The real risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack

| June 20, 2012 | 6 Replies

Comedy Central’s Indecision presents some rather unsurprising statistics that need to be read by every member of Congress. What is an American’s likelihood of dying from a terrorist attack?

According to government statistics, roughly as many Americans are killed annually by unstable furniture and falling televisions as are killed in terrorist attacks.

What else is more dangerous than a terrorist attack?

16 oz. sodas, inconvenience of going through TSA security at an airport (which discourages many

Image by anyunoff at Dreamstime (with permission)

people from flying, causing them to die on the highways), use of your bathroom, texting, autoerotic asphyxia, alcohol and tobacco, weather, suicide, hospital infections and doctor errors and stress.

One more thing: What is the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack? Ronald Bailey of Reason suggests a very liberal estimate (an estimate assuming death to be more likely) would be 1 in 1.7 million, and he offers these additional statistics:

Taking these figures into account, a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

This same article indicates that the U.S. spends $400 million dollars per life saved in antiterrorism security measures (cost$1 Trillion since 2001), but this number doesn’t include military expenses by the United States. It’s also important to keep in mind that the U.S. spends more on maintaining a military than the rest of the world combined.

Perhaps if Americans weren’t so afflicted with innumeracy, we could accept the true (miniscule) risk of dying from a terrorist act, and focus on preventing much more likely forms of death. Perhaps we could spend a significant chunk of that “anti-terrorism” money to combat innumeracy.

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Category: cognitive biases, Military, Psychology Cognition, Spending priorities, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Lightning kills 1,000 Americans per year, more than three times as many Americans as are killed by terrorism over the ten years since 9/11. http://thinkbynumbers.org/blog/government-spending/anti-terrorism-spending-disproportionate-to-threat/

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Let’s not forget death from peanut allergies and accident causing deer! FAR more people die each year in the US from these causes than die from “terrorism.”

    Terrorism doesn’t even crack a percentage in the top causes of death in the US!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_causes_of_death_by_rate#United_States

  3. Adam Herman says:

    Falling cocunuts kill more people than terrorism. Although what I draw from that is mostly that these guys are jokes more than anything else. They used up all their talented operatives on one attack.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    More discussion of this subject can be found here:

    http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/01/10/widespread-death-and-moral-clarity/

    and here:

    http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/08/10/overwhelmed-by-fear-beware-the-“low-road”-of-emotion/

    Moreover, the extreme unlikelihood of an American dying in a terrorist attack becomes even more extreme if the deaths from 9/11 are ignored as outlying data. Even including 9/11, terrorist attacks don’t make the list of the top 50 things most likely to kill Americans.

    Misperception of risk is everywhere. One great example is the fear many people have of flying. If risk is measured by deaths-per-mile then flying is arguably the safest form of travel yet created. Travelers are far more likely to die on the way to the airport than in a plane crash. Also, most people fear the landing portion of their flight, yet most of the risk of a plane crash occurs on take-off, when the plane is at its heaviest weight (because its full of fuel) and must gain speed to take off. Losing power on take-off is almost always disastrous, but losing power in the air or while landing carries far less risk.

    Returning to the subject of terrorism, the thing that sticks in my mind is the fact that America absolutely freaked out when 3000 people were killed in the terrorist attack on 9/11, but how many Americans even notice that roughly 3000 people die *every year*, just in the state of Wisconsin, from colon cancer? Or what about pneumonia? According to the CDC, pneumonia kills 50,000 Americans *every year* (see http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/pneumonia.htm), but where is the War on Pneumonia?

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