contributor perspectives

Jan 13, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

5 mins read

Why Statistics Give Us a False Sense of Security

Board of Contributors
Philip Bobbitt
Board of Contributors
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

Whenever an atrocity is committed by terrorists attacking citizens in the West — a carefully chosen limitation — editorial writers and political commentators are quick to provide the statistical equivalent of Alka-Seltzer: Take a couple of these complacency tablets and by morning you'll have forgotten whatever it was that upset you in the first place.

All of us are familiar with these statistical bromides. "There are about 2.25 million people in Paris. This means that, if you were living in Paris on the day of the recent attacks, there was roughly a one in 20,000 chance of being the victim — about the same likelihood as getting killed by a car in France." Or, "In Paris, the annual murder rate has recently been as high as 2.6 per hundred thousand people; thus the terrorist attacks this year more than doubled the average murder rate. But this only makes Paris about as dangerous as New York City, which is generally considered a very safe city. So while terrorism may have made life in France more dangerous, the new level of danger is one we tolerate in the United States." Or, "In the United States, on average, there is about one mass shooting — that is, shootings in which four more people are killed or injured by gunfire — every day. Thus the killings in San Bernardino, Calif., were just another average day in the United States." Perhaps you've heard this one: The average American is more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by terrorists. In America, 30,000 people die every year in accidental falls, 35,000 die in car crashes, and 39,000 die of accidental poisonings and drug overdoses. By these measures, deaths from terrorism — including the deaths on 9/11 — are practically trivial.

Thus from these statistics, it is concluded that however natural it may be to react with horror at terrorist violence, it is really irrational. Moreover, this conclusion is often accompanied by another conclusion: Such irrational overreactions feed terrorism, giving the violent extremists exactly what they want. After all, aren't they trying to frighten us? Isn't that the point of terror?

The problem with this "statistical" argument is that it is permeated with corrupted data. In the first place, lightning strikes and slips and falls are not aimed at destroying the legitimacy of our system of government, separating us from our allies, and isolating vulnerable populations. Deaths from auto accidents were a good deal higher when the threats we faced from terror were less. In the second place, it is unlikely that the number of deaths from peanut allergies and drownings in bathtubs will escalate dramatically, whereas the possibility that terrorists might acquire weapons of far greater lethality than they have thus far deployed is by no means fanciful.

What does it matter? What's the harm in a little reassurance?  We all agree that panic can cause us to do harm to ourselves and our institutions. The problem is that, despite the alarms sounded by the civil liberties community, there isn't much evidence we are panic-stricken; indeed the reason we are not panic-stricken is because the extent of the killings, in the West, has been so minor. But I draw the opposite conclusion from this fact. Because we are living in a period of relative tranquility, we should be using this time to fashion laws and practices, to stockpile emergency routines and vaccines, to carefully reassess our protocols for responding to real mass emergencies so that when vastly more lethal attacks come we don't react in panic.

The problem is that, despite the alarms sounded by the civil liberties community, there isn't much evidence we are panic-stricken

But the statistical tranquilizers have just the opposite effect: They enervate us by telling us that there's really nothing to worry about and that, indeed, any action we might take would only make things worse by rewarding the terrorists who have rattled us.

Often this fallacious rhetorical ploy is accompanied by another one, the ugly insinuation I will call "cui bono," to whose profit. This innuendo implies that the only motive for sounding the alarm against terror, since the threat is so insignificant, must be a self-serving desire by politicians to aggrandize their own power. So it is not really so surprising, though it is disgraceful, that The New York Times included this paragraph in an opinion piece otherwise devoted to a rather banal statistical antidepressant:

"A cynical individual might wonder who benefits more from the terror induced by terrorism: the terrorists themselves or the politicians and governments who use the public reaction to acts of terror for political gain … John McCain said, in response to the president's address on the San Bernardino shooting, that 'this is the war of our time' ... Jeb Bush has proclaimed that 'we are at war with ISIS' … Herman Goering said, 'the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked. It works the same way in any country.' We need to be vigilant against those who seek to manipulate us — whoever they are."

Rather than traducing our politicians — and I'm a Democrat by the way — wouldn't it be prudent to begin by addressing the question of whether we are at war on the merits? Is it really inconceivable that war, in our time, is morphing from the large-scale conventional conflicts fought by conscripts that characterized the 20th century into more spatially diverse and temporally punctuated attacks by coordinated networks? Or that at the same time, terrorism is evolving away from the national liberation struggles of the past century and assuming a lethality and a global character hitherto reserved to nation states? That might require a little more thought, and a good deal more argument, but if it is true then the statistics that have been trotted out to minimize the problem are actually irrelevant.

Philip Bobbitt is a leading constitutional theorist whose interests include international security and the history of military strategy. He currently serves on the faculties of Columbia Law School and the University of Texas, where he is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer, respectively. He has published eight books. His bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008). His most recent book is The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014).

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