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Odds of Dying

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The Odds of Dying in the U.S.
 

What are the odds of dying in a given year as a result of being bitten by a poisonous snake in the U.S.? How about exposure to radiation? What are the odds that you'll die as a result of medical or surgical complications in your lifetime?

These are exactly the kinds of questions that the statisticians of the U.S. National Safety Council have considered, and for which they have posted the odds that someone in the U.S. will die of either in a single year, or during their lifetime, based upon the number of recorded occurrences of each non-natural cause of death in 2004.

We've taken a handful of that data and presented it in a dynamic table below, which you can sort according to the various column headings. We'll have some interesting observations below the table

The Odds of Dying in the U.S.

National Safety Council Odds of Dying in the U.S.
Type of Accident or Manner of Injury Deaths in 2004 Odds of Death in Any Given Year Odds of Death in Lifetime
All - All External Causes of Mortality 167,184 00,001,756 to 1 000,023 to 1
Assault - All 017,357 00,016,919 to 1 000,217 to 1
Assault - Firearm 011,624 00,025,263 to 1 000,324 to 1
Intentional Self Harm 032,439 00,009,053 to 1 000,116 to 1
Legal Intervention - All 000,372 00,789,400 to 1 010,134 to 1
Legal Intervention - Execution 000,052 05,647,247 to 1 072,494 to 1
Legal Intervention - Involving Firearm Discharge 000,311 00,944,324 to 1 012,121 to 1
Medical and Surgical Care Complications 002,883 00,101,858 to 1 001,308 to 1
Operations of War - All 000,028 10,487,744 to 1 134,631 to 1
Transport Accidents - All 047,385 00,006,197 to 1 000,080 to 1
Transport Accidents - Motor Vehicle 044,933 00,006,535 to 1 000,084 to 1
Unintentional - Alcohol Poisoning 000,358 00,820,271 to 1 010,530 to 1
Unintentional - All 063,959 00,004,591 to 1 000,059 to 1
Unintentional - Bitten or Struck by a Dog 000,027 10,876,179 to 1 139,617 to 1
Unintentional - Bitten or Struck by Other Mammals 000,077 03,813,725 to 1 048,957 to 1
Unintentional - Cataclysmic Storm 000,063 04,661,220 to 1 059,836 to 1
Unintentional - Contact with Hornets, Wasps and Bees 000,052 05,647,247 to 1 072,494 to 1
Unintentional - Contact with Venomous Snakes and Lizards 000,006 48,942,807 to 1 628,277 to 1
Unintentional - Exposure - All Forces of Nature 001,102 00,266,476 to 1 003,421 to 1
Unintentional - Exposure - Earthquake 000,030 09,788,561 to 1 125,655 to 1
Unintentional - Exposure - Excessive Natural Cold 000,676 00,434,404 to 1 005,576 to 1
Unintentional - Exposure - Excessive Natural Heat 000,226 01,299,367 to 1 016,680 to 1
Unintentional - Exposure to Electric Transmission Lines 000,094 03,124,009 to 1 040,103 to 1
Unintentional - Exposure to Radiation 0 N/A N/A
Unintentional - Firearms Discharge 000,649 00,452,476 to 1 005,808 to 1
Unintentional - Flood 000,022 13,348,038 to 1 171,348 to 1
 

We found it pretty interesting that Americans are more likely to die in an earthquake than they are in operations of war, or for that matter, just about any force of nature, which suggests that a lot of Gaia-worshipping, anti-war protesters really might need to rethink their worldview. We'll also note that global warming may not be a such a bad thing, seeing as three times as many people die from exposure to excessive natural cold than die from exposure to excessive natural heat. At least, it's not a bad thing if you really care about people.

 

The Odds of Dying in the U.S.

The odds of dying

The National Safety Council has been compiling and reporting on injury data every year since the 1920s. The table below was prepared in response to frequent inquiries to the Council concerning the odds of dying from or being killed by a specific incident or occurrence such as a lightning strike or a plane crash.

The odds given below are statistical averages over the whole U.S. population and do not necessarily reflect the chances of death for a particular person from a particular external cause. Any individual's odds of dying from various external causes are affected by the activities in which they participate, where they live and drive, what kind of work they do, and other factors.

