Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Perspective on Terrorism

At Cato Unbound, in response to a lead essay by John Mueller, Clark Kent Ervin rejects the comparison of the death rate from terrorism to the death rates from bee stings, lightning, drowning, etc. Ervin’s argument is so unpersuasive (to me) that I think it deserves a fisking.
It is undoubtedly true that Americans are far more likely to die from “bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer” than terrorism, but so what? ... This statistical argument implicitly equates deaths from bee stings, lightning or close encounters with marauding deer with deaths from terrorism.
They should be equated. It doesn’t make sense to spend a billion dollars to prevent one death by terrorism if the same billion dollars could prevent ten or a hundred deaths by other causes. Death is death. It can be sensible to give different treatment to deaths by different causes, but only if there’s some reason to think one cause of death is more easily deterred than another. More on that later.
But, a moment’s reflection should be more than sufficient to show why this is fallacious.

First of all, tragic as it may be, we instinctively feel less bad about someone’s dying from a bee sting than about someone’s dying from a terror attack. Why? Well, a bee sting is an act of nature, not an act of man. A bee, presumably anyway, does not intend to cause the death of whomever he stings. A bee does not, presumably, have an “agenda” when he stings someone. There is no intention to affect public policy, and no intention to terrorize or otherwise discomfort anyone other than the person stung. These distinctions account for why, though every single day, significantly more people die from car accidents or cancer than terrorism, any deaths any day from another terror attack here at home would surely engender bold face, round-the-clock headline news coverage, while a greater number of deaths on that day by car accidents, bee stings, or cancer would not.
Yup, it’s true: we react differently to terrorism than to other threats. But is the different reaction justified? Ervin is begging the question here. Mueller and others have argued persuasively that we have overreacted to terrorism. Pointing to evidence of the overreaction only strengthens the point.

Ervin’s right that intentions matter. We instinctively get angrier at a murderer than at a killer bee. But when does it make sense to indulge our instincts? A hypothetical: If you had to choose between (a) stopping a single murder in progress and (b) moving a station wagon full of children out of the path of a falling tree, which would you choose? The only sensible reason to choose the former would be that allowing the murder would encourage more murders, by this villain or others. So the justification of our instinct to treat intentional deaths differently is that intentional deaths are often more easily deterred, because a person can choose not to kill while a killer bee cannot. But when that ceases to be the case – when our prevention efforts generate severely diminishing returns – it’s time for us to let reason trump our instincts.
Furthermore, though we tend to take such deaths in stride, we still do everything we reasonably can to minimize deaths from car accidents (mandatory speed limits, seat belts, air bags, and kiddie car seats, for example), bee stings (sensible people don’t stick their heads or hands in bee hives!) and cancer (the FDA warning on cigarette packs, the ban on smoking in public places, the anti-smoking advertising campaign on TV, etc.). If we do everything we reasonably can to prevent deaths that, in the scheme of things, are far more natural and ordinary, shouldn’t we do everything we reasonably can do to prevent deaths by the unnatural and extraordinary means of terrorism?
“Reasonable” is too vague a term. We certainly don’t do everything conceivable to prevent bee stings, drownings, cancer, etc. There’s always more we could do, but some efforts aren’t worth it. A better rule is to do everything cost-effective to prevent deaths. That means asking hard questions about the both the severity of the problem and the costliness of prevention. These are just the kind of calculations that fear-mongering discourages.
Second, the statistical argument misses the fact that, though the chances of a terrorist attack are, indeed, relatively small, the consequences are larger than they would be if the same number of people were killed in some natural way or by means of “garden variety” murder. The economic toll of 9/11 numbered in the billions. The psychic toll was incalculable. As Mueller points out, the impact on civil rights and civil liberties, which he rightly values highly, has likewise been huge.
This isn’t just begging the question; it could be a textbook illustration of the fallacy. The economic toll of 9/11 was in the billions of dollars in large part because of our reaction to it. And the impact on our civil liberties was entirely because of our reaction to it. Remember, the whole question in this debate is whether we should continue to sacrifice money and freedom to the cause of preventing terrorism – so it’s circular reasoning of the highest order to use those very sacrifices as justification for doing more.
And, by showing that the world’s lone superpower can be brought low by 19 guys armed with box cutters, the success of the 9/11 plot can be said to have imperiled our national security by emboldening individual terrorists and nation states who previously regarded us as all but invulnerable.
I’m not sure the terrorists ever thought we were invulnerable. But if they did, then America was benefiting from an illusion; we were never invulnerable, we only appeared to be. Now the genie’s out of the bottle. Actual invulnerability is not an option and never was. Sensible policy now requires weighing benefits and costs of enforcement at the margin. The first step in that process is putting the real magnitude of terrorist threats in perspective.


