Headline News

by James Classen

Yes, I’m going Weird Al for the post title. But I’m also using a category! 見解, pronounced けんかい (okay, kenkai), means “opinion” or “point of view”, composed of the characters for “see”, “opinion”, “idea”, and that for “understanding”, “explain”, “answer”. It’s a cool language—if only I understood it and its culture more.

Anyway, I came across this article and wanted to make a comment. First, the headline made me bristle: “Americans should expect acts of terror”. The subheading was a little more reasonable: “Tom Brokaw was right: Our violent attacks abroad increase the chance of retributive attacks at home”. Overall, the tone of the piece is remarkably restrained, compared to the more shocking headline (to “sell” an online magazine?).

Now, I don’t agree with much of the “Team America: World Police” attitude our government takes, I’ll freely admit that. It’s hard for me to reconcile the appreciation I have for the military with the fact that many are “just following orders” when they bomb a village full of innocents. Granted, there are bad people out there, and the stories I have heard from friends and family are much more on the lines of defense than anything else, so the fundamentally flawed “Nuremberg Defense” for one’s actions is totally unnecessary.

We may have a Hatfield–McCoy situation on our hands, though no one’s exactly sure who killed who first (Asa McCoy was the first casualty in the long-lasting family war). The US has made some questionable calls in the Middle East (from Libya to Afghanistan and most places in between)—I see no one denying that. A protest turns into an unruly mob, and before you know it, America is “The Great Satan” and bin Laden issued his “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”. The fact that the US has chosen a distinct side in the 6000 year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays a big role in the US image (I’m not saying I disagree with the choice, but there are many more related bad decisions which I’ll not get into here).

I’d like to note that “this” (War on Terror, US police actions in Muslim-dominated countries) appears to me to be much more a feud than a religious war. Many think that the fatwās issued by individuals (like bin Laden or Khamenei) are integral parts of the Islamic faith, and they are not. They are diktats of a person of prominence, and of the millions that have been issued in Islam’s 1400-year history, many are conflicting. I won’t say Islam is a “peaceful” religion: I don’t know enough about it (I haven’t read but tiny excerpts from the Qur’an, for instance). But twenty countries recognize it (or some flavor) as their state religion.

On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that the United States is a “Christian” nation, or was ever intended to be founded as such. By December 17, 1791, however, the First Amendment to the Constitution goes into effect, and it states quite clearly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. The “establishment clause” effectively establishes that no religion shall have the status of a state religion in the US—it might be more accurately described as the “disestablishment clause”.

All that is really beside the point, but provides a little insight into the lack of reason that many apply to the conflicts in which the US asserts its military muscle.

Back to the original point, should we really “expect” acts of terror? It’s prudent to expect plots for terrorism, but telling Americans to expect an act of terror is entirely the wrong message—it’s an act of terror in and of itself, because that’s just the message its conveying: “Be terrified! You could be next!” Are you watching your kid every second of every day? Are you anxious around that “Muslim-looking guy” at your local coffee shop? Are you buying lottery tickets? Do you go golfing in a thunderstorm?

Lets look at the numbers, shall we?

Kidnapping: I’m still looking for the raw data, but various sources cite the NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) stating that there are 115 “standard” kidnappings per year (a stranger takes a child for at least one overnight, more than 50 miles from home). Consider the number of individuals your child interacts with on a daily basis. With 800,000 missing children reported per year, apparently 799,885 of those are runaways or are taken by someone the child knows. Then, consider there are 316,668,567 people in the US, 63,333,713 under the age of 15. So the likelihood, per year, that your child will be taken, if all kidnappings are entirely random, is roughly 1 in 550,728.

Violent Crime (including terrorism): These numbers are much easier to come by. As of 2010, the likelihood you’d be a victim of violent crime, again, if it was totally random, is roughly 1 in 248 (most of these are robberies and assault cases, which includes domestic abuse and purse snatching). If you’re worried about forcible rape, it’s 1 in 3636. The terrorism? A rough estimate gets me at 3200 dead since 1990, and 4500 dead or injured (the injury numbers were harder to come by; this number is probably higher). Per year, that’s a 1 in 2,276,055 chance of dying or 1 in 1,618,528 of death or injury. Exclude the extremely unlikely 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (which are even more unlikely because of two things: reinforced cockpit doors and the realization of passengers that they can fight back. The hole-ridden security theater the TSA puts you through is entirely irrelevant.), the odds drop drastically: 1 in 36,416,885  chance of dying. For mass shootings, there aren’t as many as you might think given the media coverage. 316 deaths since 1984, and another 395 injured. 1 in 29,061,356 chance of dying in a mass shooting, and 1 in 12,916,158 of death or injury.

Lottery: Take the Powerball. It’s a fairly common game. The odds of hitting the jackpot are 1 in 175,223,510 per play.

Lightning: According to the US National Weather Service, the odds of getting struck by lightning are 1 in 775,000 per year.

Conclusion: So should Americans be afraid of terrorism? You’re about 40 times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are of being a casualty in an act of terrorism. Are you afraid of being struck by lightning? Be 40 times less afraid of terrorism as you are of a 30 kA, 33 MV lightning strike..