The table has four columns. The first column gives the manner of injury such as motor-vehicle crash, fall, fire, etc. The second column gives the total number of deaths nationwide due to the manner of injury in 2004 (the latest year for which data are available). The third column gives the odds of dying in one year due to the manner of injury. The fourth column gives the lifetime odds of dying from the manner of injury.

Statements about the odds or chances of dying from a given cause of death may be made as follows:

* The odds of dying from (manner of injury) in 2004 were 1 in (value given in the one-year odds column).
* The life-time odds of dying from (manner of injury) for a person born in 2004 were 1 in (value given in the lifetime odds column).
* The odds of dying from an injury in 2004 were 1 in 1,756.
* The lifetime odds of dying from an injury for a person born in 2004 were 1 in 23.

Source: National Safety Council estimates based on data from National Center for Health Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau. Deaths are classified on the basis of the Tenth Revision of the World Health Organization's "The International Classification of Diseases" (ICD). Numbers following titles refer to External Cause of Morbidity and Mortality classifications in ICD-10. One year odds are approximated by dividing the 2004 population (293,656,842) by the number of deaths. Lifetime odds are approximated by dividing the one-year odds by the life expectancy of a person born in 2004 (77.9 years).
Odds of Death Due to Injury, United States,

When major catastrophes strike, like the recent Asian earthquake and tsunami, the mass deaths can lead one to think that natural disasters are the most likely way people can die.

Not by a long shot.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the leading causes of death in the United States are, in this order, heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and "accidental injury," a broad category that includes a lot of stuff that just happens.

You are more likely to commit suicide or fall to your death than be killed by a tsunami or any natural disaster, the odds say.

Update,
A new report finds that cancer became the leading killer of Americans under 85, based on 2002 data. That report is not reflected in this article.

In less advanced countries, where residents often live in poverty and huddle near the sea or in poorly constructed houses, tsunamis, floods and earthquakes are a more looming threat. But even in such locales, there are far greater risks over the course of a lifetime.

Nature's power

There are no formal estimates on the risk of death by tsunami, because they occur so infrequently.

About 2,200 died in a Papua New Guinea tsunami in 1998; roughly 8,000 in the Philippines in 1976, about 120 in Hawaii and California in 1964. You have to go back to 1896 -- 27,000 deaths in Japan -- to find one that even approached the 150,000-plus scale of the Asian disaster on Dec. 26, 2004.

Michael Paine, of the Planetary Society Australian Volunteers, monitors and calculates risks of low-frequency events like asteroid impacts and tsunamis. He estimates the odds of a tsunami being the average coastal dweller's cause of death, globally speaking, are around 1-in-50,000. For the average citizen in the United States, given that many don't live near the coast, the chances are 1-in-500,000 or even perhaps less likely. Paine stressed this is a very rough estimate.

The real odds drop to zero, of course, if you live in the mountains and never visit the shore.

In fact, that sort of risk management -- intentional or not -- goes for many things. Frequent flyers are more likely to die in a plane crash than someone who never flies. A Californian is at greater risk from earthquakes than someone in Minnesota.

Overall, global deaths from sudden natural disasters -- things Nature dishes out over moments, hours or days -- have been on the decline in recent years, with the exception of 2003 and 2004. Officials credit better warnings and swifter response to help victims.

In 2003, the last year for which worldwide deaths have been tabulated by the Red Cross, natural disasters killed 76,000 people. The figure was skewed by two events: a heat wave in Europe that overcame more than 22,000 and an earthquake in Iran that killed upwards of 30,000. (Earthquakes kill roughly 10,000 people every year, on average.)

The bigger threats

The previous ten years saw an average of 62,000 global deaths per year from natural disasters. That's far less than the tolls taken by famine, disease and war.

Communicable diseases kill millions of people every year (13.3 million 1998, according to the World Health Organization).

In sub-Saharan Africa last year, AIDS killed about two million people, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Even more died because of bad water or sanitation systems. In Kenya, AIDS deaths are "equivalent to two 747 jets crashing every day," stated a recent Red Cross report.

Another study estimated that 3.3 million people died due to war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1998 to 2002. More than three-quarters of the deaths owed to diseases and malnutrition resulting from the fighting.