Gil said...

While I agree completely that we should keep things in perspective, I also think it's really difficult to do these comparisons mostly because we don't know that we have a sample that's a good predictor of the future of terrorist attacks.

Eugene Volokh made that point here.

Glen Whitman said...

Gil -- yes, I read that post, and I agree that it's hard to quantify the risk. But I think it's useful to consider hypotheticals like, "If we had another 9/11 every month for the next year, the death rate would still be only..." Then we get a sense of how bad the threat would have to be in order to justify a given level of expenditure.

Dylan said...

Vicarious revenge is a public good. The US government bombs random Muslims unrelated to terrorism so that vigilante attacks on US citizen Muslims are fewer.

Hey, it's a theory. And it certainly is a private good that I enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Since terrorist murders are coercive, there is more going on than just murder. Suppose that terrorists convincingly vow to murder everyone who draws a picture of Mohamed. The result may be no murders at all, and everyone intimidated into not drawing pictures of Mohamed. The intimidation of an entire nation and their submission to the demands of the terrorists does not get counted in a mere body-count comparison. In contrast to terrorists who target their victims, avalanches do not target their victims and so do not result in the intimidation of an entire nation.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

Twice as many people are killed every year by suicide as by murder. Should we equate the two? Should we be spending twice as much on mental-health treatment and suicide prevention as we do on murder investigations, incarceration, etc.? Smoking is the leading case of preventable deaths -- arguably, we should be spending even more to help people quit and discourage the practice. Why doesn't the equation of different causes of death lead us in that direction?

I agree that bee stings and the like give us great perspective on the comparative danger of terrorism, but are there any implications we should be worrying about?

Blar said...

Glen, I agree with the thrust of your argument, that we are overreacting to the risk of terrorism, but not with all of your specific claims. Take this one, for instance:

This isn’t just begging the question; it could be a textbook illustration of the fallacy. ... Remember, the whole question in this debate is whether we should continue to sacrifice money and freedom to the cause of preventing terrorism – so it’s circular reasoning of the highest order to use those very sacrifices as justification for doing more.

That is not a convincing argument, and one that I was surprised to see you make. The basic problem is that Mueller doesn't control what decisions "we" make in the future in response to future terrorist attacks (nor do you or I), so there isn't anything close to pure circularity. In more depth:

It is misleading to say that "we" are capable of making correct decisions in the future. The process by which arguments are accepted and decisions made is a social one that derives from the decisions of many individuals. No single decisionmaker can control the evolution of the discussion. The person who makes an [argument like Mueller's] does not necessarily claim that the listener himself will be the perpetrator of the future bad decision. Rather, he draws attention to [factors] that will shape the decisions of many decisionmakers involved in a social process.

Glen Whitman said...

Wow, lots of good comments. Here goes:

Anon -- Good point about intimidation. It's bad if the threat of violence gets us to accept the policies desired by the terrorists, and that should be counted as a potential cost of terror. (Unless, of course, the policies supported by terrorists would be desirable on their own merits, such as pulling troops out of Saudi Arabia.) But the main policy changes I've seen haven't been capitulations to the terrorists, but instead overreactions to them -- such as NSA wiretapping.

Kevin -- you're right; instead of saying "death is death," I should have distinguished between self-imposed death (suicide, smoking) and externally imposed death. And it also makes sense to distinguish threats that government is best suited to deal with because the response is a public good (as many anti-terrorist measures might be) from threats that are best dealt with by individuals.

However, my point wasn't really about *who* should respond to a given threat, but about putting threats in perspective. So even if anti-terrorism is a government responsibility while anti-drowning is more of a private matter, I think it can be instructive to compare them. We can ask ourselves, "If I wouldn't be willing to spend X dollars to prevent death risk Y in my private life, why should government do so with respect to threats of similar magnitude?"

