Monday, January 11, 2010

Terrorism Risk

Folks, for a variety of reasons, like to point out that the probability of dying in a terrorist attack is very small and that it is somewhat irrational to focus so many resources to combat it when other things are much more likely -- car accidents, for example. There are two problems with this.

First, Hobbes isn't still discussed so widely because his basis for politics (the fear of dying violently at the hands of another human being) doesn't have some serious validity. Therefore, terrorists will always be scarier than quotidian risks like car accidents. So, yes, it may be irrational, but it may be natural and ingrained.

Second, risk is the product of two factors -- the probability of an event occurring and the value of the loss resulting from an event occurring. To date the frequency of major terrorist attacks has been relatively low. Or alternatively, the attacks that occur frequently are relatively small. If you tabulate the data, then it looks like the risk is low.

But this is exactly what people thought before 2001. Terrorists will hijack a plane. Fly to Tunisia. After a day or so of ridiculous demands, they'll get raided. Perhaps a couple hostages will get hurt or killed, but not too much. Best just to play along. But that all changed.

Likewise, looking at historical data for terrorism may underestimate the risk. There hasn't been nuclear terrorism, but that doesn't mean it will never happen. Looking at historical terrorist activity and impact isn't the same as measuring some natural phenomenon. The Sun doesn't change its rays to compensate for people using sunscreen. Terrorists, however, change and adapt to the actions we take. They aspire to more powerful attacks. Therefore, saying that heretofore terrorism hasn't been that big a deal isn't all that compelling.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not reflexively pro-spending when the word terrorism is attached. In fact, I'm a big believer that most spending justified under the name of counter-terrorism is simply pork. Furthermore, I agree we need to make informed decisions using historical data. That said, I don't think that pointing out the irrationality of the fear people have towards terrorism is particularly useful. And I certainly don't think that using historical data gives the full picture of the terrorist threat. There's a black swan problem in that data.

2 comments:

David said...

I addressed this issue several years ago...

http://photoncourier.blogspot.com/2003_01_01_photoncourier_archive.html#86788061

alan_howe said...

The point of terrorism is to scare people. Being scared is a surrender to terrorists. We should mock them instead--routinely, frequently, savagely mock them. Bin Laden, for example, has a fetish for Soviet arms and habitually uses the Western invention of the Internet, where he travels with idolaters, infidels, homosexuals, and prostitutes. He kills more Muslims than he does anyone else, and he kills more Muslims than we do. Except, he tends to do it on purpose while we do it more by mistake.

I noted in my last essay that Americans have much more to fear from angry men with guns than they do from terrorists. We should not fear terrorists at all.

 
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.