Globally, violence is a leading killer. It accounts for 14 percent of all deaths among males and 7 percent among females, according to a 2003 analysis by the World Heath Organization. On an average day, 1,424 people are murdered. Somebody commits suicide every 40 seconds.

Changing risk factors

Perceptions of risk factors can change over time simply because more is learned. The chances of an Earth-impacting asteroid killing you have dropped dramatically, for example, from about 1-in-20,000 in 1994 to something like 1-in-200,000 or 1-in-500,000 today.

The new numbers -- their range reflecting the need for further research -- were offered up last week by Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute and David Morrison at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Why such a dramatic downgrade? Active intervention.

"A significant part of it is that we have now discovered, in the last dozen years, a good fraction of the largest, most deadly asteroids and found that they won't hit the Earth," Chapman told LiveScience.

Also, projections of the destruction a large space rock would cause have been revised downward a bit. Finally, since Earth is two-thirds water, asteroid risks include the possibility of an impact-induced tsunami. And Chapman says asteroid-generated tsunamis may not be as deadly as once presumed.

Others contend the odds of death-by-asteroid are still about 1-in-50,000, until the remaining handful of expected large asteroids are found and determined not to be a near-term threat.

"This is a matter of hot, ongoing debate and calculations, however, partly motivated by the recent Indian Ocean tsunami," Chapman said.

Which brings up another huge margin of error. The death toll in Asia was greatly increased by the lack of a tsunami warning system, whereas there is one covering the Pacific Ocean.

"Our risk exposure from impact tsunamis depends heavily on the existence of such warning systems," Morrison said.

Both scientists stress that the asteroid risk is just an estimate. Like everything in this article. In the end, the only stat you can really count on is the overwhelming likelihood that you will, in fact, pass on.

By the numbers

There are significant caveats to consider before you contemplate the table below.

Risk varies with age. Infants face different threats than teens, whose risks are wildly different from senior citizens. Among people age one through 44, injuries are by far the leading cause of death in the United States. But heart disease is the hands-down No. 1 killer for those over 65. Since average life expectancy is about 77 years in the United States, simple logic reveals the leading killer of Americans.

The numbers get murkier the closer you look. Statistics are typically given for a person born in the year the numbers are crunched, but by the time that person grows up, the outlook will have changed because of medical advances, diet shifts, changes to the environment, and so on.

The list below is not complete. Rather it includes life-ending scenarios that carry some of the highest odds for U.S. residents, along with the chances of checking out in more bizarre fashion.

Health-related statistics and categories with high-odds (like heart disease at 1-in-5) are among the most statistically significant, sort of. All odds fluctuate from year-to-year. Toss in a flu pandemic -- some 50 million died in 1918 -- and all bets are off. The World Health Organization recently warned that the next such bout could kill 7 million people "in a best case scenario." That's not in the odds below.

The more specific figures are based on 2001, the most recent year for which complete data are available. Other odds, indicated with an asterisk (*) are based on long-term data.

All figures below are for U.S. residents.

Cause of Death Lifetime Odds
Heart Disease 1-in-5
Cancer 1-in-7
Stroke 1-in-23
Accidental Injury 1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident* 1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide) 1-in-121
Falling Down 1-in-246
Assault by Firearm 1-in-325
Fire or Smoke 1-in-1,116
Natural Forces (heat, cold, storms, quakes, etc.) 1-in-3,357
Electrocution* 1-in-5,000
Drowning 1-in-8,942
Air Travel Accident* 1-in-20,000
Flood* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-30,000
Legal Execution 1-in-58,618
Tornado* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-60,000
Lightning Strike (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-83,930
Snake, Bee or other Venomous Bite or Sting* 1-in-100,000
Earthquake (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-131,890
Dog Attack 1-in-147,717
Asteroid Impact* 1-in-200,000**
Tsunami* 1-in-500,000
Fireworks Discharge 1-in-615,488

** Perhaps 1-in-500,000

Who isn't daydreaming of what we would do with tonight's $340 million Powerball jackpot?

C'mon, you know you are. Against massive odds, someone eventually will win the money.

But what are the odds?

A player buying a $1 ticket has a 1 in 146,107,962 chance of matching the exact six numbers needed to win tonight's $340 million record jackpot. No one has had all six numbers in the 19 drawings since Aug. 10.