Blar -- I'm pleased to see you've read (at least some of) the slippery slopes paper! But I don't think Ervin was making a slippery slope argument. He wasn't saying, "If we fail to spent $X on anti-terrorism now, a future terrorist act may cause us to overreact by spending even more money and abandoning our civil liberties." That would not be circular reasoning. But as I read Ervin's argument, he's justifying current policies by pointing to the costs resulting from 9/11 -- and then including the same current policies in the costs of 9/11. That is circular reasoning. To simplify drastically (and thus to be slightly unfair to Ervin), it's like saying, "Let's spend $100 billion a year on anti-terrorism, or else we might be provoked by a terrorist incident into spending $100 billion a year on anti-terrorism."

But maybe you're right. If Ervin's point really is something like, "We should make small sacrifices now, to forestall our even more disastrous sacrifices later," I think that's a legit argument.

DanO said...

Am I wrong to understand this as an argument for measuring the cost of terrorism only in deaths? Do bee stings directly destroy infrastructure? Disrupt commerce? What did the attacks of 9/11 cost besides lives? Can bees do that? Lightning even?

Glen Whitman said...

DanO -- There are important things besides death. But non-terrorist threats also produce forms of damage other than death. Storms and earthquakes can create extensive property damage, for instance. So I'm saying we can put terrorism in perspective by comparing death and damage from terrorism to death and damage from other sources.

DanO said...

Comparing deaths AND damage would seem to make bee stings an orange in a bowl of apples. But comparing acts of nature to malicious acts of human beings raises more questions: Certainly non-terrorist threats also produce forms of damage other than death, but are the acts of nature preventable? There does seem to be evidence that human acts, particularly large-scale, multi-party, planned and coordinated attacks, can be and have been prevented. Can we spend money on a policy of preventing earthquakes or hurricanes as efficiently? As effectively? Policy is never an exact science, but it seems relatively cost-effective to spend money on what we can do something about, rather than on what we likely can do nothing about. Preparedness is different than prevention, and to spend money on natural disaster preparedness is different than spending money on preventative, pre-emptive antiterrorism. Of course, the costs of preparedness against the effects of an actualized (not prevented) terrorist attack should also be factored in, recognizing that there is overlap with other health, safety, and civil defense spending already in place. Still, these are not especially fine distinctions, and comparing bee stings to terror attacks still strikes me as something of a reductio ad absurdam.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the random deaths due to natural causes, such as bee stings, to terrorist attacks is nonsensical. The natural deaths are randomly distributed across the country. Our society can absorb the losses just as the body absords the losses as individual cells die off. By contrast, a terrorist attack is like a bullet to the heart. Its intent is to kill our country just as surely as a bullet will kill a person.

The losses to terrorism to date have been relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but that is not for want of trying. The first WTC terrorists planned to topple one tower onto the other. Had they succeeeded, upwards of 50,000 people would have died in a few seconds.

Our enemy offers us three choices: death, conversion to Islam or slavery under Islamic rule. If they had the means they would happily kill us all. Suppose we did nothing after 9/11. Would terrorist attacks have increased or decreased? Pretty obviously, given the nature of the beast, they would have increased dramatically. With state patronage and access to WMD, such as a few liters of anthrax, the terrorits could improve their kill rate by two orders of magnitude.

Bees don't intend to wipe us out; they just react when they perceive an attack. They cannot suddenly increase their lethality by an act of will. Terrorists can. That's the difference.

Ran said...

I mostly agree, except that anon #1 makes an excellent point (which incidentally reminds me of your own recent comments on hate crime legislation), and I have one further quibble along the same lines:

Bee attacks can be dealt with by avoiding bees, and I don't think anyone has a serious objection to advising that allergic individuals do just that; but while terrorist attacks could, I suppose, be dealt with by avoiding areas terrorists would want to attack, a lot of people see that as "giving in" to the terrorists and letting them rule our lives, and I don't think that's an entirely misguided way to look at it.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe no one faulted Ervin for making a lame Pascal's wager-type argument at the bottom of his essay.

Not sure why I'm responding to a post from last September; somehow it got bumped to the top of my RSS newsreader.