add to this the 2002 incident at Los Angeles Airport where a lone gunman killed two people at the El Al ticket counter, so that’s sixteen deaths in the U.S. to terrorism in the past ten years.

Given the credible estimate that we’ve spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security (this does not include our many foreign wars), that’s $62.5 billion per life [EDITED: lost]. Is there any other risk that we are even remotely as crazy about?

Note that everyone who died was shot with a gun. No Islamic extremist has been able to successfully detonate a bomb in the U.S. in the past ten years, not even a Molotov cocktail. (In the U.K. there has only been one successful terrorist bombing in the last ten years; the 2005 London Underground attacks.) And almost all of the 33 incidents (34 if you add LAX) have been lone actors, with no ties to al Qaeda.

I remember the government fear mongering after 9/11. How there were hundreds of sleeper cells in the U.S. How terrorism would become the new normal unless we implemented all sorts of Draconian security measures. You’d think that — if this were even remotely true — we would have seen more attempted terrorism in the U.S. over the past decade.

And I think arguments like “the government has secretly stopped lots of plots” don’t hold any water. Just look at the list, and remember how the Bush administration would hype even the most tenuous terrorist incident. Stoking fear was the policy. If the government stopped any other plots, they would have made as much of a big deal of them as they did of these 33 incidents.

…The risk of dying in the U.S. from terrorism is substantially less than the risk of drowning in your bathtub, the risk of a home appliance killing you, or the risk of dying in an accident caused by a deer. Remember that more people die every month in automobile crashes than died in 9/11.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Davids the ‘liquid bomb plots’ story is actually instructive. First, it’s pure science fiction, unlikely it could have come close to being successful. And yet it changed the way we all fly. Second, it was dsicovered through intelligence, not expensive machinery. No security theatre. We’re wasting billions of dollars and the TSA has never stopped a single terrorist. There’s comparatively little risk and the ‘at any cost’ approach is simply justification for expensive contractor boondoggles. We’re playing a very silly game, we should do those inexpensive things that actually stop terrorists (reinforced cockpit doors, passengers who now universally act to subdue would-be terrorists) and not the stupid theatre that wastes money and does nothing to make us safer.

  2. …and at what cost…how much ‘gold and silver’ have we spent on the TSA.

    Some data from Flying with Fish from June 30, 2010:

    “At the time the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created on the 19th of November 2001 by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act the annual cost of airport security in the private sector in the United States was an estimated US$700,000,000 … or US$849,897,815 adjusted to 2010 dollars.

    Presently the cost of “Aviation Security” within the Transportation Security Administration’s annual US$7,101,828,000 budget is US$5,042,297,880… or US$4,152,979,866 adjusted to 2001 dollars.

    Not included in the US$5,042,297,880 “Aviation Security” budget is an additional US$781,201,080 for Federal Air Marshals ; US$284,073,120 for the Checkpoint Security Screening Fund; US$284,073,120 for the Aviation Security Capital Fund and another US$568,146,240 for Transportation Security Support & Intelligence.

    So…the real cost of “aviation security” as provided by the TSA totals an estimated US$6,959,791,440 … or US$5,732,282,069 adjusted to 2001 dollars.”

  3. It’s impossible to know how many American lives would have been lost with a different and presumably cheaper approach. We can have opinions on it, but that’s all they are.

    The only conclusive evidence either way would be a successful major attack. The 2001 attack did prove that prior policies were not effective. The absence of such an attack since then proves nothing about current policies.

  4. bravo Garry for a real good article!…btw…I almost got hit by a cyclist while walking around the block last night….Where was Dept of Homeland Security then??? I could’ve gotten killed for Gods sake!!

    I also got cut off on the road and nearly rear ended this guy on Friday driving home from work….nope! no sign of Homeland Security then either…

    However, on a brighter note(sarcasm x 100), on my flight back home from ORD, I was treated like a criminal for FWB (Flying While Brown)…….so I cant be all too sad.

    My public schools around me are crumbling, theres no $$$ to repair a major freeway junction, and the local chapter of an After School Program for trubbled kids is closing its doors due to lack of funding….but at least we ‘succesfully’ keeping everyone safe from the (so-called) Izzzzlamics.

