Authors Present 'Acceptable Risk' of Terrorism

Friday, 16 Apr 2010 09:50 AM

By Tawfik Hamid

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In a recent Op-Ed in Foreign Affairs, authors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart argued that spending to reduce the likelihood or consequences of terrorism rarely is justified.

They based their argument on the view that terrorism presents an “acceptable risk,” when you compare the number of terrorist attacks with other threats such as fatal accidents and homicidal acts.

In fact, based on their analysis, car accidents should be considered more important and dangerous than terrorism.

The authors did not address the following important facts in their article, headlined "Hardly Existential: Thinking Rationally About Terrorism":

1. Deciding whether a threat is existential depends predominantly on the inherent lethality of that threat. The potential to cause massive killing carries greater weight than the actual number of victims at a given time. For example, a rapidly contagious and fatal infection problem within a country must be treated as existential and should be taken more seriously than car accidents, as the former has the potential to spread and kill millions in a short period of time, while the latter remains pretty stable. To demonstrate this point, based on the death toll numbers from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, that same phenomenon could kill 62 million people today. Therefore, evaluating the magnitude of the terrorism threat by only the number of current victims, which the authors suggest be done, is a limited approach to the problem that leads to underestimation.

2. The rate at which a phenomenon occurs is also fundamental to understanding its potential to cause death and destruction. For example, the number of car accidents per capita remains relatively stable over time. However, the number of Islamist terrorist attacks has increased by more than 100-fold over the past few decades. This exponential growth rate of Islamic terrorism means that, if we simply ignored the problem, we might face tens of thousands of terror attacks over the next few decades, which could lead to an uncontrollable problem, thereby threatening the security of the entire world.

3. Another factor that needs to be considered is the intention of the terrorists. Many realize that most, if not all, Islamic terrorists will not hesitate to use WMDs if given access to them. President Obama recently noted this fact. In such a case, a single attack on a major city could kill hundreds of thousands instantly. However, car accidents tend to occur unintentionally and, from a statistical standpoint, their numbers are relatively stable over years. In other words, the possibility that car accidents could kill hundreds of thousands of people in one day is a very unlikely possibility. On the contrary, killing such number of people in a single day is a valid possibility when we deal with terrorism.

4. The authors should have mentioned that the number of fatalities they used to evaluate the threat was calculated during the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers, when security measures have been higher and more sophisticated than ever. This is comparable to measuring the temperature of a patient while he is under the use of medications that lower body temperature, as the real temperature could be higher if those medications were not used. This relates to the terrorism problem, because it is hard to tell how many people would have been killed in the United States from terrorist attacks if extra care had not been given to post-9/11 homeland security measures.

5. I agree with the authors’ view that less costly measures may be needed to deal with the problem of terrorism. However, underestimating the threat — as the Op-Ed implied — can end in a disaster for the United States.

In short, factors such as the potential to cause massive damage, the rate of growth of a phenomenon, and the intention of the attackers to use WMD rather than just the actual number of fatalities, MUST be included in the evaluation process of a threat, such as that of terrorism.

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