 

We got to thinking, what are the odds of other things happening to us? So, we took a look at some of the more commonly pondered likelihoods and the not-so-common ones, too. The more specific figures are based on 2001 research, the most recent year for which complete data is available. All figures below are for U.S. residents.

Odds of being struck by lightning: 1 in 576,000

Odds of dating a supermodel: 1 in 88,000

Odds of an American home having at least one container of ice cream in the freezer: 9 in 10

Odds of dying from contact with hot tap water: 1 in 5,005,564

Odds of writing a New York Times best seller: 1 in 220

Odds of finding a four-leaf clover on the first try: 1 in 10,000

Odds of being killed by lightning: 1 in 2,320,000

Odds of being murdered: 1 in 18,000

Odds of getting away with murder: 1 in 2

Odds of being attacked by a dog: 1 in 131,890

Odds of dying from a dog bite: 1 in 700,000

Odds of being bitten by a snake, bee or other venomous creature: 1 in 83,930

Odds of dying from contact with a venomous animal or plant: 1 in 3,441,325

Odds of dying from any kind of injury during the next year: 1 in 1,820

Odds of dying from being bitten or struck by mammals (other than dogs or humans): 1 in 4,235,477

Odds of dying from a shark attack: 1 in 300,000,000

Odds of having fraternal twins: 3 in 1,000 (for a woman younger than 20)

Odds of having fraternal twins: 14 in 1,000 (for women ages 35-40)

Odds that a person between the age of 18 and 29 does not read a newspaper regularly: 1 in 3

Odds that an adult does not want to live to age 120 under any circumstances: 2 in 3

Odds of being considered possessed by Satan: 1 in 7,000

Odds that a first marriage will survive without separation or divorce for 15 years: 1 in 1.3

Odds that a celebrity marriage will last a lifetime: 1 in 3

Odds of getting hemorrhoids: 1 in 25

Odds of being born a twin in North America: 1 in 90

Odds of being on plane with a drunken pilot: 1 in 117

Odds of being audited by the IRS: 1 in 175

Odds of having your identity stolen: 1 in 200

Odds of dating a millionaire: 1 in 215

Odds of finding out your child is a genius: 1 in 250

Odds of catching a ball at a major league ballgame: 1 in 563

Odds of becoming a pro athlete: 1 in 22,000

Odds of a person in the military winning the Medal of Honor: 1 in 11,000

Odds of winning an Academy Award: 1 in 11,500

Odds of striking it rich on Antiques Roadshow: 1 in 60,000

Odds of getting a royal flush in poker on first five cards dealt: 1 in 649,740

Odds of becoming a saint: 1 in 20,000,000

Odds of becoming president: 1 in 10,000,000

Odds of a meteor landing on your house: 1 in 182,138,880,000,000

Odds of dying from intentional self-harm: 1 in 9,380

Odds that Earth will experience a catastrophic collision with an asteroid in the next 100 years: 1 in 5,560

Odds of dying in such a collision: 1 in 20,000

Odds of experiencing an earthquake: 1 in 100,000

Odds of dying from exposure to forces of nature (heat, cold, lightning, earthquake, flood): 1 in 225,107

Odds of dying in an airplane accident: 1 in 354,319

Odds of dying from choking on food: 1 in 370,035

Odds of dying in a terrorist attack while visiting a foreign country: 1 in 650,000

Odds of dying in a fireworks accident: 1 in 1,000,000

Odds of dying from overexertion, travel or privation: 1 in 1,428,377

Odds of dying from food poisoning: 1 in 3,000,000

Odds of dying from legal execution: 1 in 3,441,325

Odds of dying from parts falling off an airplane: 1 in 10,000,000

Odds of dying from ignition or melting of nightwear: 1 in 30,589,556

Odds of spotting a UFO today: 1 in 3,000,000

Odds of contracting the human version of mad cow disease: 1 in 40,000,000

Odds of injury from fireworks: 1 in 19,556

Odds of injury from shaving: 1 in 6,585

Odds of injury from using a chain saw: 1 in 4,464

Odds of injury from mowing the lawn: 1 in 3,623

Odds of fatally slipping in bath or shower: 1 in 2,232

Odds of drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 685,000

Odds of being the victim of serious crime in your lifetime: 1 in 20

Odds of dying from a car accident: 1 in 18,585

Odds of dying from any kind of fall: 1 in 20,666

Odds of dying from accidental drowning: 1 in 79,065

 