  5. Gary, as a frequent reader I never saw such b*shit here on this blog. Your text is against all logic. Did you ever think about that BECAUSE they spend all the money nothing happened ?? This is called PREVENTION ! And is better than anything else !

    This is like… oh wow why do they spend so much money protecting the president ?? Ha has not been shot in the past 10 year, so he will never be shot, just stop all protection for him.

    Why protect Fort Knox ?? It has not been robbed in the past 10 years … so I assume it will never happen.

    This kind of logic is just so wrong. As a frequent flyer I am happy to be protected !

  6. The conclusion that the lack of terrorist attacks is the result of the money we have spent on TSA is a logical fallacy (correlation does not imply causality). It may bet the case that it has prevented attacks or it may not – but one cannot simply say ‘this because of that’ without a more careful analysis – as Mueller provided. And even if these expenses do save lives – is it worth the expense? We have many ways to spend money to save lives – a grim calculus, but we should do the cost benefit rather than throw the most money at what we are most afraid of – especially when what we are most afraid of is way out of proportion to actual risk.

    Doonesbury had a wonderful series about this some years ago:

    A fearful populace is a compliant populace.

  7. Very well said, great article.

    I do think we go way overboard.

    To people like Ben, I don’t think Gary (and me either)
    are saying don’t protect something but come on lets not go crazy overboard. Look at all the other things some of this money could be spent on, other things that probably kill way more Americans. What about something as simple as hunger/lack of proper food for some people in this country ? So worried about something that’s not been proven to have taken many lives compared to other things WAY more dangerous, again things as simple as a accident in the home.

    No one is saying have zero security and just give the bad guys a free chance to go at it, that would cause a massive increase in the numbers. All people want is for all this to not be taken so out of control far.

    You have to find balance. You can’t have zero security but you cant bankrupt your nation going overboard either.

    People have to learn to be rational and realistic.

    I mean all it takes is like 1 person getting killed by a terr. and the world is in like freak out mode.

    I am not meaning to be cold, but its 1 person. Yet that day maybe 20 people died around the country in car accidents that day, just that day, and no one cares or blinks an eye and still hops in their car to drive down to walmart for some crap they probably don’t even need.

    There’s risk in everything you do in life, flying is no different. If you step on a plane you accept there’s a risk in doing so. Could you die, sure. But could you also die an infinite number of other crazy ways that day too, sure. That’s life people. Why is aviation treated so differently ? People expect there to not be a single death ever otherwise its all freak out time. I mean get real.

  8. just another example of Gary’s argument that all politics are fake. The DHS and TSA are political and financial constituencies whose benefit to security is widely disproportionate to their funding.

  9. PS — I am not sure how many people noticed — this was an excerpt from a longer blog entry by Bruce Schneier from August 26. So we probably shouldn’t be arguing (or agreeing) with Gary.

  10. What bothers me about our TSA expenditures is how silly most of the things they do are, and how little “terrorism security” there is in the rest of the USA. Now, admittedly, terrorists seem to be both dumb and strangely fascinated by airplanes, so it seems justified to do some silly things to stop them from trying to blow up planes. But it also seems obvious that including “profiling” into our airport security procedures would save us billions of dollars annually, materially reduce the hassle for millions at the airport, and increase our level of safety. I also hope the terrorists are never smart enough to understand that there are “better” and much easier things to try to bomb than airplanes.

  11. “I remember the government fear mongering after 9/11. How there were hundreds of sleeper cells in the U.S. How terrorism would become the new normal unless we implemented all sorts of Draconian security measures.”

    How many remember or have studied their history to see the insanity of this alone? If we replace terrorists with Communists we would be back in the McCarthy era. Those that don’t learn their history….

  12. If the logic is that the money we have spent MUST have stopped the terrorists, then taking that logic further says if we throw MORE money at the TSA we will have 0 terrorism. So I say we should close all schools, parks, the entire defense department, and abolish social security, and we will never ever have an incident on a plane. Sound good?

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