Donald Trump tells us that our leaders are stupid and incompetent, but that he and we will be great. After the terrorism attack in Istanbul, he said, “… there’s something that’s going on that’s really, really, really bad.”
I must say about Mr. Trump’s highly intellectual and comprehensive assessment that he is right, except what is “really bad” is not leaders failing to find the magic solution to keep crazy people from blowing themselves up, or finding a foolproof means to protect everyone from random attacks in random locations.
No, what is really bad is that a propagandist like Trump and a ratings hound like Roger Ailes at Fox are scaring the crap out of people about a risk that, when examined comparatively, barely registers on the charts.
Annual U.S. deaths from jihadi terrorism put in perspective
In the past 15 years since 9-11, there have been 94 deaths tied to 10 violent jihadi-inspired attacks in the U.S. More than half that number is the result of the tragic shootings in the Orlando nightclub. This averages to six deaths a year during the period. There are five times as many unlucky souls that die each year from lightning strikes. Four times as many people are crushed by their own furniture. During the same period, there have been 18 right-wing extremist attacks in the U.S., killing 48 people.
Here are some other comparative ways that, unfortunately, people are killed (source years of data vary):
- 96 killed by car accidents daily
- 58 killed by bees, wasps or hornets in 2014
- 32 killed by lightning annually
- 27 killed under the weight of their own furniture annually
Further, compare the following list of what really kills massive numbers of people every year in the U.S. to the 15-year average of six deaths due to terrorism (source year 2014):
- Heart disease — 614,348
- Cancer — 591,699
- Chronic lower-respiratory diseases — 147,101
- Accidents (unintentional injuries) — 136,053
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases) — 133,103
- Alzheimer’s disease — 93,541
- Diabetes — 76,488
- Influenza and pneumonia — 55,227
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis — 48,146
- Intentional self-harm (suicide) — 42,773
During the same year as all of the death rates listed above, the FBI logged 8,124 murders by firearms in the United States.
Misdirected efforts to stem deaths
We tragically lost 2,996 people in 9/11, and our reaction was to start two wars that cost $6 trillion and resulted in the deaths of more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers and another million soldiers wounded. The (amazingly imprecise) estimates of civilian deaths in these two countries from these conflicts ranges from 200,000 to over a million people.
These wars and their concomitant enormous cost of lives and treasure failed to do a lot of good. We might have had ISIS anyway, but I am thinking the civilian carnage noted above helped give them a boost. Ironically, the guy that had the courage to stop these two ridiculous wars, which were easy and popular to start but damn hard to stop, is now blamed by some for the mess in the region.
No good deed ….
Speaking of good deeds, imagine if we had put $1 trillion into research for cancer or heart disease, which, combined, kill about 1.2 million Americans annually, instead of killing all those people in a futile attempt to drive six U.S. deaths a year down to zero.
‘Deadened to the risk of death’
Forgive the analogy, but, like heart disease, we develop anxiety exhaustion and become deadened to the risk of death. We begin devoting less attention to the latest death-causing topic, which in turn results in less media coverage. Media coverage does not in and of itself motivate the criminally insane to use Islamic extremism for their suicidal outbursts, but clearly the coverage of our disproportionate reactions to this risk communicates that extremists’ actions are having the desired effect on our governments and our culture.
When the West and developed countries become less apoplectic about terrorism, the nations that feed and encourage these activities will begin to discourage and prosecute or address the causes of this extremism. Eventually, the leaders and the citizens of the Muslim countries, some of whom are complacent to the activities of their resident Islamic extremists, will realize that most terrorism deaths are in Muslim countries, and the Muslim worldwide casualties are estimated at 82 to 97 percent of the total casualties.
If these extremists lose the satisfaction of the West going ape over these attacks, would they be so willing to turn themselves into red vapor clouds and kill so many innocents?
Besides, Fareed Zakaria’s recent documentary on CNN exposes that the “72 virgins” language in the Koran turns out to be a mistranslation: It is, in fact, “72 raisins” promised to martyrs upon their arrival in heaven.
We cannot stop terrorism (although surely the new translation will slow it down).
This is an unfortunate truth that few will utter. The talking heads and demagogic political candidates work hard after each attack to pin the blame and find out what we can do so this “never happens again.” It is painful to listen to, attack after attack, this vain search for a solution that does not exist.
We can, however, better our fight against terrorism, on the margins, by improving an already robust system for tracking and spotting terrorist activity. We can better use existing technology to link and respond to reports of deranged individuals telegraphing key signs they are about to kill a lot of people. We can find new and better ways to track the purchase of the latest bomb-making materials and mass-murder weapons of choice. We can limit the general ability of any Joe Blow who makes it to a gun store to buy military-style weapons. (OK, that last one is not going to happen.)
Here is how terrorism ends: It ends in the same way that our interest in any reasonable control of guns in America ended. It becomes so commonplace, so routine, that it rarely makes news. Fifty souls are gunned down in Orlando by a crazy person claiming to be a terrorist, and it is wall-to-wall coverage, but, over the next seven days, 228 people in the U.S. were slain with guns and there was nary a mention. If it is labeled “terrorism,” though, then it is covered: Thoughts and prayers are offered, speeches are given, candidates tweet out their obligatory positions and we are all hanging on every word.
The truth is the only people who care about the other 228 people slain are their family and friends.
It is likely, in my view, that terrorism events in the U.S. will remain infrequent, but international attacks will become commonplace. Quick test: During the week prior to July 4, how many people were killed in terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq and Saudi Arabia?
With any luck, terrorism, eventually, will meet the same fate as our disinterest in gun deaths, reducing our consumption of fried foods and most of the mitigations of deaths from diseases.
The distinction is that, when we put the deaths from terrorism in perspective and begin to redirect our interest, the jihadis will be less motivated. Then, we can start looking more suspiciously at teetering TV sets perched on wobbly bureaus than we do at people with beards.
Mass shootings: Do we have to reach triple-digit deaths? by William W. Savage III