Think Again: Homeland Security 2005
For the vast majority of Americans, the chances of dying in a terrorist attack are close to zero. There’s a higher probability that you’ll die by falling off a ladder than getting mixed up in some terrorist plot. So why is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security constantly telling every American to be afraid? That’s a strategy that creates widespread fear without making America any safer. U.S. homeland security efforts should focus less on what is possible and more on what is probable.

“All Americans Should Fear Terrorism”
That’s ridiculous. The odds of dying in a terrorist attack are minuscule. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the odds are about 1 in 88,000. The odds of dying from falling off a ladder are 1 in 10,010. Even in 2001, automobile crashes killed 15 times more Americans than terrorism. Heart disease, cancer, and strokes are the leading causes of death in the United States—not terrorism.

People overestimate risks they can picture and ignore those they cannot. Government warnings and 24–hour news networks make certain dangers, from shark attacks to terrorism, seem more prevalent than they really are. As a result, the United States squanders billions of dollars annually protecting states and locations that face no significant threat of terrorism. In 2003, Tulsa, Oklahoma, received $725,000 in port security funds. More than $4 million in 2005 federal antiterror funding will go to the Northern Mariana Islands. In 2003, Grand Forks County, North Dakota, received $1.5 million in federal funds to purchase trailers equipped to respond to nuclear attacks and more biochemical suits than it has police officers.

These small expenses add up. Federal spending on first responders grew from $616 million in 2001 to $3.4 billion in 2005, a 500 percent increase. Homeland security spending will approach $50 billion this year, not including missile defense—roughly equal to estimates of China’s defense spending. Yet pundits call for more. A 2003 Council on Foreign Relations report hyperbolically titled, Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared, recommends increasing spending on emergency responders to $25 billion per year. To his credit, the new secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, wants to trim the pork from the department’s budget. But efforts in congress to link funding with risk have failed largely because haphazard spending is consonant with the current U.S. strategy that tells all Americans to be afraid.

It’s true that al Qaeda’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, may be a harbinger of a more destructive future. But it is also true that parts of the war on terrorism are working. Tighter U.S. entry requirements, more aggressive European policing, the destruction of al Qaeda’s Afghan sanctuary, and refined intelligence operations have crippled al Qaeda’s ability to strike the United States. Most of al Qaeda’s original leadership is dead or in prison. Few other Islamist terrorists—even the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab al–Zarqawi—are as capable or organized as al Qaeda once was.
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“Terrorists Can Strike Any Place, Any Time, with Any Weapon”
Unlikely. This assertion is the guiding principle of our homeland security strategy, yet it ignores probability. When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security dispenses such silly advice as, “Ensure disaster supply kit is stocked and ready,” or “During a nuclear incident, it is important to avoid radioactive material, if possible,” it assumes all Americans face an equal threat and creates widespread fear without making America safer. The department should focus more on what is probable and less on what is possible.

Most Americans are safe from terrorist attack. And the most likely forms of attack remain conventional. The fact is, all terrorist attempts to use chemical and biological weapons have failed to cause mass casualties. True, a successful biological weapons attack could kill hundreds of thousands of people. But manufacturing, controlling, and successfully dispersing these agents is difficult—probably too difficult for today’s terrorist groups. Synthesizing and handling chemical agents such as the deadly nerve agent VX, sarin, or mustard gas is complicated and extremely dangerous, often requiring access to sophisticated chemical laboratories. Most experts agree, for instance, that al Qaeda does not possess the technical capability necessary to produce VX. And even if terrorists procure and deploy chemical weapons, they are unlikely to kill many people. The 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo’s subway system was limited to only 12 deaths. Official U.S. government reports, including that of the Gilmore Commission, which examines domestic responses to terrorism, show that it would take one ton of chemical agent, favorable weather, and considerable time to kill thousands of people with chemical weapons.

