Friday, May 28, 2004

optimal terrorist response

Cliff pointed out in a comment (to this post) that the expected deaths from terrorists each year in the US is about 300. This is roughly the same as the number of people killed by lightening. Cliff suggests (I infer from his irony) that we are spending too much time, money, and energy in combating what is statistically a minor problem. The problem is... Well, the problem is that his logic makes a weird sort of sense. Like Cliff, I'm an engineer and I detest inefficiency. Especially inefficiency for emotional, anti-rational reasons. It took me a while to come up with a good answer, but I think I have one: First, terrorism has effects all out of proportion to its actual danger. There are no good reasons for this, but that's the way it is. Terrorism terrorizes. In this way terrorism effects far more people than would a natural disaster that claimed the same number of lives.

Second, it would be foolish to assume that terrorism will remain constant. Terrorists gain prestige, recruits, boldness, and funding from success, so it's important to counter those gains with some dramatic failures. And just because there haven't been any terrorist attacks so far that claimed millions of lives, there is no reason to think that could never happen. A single nuke going off in a major city would skew those yearly statistics considerably. It's worth a lot of time, money, and energy to reduce the likelihood of this worst-case scenario.

Cliff responds:
The first part of your response is that we have to keep acting stupidly because we are acting stupidly and we can’t stop. The second part of your reply is to posit worse things and say we must prevent them. But doing irrational things in pursuit of irrational fears does not usually lead to productive actions. 9/11 resulted from three causes. There were bad guys. There were weak doors to the cockpit. The powers that be did not believe in suicide bombers after three years of suicide bombings. Problems two and three are fixed. Problem one will never be fixed.

We currently keep graduate students from South Korea out of the US to prevent terrorist attacks. This causes our economy great damage and prevents zero terrorist attacks. We caused a severe recession after 9/11 by hiding in our houses when the streets were the safest they had been in decades. If you believe that one news report that the danger level has been raised to orange has deterred one terrorist, then you might be able to make a case that our pathetic television oriented war on terror has been useful. Outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the terrorists have the support of a real army, none of the terrorists have been caught by soldiers. They have been caught by cops, here, in Europe and in the Middle East, doing their jobs.

The important efforts to stop nuclear attacks by terrorists is at the source of supply in the old Soviet Union and in Pakistan. Only by stealing a ready-made bomb could terrorists gain access to one. Dirty bombs might frighten people, but they are not a real health threat. Enriched Uranium isn’t that toxic. Ordinary (non-fissionable) nuclear waste is far more toxic. The people of this country have to realize that their chances of being killed are the lowest in human history anywhere on earth. If you or any of them are afraid, get over it.
I'll have to ask him about that South Korea thing...

Back of the Envelope has a graph of the numbers of people killed by terrorists over the last thirty years. If you ignore the 9/11 spike, this graph actually tends to confirm Cliff's analysis. Terrorism doesn't seem to be a particularly growing problem.

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