Page W3 in this weekend's Wall Street Journal carries two excellent articles that put the risk of terrorism into perspective. University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos writes the first:
The world's greatest nation seems bent on subjecting itself to ... humiliating defeat, by playing a game that could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:
(1) The game lasts as long as there are terrorists who want to harm Americans; and
(2) If terrorists should manage to kill or injure or seriously frighten any of us, they win.
These rules help explain the otherwise inexplicable wave of hysteria that has swept over our government in the wake of the failed attempt by a rather pathetic aspiring terrorist to blow up a plane on Christmas Day. For two weeks now, this mildly troubling but essentially minor incident has dominated headlines and airwaves, and sent politicians from the president on down scurrying to outdo each other with statements that such incidents are "unacceptable," and that all sorts of new and better procedures will be implemented to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Meanwhile, millions of travelers are being subjected to increasingly pointless and invasive searches and the resultant delays... stop treating Americans like idiots and cowards.
The odds that any of us will be a victim of a terrorist incident are absurdly low. We are a hundred times more likely to be killed by lightning. Nate Silver, of the political-forecasting Web site FiveThirtyEight.com, writes:
"violent passenger incidents"—bombings, hijackings, and other sabotage—were at least five times less common in the 2000s than in any decade from the 1940s through the 1980s...
There is one concern that rates as a clear exception to these statistics: the threat of terrorism involving nuclear weapons. The renowned Harvard scholar Graham Allison has posited that there is greater than a 50% likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack in the next decade, which he says could kill upward of 500,000 people. If we accept Mr. Allison's estimates—a 5% chance per year of a 500,000-fatality event in a Western country (25,000 causalities per year)—the risk from such incidents is some 150 times greater than that from conventional terrorist attacks. Other scholars consider the chance of a nuclear incident to be much lower. Even if Mr. Allison has overestimated the risk by fivefold, and the number of causalities by threefold, it would still represent 10 times the threat that conventional terrorism does.
In other words, a more rational anti-terrorism policy would focus resources heavily, perhaps almost exclusively, on threats of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction terror.