This is to say nothing of the fact that no terrorist organization is known to possess nuclear weapons. Even for nations with the requisite monetary resources and scientific infrastructure, building a nuclear weapon can take decades. Yes, terrorists might try to buy a stolen nuclear weapon or its parts on the black market. But the chances of terrorists heisting a working nuclear weapon or assembling one from stolen parts are low. Most nuclear weapons require delivery vehicles and activation codes. Stealing all of these elements is next to impossible. Smaller, more portable tactical nuclear weapons, especially those made by the former Soviet Union, are a greater danger. Yet, according to a 2002 report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, most of Russia’s portable nuclear weapons are probably inoperable today. What about dirty bombs? They are relatively easy to construct, but much less destructive. Depending upon variables such as wind direction and the speed of evacuation, a dirty bomb might not be any more deadly than a conventional bomb.

A nuclear terrorist attack in the United States is possible. That possibility should be enough to produce a more active and well–funded nonproliferation policy than the United States has today, especially when it comes to vulnerable stocks of fissile materials around the world. But that policy should not include preparing all Americans for nuclear attack.

“Terrorists Will Attack Soft Targets as �A–List’ Targets Become More Secure”
Not necessarily. This claim is made repeatedly in the pages of the 2002 National Strategy for Homeland Security—without any supporting evidence. A look at past behavior shows that terrorists are likely to continue to attack well–defended, high–profile targets. Before hitting the World Trade Center in 2001, al Qaeda targeted the buildings in 1993. After bombing the U.S.S. Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000, al Qaeda struck a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen in 2002. Al Qaeda targeted airlines in 1995, 1999, and 2001, and it has not stopped since. British would–be shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to blow up an airplane in December 2001. In 2002, al Qaeda terrorists fired missiles at planes in both Saudi Arabia and Kenya. In places such as Singapore and Uzbekistan, terrorist plots focused on U.S. embassies even after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania encouraged the United States to harden embassy defenses.

The idea that terrorists stealthily stalk America for weak spots implies levels of capability and cohesion that are more myth than reality. Different terrorist groups have different targets, not to mention discrepant information about where U.S. vulnerabilities lie. Some groups may be competent and organized; others are likely not. The assertion that terrorists continue to case American targets also stems from the idea that terrorists remain hidden in the United States. But FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress in February that there is little evidence that so–called sleeper cells reside in the United States, even as he warned the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he remains “very concerned about what we are not seeing.”

After years without a terrorist attack, perhaps Americans can take what they are not seeing seriously. The assumption that terrorists are flawless and ubiquitous results in unreasoned fear and overreaction. This ghost is worse than the reality.

“America Is Doing Far too Little to Protect Its Ports”
Hardly. More than $600 billion in goods and nearly 50 percent of U.S. imports flow through American ports each year. U.S. ports are vulnerable to both weapons smuggled into the United States in containers and U.S.S. Cole–style attacks on ships. But there is little indication such attacks are likely. Since September 11, the United States has made significant investments in port security. Federal port security grant programs have distributed about $600 million in funding to hundreds of U.S. ports. The Coast Guard’s budget has grown to $6.3 billion in the four years since Sept. 11, 2001. These efforts are enough.
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The news media love to mention that U.S. Customs agents inspect only 2 to 5 percent of containers entering the United States. But the measure of success is which containers are searched, not how many. The key to protecting ports without unduly burdening commerce is using intelligence to identify risky cargo. The Container Security Initiative, instituted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2002, aims to identify and inspect suspicious cargo before it sails to the United States by stationing agents in foreign ports, requiring a manifest prior to a ship’s arrival, determining the origin of containers, and developing electronic, tamper–proof container seals. This system is far from perfect. But it is superior to spending vast sums of taxpayer money to inspect every shipment. And, when one considers the cost to the U.S. economy of slowing commerce to a snail’s pace, this is one solution that is worse than the present danger. Any additional port security spending should respond to known threats, not mere vulnerability.

“Corporations Should Spend More on Security”
False. The odds of any one business in the United States being attacked by terrorists are vanishingly small. Still, leading terrorism experts such as Stephen Flynn often tout the fact that 92 percent of America’s CEOs believe terrorists will not attack their company. This, Flynn and others argue, is proof that businesses are underinvesting in security and that government regulation should force them to do more. In fact, these numbers show that businesses already spend too much.

