As we mark the 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and honor the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, I think of the debate we've had this year on our security, and just how much privacy we have given up over the years to be (or at least feel) safer.
More than a decade after the towers fell, the Pentagon burned, and a Pennsylvania field was scarred, we still don't feel all that much safer. A Gallup survey taken in April said 40 percent of Americans are either "very worried" or "somewhat worried" about terrorism. Just 10 days after the 2001 attacks? 49 percent.
This makes no sense when you consider how few people have actually died on U.S. soil from terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001. First, let's define "terrorism." The federal government's National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) calls it "premeditated, politically motivated violence, perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." Using this benchmark, I argue that the number is 35:
- Fall 2001: Five people die in a series of anthrax attacks.
- July 4, 2002: Two Israelis are killed at Los Angeles airport.
- July 28, 2006: One woman is killed in an attack on a Jewish organization in Seattle
- July 27, 2008: Two people are killed in an attack on a church in Knoxville, Tenn.
- May 30, 2009: Three people, all members of the same family, are killed by a militia group.
- May 31, 2009: An abortion doctor is gunned down in church.
- June 1, 2009: One soldier is killed at a recruiting center in Arkansas.
- June 10, 2009: One man is killed in a shooting at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
- November 5, 2009: 13 soldiers are killed during a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.
- February 18, 2010: One person is killed after a man flies a small plane into an IRS facility in Austin, Texas.
- September 23, 2011: A man is killed in his home during an attack by three members of the Aryan Brotherhood.
- April 15, 2013: Three people die in the Boston Marathon bombing; a fourth person — a policeman — is shot and killed three days later.
Again, in 12 years, only 35 deaths from terrorist acts. That's less than three a year.
Now, I'm not including such horrors as the 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington area (10 killed) or last December's elementary school massacre in Connecticut (27, not counting the killer). These incidents certainly terrorized their respective communities and instilled fear — but we're using the NCTC's narrower definition of "politically motivated violence" here.
Now let's add the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks abroad. The NCTC has been collecting this data since 2005, and says between then and 2011, 158 U.S. lives were lost — with the vast majority occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unless you plan on traveling to Helmand province in the near future, you probably have nothing to worry about.
Here's the bottom line: Your odds of getting killed in a terrorist attack are absurdly low: about one in 20 million. You're far more likely to meet your demise from a bee sting, gun, car accident — or from behavior that you can control: smoking, sitting on the couch stuffing your face with junk food, not exercising.
So why do tens of millions of Americans worry about terrorism? Because humans, flawed creatures that we are, don't consider probabilities with level-headed analytical reasoning. We do so with our emotions. Terrorism is meant to intimidate us, and for many, that's exactly what it does.
But there is less reason to be fearful today, in my view, because we're doing a much better job of countering the threat. Let's remember that the 19 hijackers who changed our world a dozen years ago were in many cases living right under our noses. Had we been less complacent about our security and more competent about connecting the dots, it's entirely possible, if not probable, that the attack never would have happened. As for the tradeoff we have made between civil liberty and national security ever since, I suspect that's one reason why the death toll from terrorism is so low.
Since 2001, some plots — the Times Square bomber, the underwear bomber, and others — came close to succeeding; others were disrupted before they became operational. In 2001, I wondered what more could we have done; now we're doing it. There are more cameras watching us in public. The government we like to bash is doing a better job of data mining, sharing information, and being more proactive about disrupting possible threats. It has made mistakes and, yes, in some cases it has gone too far and there have been abuses. We live in an imperfect world. We can do better, and I'm confident we will.
And this, in the end, is the real tradeoff: What is going too far in the name of security — and what is not far enough?
Editor's note: Originally, this article included an incorrect death toll for the 2001 anthrax attacks. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.