Osama bin Laden has bragged of his ability to “bankrupt” the United States. The proper response to tactics such as these is to rationally evaluate risks while carrying on with business as usual, not to search frantically for holes to plug. Companies that deal with dangerous products, such as the chemical industry, or sports franchises that fill stadiums and create large public crowds, need to take security more seriously than others. Where the danger to society is high and companies have incentives to avoid spending more on security, the government may have to impose security standards or shift liability onto the company. But these types of situations are rare. Homeland security experts make much of the vulnerability inherent in modern economies. Manufacturing and food companies have international supply chains. Commerce relies on phone lines, power cables, and gas lines. These networks are ubiquitous and impossible to defend entirely. Because terrorists seek to frighten, attacks that produce much economic damage but little fear, such as electricity blackouts or the destruction of livestock, are unlikely. Companies whose vulnerabilities are exclusively economic have little to fear from terrorists and should not invest much in the defense against them.

“Terrorists Will Soon Mount a Crippling Cyberattack”
Nonsense. Cyberattacks are costly and annoying, but they are not a threat to U.S. national security.

Here, some historical perspective is useful. Alarmists warn that cyberterrorists could cripple American industry. Yet, even during World War II, the Allied bombing campaign against Germany failed to halt industrial production. Modern economies are much more resilient. A 2002 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, for instance, notes that just because the U.S. national infrastructure uses vulnerable communications networks does not mean that the infrastructure itself is vulnerable to attack. The U.S. power grid is run by some 3,000 providers that rely on diverse information technology systems. Terrorists would have to attack a large swath of these providers to have a significant effect. That’s a difficult task. Hackers, unlike summer heat waves and thunderstorms, have never caused a blackout. The U.S. water system is similarly robust, as is the U.S. air traffic control system. Although dams and air traffic control rely on communications networks, hacking into these networks is not the same as flooding a valley or crashing a plane.

Viruses and denial–of–service attacks are everyday occurrences, but they are not deadly. Most attacks pass unnoticed. Because terrorists aim to kill and frighten, they are unlikely to find these sorts of attacks appealing. Even if they do, they will merely join a crowd of existing teenagers and malcontents who already make cyberattacks a major business expense. The annual costs of viruses alone reportedly exceed $10 billion in the United States. A 2003 Federal Trade Commission report put the annual cost of identity theft, much of which occurs online, at more than $50 billion. Cybersecurity gurus have far more to worry about from traditional hackers than from terrorists.

“Al Qaeda Remains the Largest Threat to U.S. Homeland Security”
Wrong. The organization bin Laden continues to run from Afghanistan or Pakistan is on the ropes. Today, the main threat to the United States comes in the form of extremist entrepreneurs with only tenuous links to bin Laden and from other Sunni terrorist groups. These groups include Ansar al Islam, Egypt’s Jamaat al–Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Algeria’s Salifist Group for Preaching and War, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad, and a host of others.

The press often blithely refers to these groups as “al Qaeda linked.” But the links refer to sympathy and personal contacts that date back years, not continuous communications, planning, or operational control. These groups can be referred to as a movement, but that does not mean that they are part of a unified organization. For instance, though communications between Zarqawi and bin Laden have reportedly been intercepted, their relationship is a loose alliance, not one that involves handing down orders or sharing finances.
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Most of the large terrorist attacks carried out since September 11 have had little connection to al Qaeda’s leadership. The recent attacks in Bali, Turkey, and Spain were independent operations conducted by local extremists. Consider Madrid. The press still commonly calls the commuter train bombing there on March 11, 2004, an “al Qaeda attack.” But most recent evidence indicates that it was carried out by local Muslims, mostly Moroccans, who had some contacts with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, but little or no connection to bin Laden or Zarqawi. The Madrid attackers planned and executed their attack without training, orders, or material assistance from other terrorist groups.

Some experts and policymakers call this collage of al Qaeda fellow travelers and wannabes a network—and treat it as some form of higher organization. But the fact that this collection of fundamentalists is the primary national security threat to the United States should be cause for celebration. These groups are dangerous, but, thankfully, they lack the geographic reach and organizational capacity that al Qaeda had in 2001.

 

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