September 11 is fast approaching. For those who remember watching the attacks as they unfolded, it brings back harrowing memories and pangs of anxiety. The greatest number of Americans lost their lives on that day from an act of war since the battle of Antietam during the Civil War. Flights were grounded. Dick Cheney went into hiding (a positive development?) and George W. Bush stood on rubble surrounded by firefighters with a megaphone and promised revenge which, although it included Afghanistan, also, oddly enough, came to include Iraq.
Throughout the 15 years since, America almost certainly bungled the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It dropped $2 trillion on a war in Iraq where there were no weapons of mass destruction ever discovered. It sent soldiers into harm’s way in a war that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. It rapidly expanded programs which spied on US citizens and killed both civilians and US citizens abroad with drones. It created slow and expensive airport screening which was termed ‘security theater’ by most security experts – an illusion of safety that often missed weapons and contraband. It was responsible for wars that destabilized the Middle East and created more, not less terror attacks, especially in Europe. And finally, it frightened citizens with terror color codes and warnings of imminent attacks. While it is true there has not been another 9/11-style strike (the weapons of choice nowadays are guns, knives and trucks), terrorism has continued relatively unabated in the form of lone wolf and complex, organized attacks.
While Trump and Clinton obfuscate or regret decisions made and not made on the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq, the question one certainly asks is whether it was all worth it. But what if we abandoned the war against ISIS, took down our airport barriers, withdrew our troops from hot zones, packed up our drones and pretended terrorism didn’t exist? If terrorists still attacked, would it make much of a difference? The answer is almost certainly no.
When you look at the death statistics for US citizens, the biggest killers are and continue to be self-inflicted. Tacos, hamburgers, french fries, ice cream, cigarettes. If terrorism is measured by the ability to kill and maim Americans, look no further than the local fast food restaurant or donut shop. Thousands of us die daily from heart attacks and cancer, the vast majority of it preventable with a proper diet and exercise, or more spending on health care. The next biggest killers? Car accidents and suicide – although one must suspect that many car accidents (night time, sole driver, tree, no seatbelt – are just another form of suicide. Alcohol? Drugs? Add those to the list. All told, 2.5 million Americans die each year from the above or related causes. If just 1% of those Americans died from terror attacks on US soil, there would almost certainly be another national panic and calls to arrest or murder all innocent American Muslims. And yet, when policy makers discuss these issues with the electorate, you can almost hear the snoring emanate from the nation’s living rooms. Why is it that people aren’t interested in preventable causes of death? Why are they so focused on something that has almost a statistically impossible chance of killing them?
When I’ve raised this argument in the past, most people counter that it’s the trillions of dollars that we’ve spent on foreign wars and security measures that has made us safe enough where terrorism isn’t high on the list. That our security apparatus and hawkish foreign policy have prevented high casualty events such as those caused by nuclear weapon and dirty bomb attacks. But nuclear weapons are notoriously difficult and expensive to produce. Not as expensive as a conventional military mind you, but a State of organization certainly needs a solid infrastructure, a nuclear energy apparatus and a cadre of scientists. What about theft? Could a terrorist sneak a suitcase bomb into a US city? It’s nearly impossible – not just because foreign governments have their fingers on the pulse of their stockpiles, but because other governments do as well. There are also relatively inexpensive methods for detecting radiation in and around major US cities and ports.
And let’s suppose a terrorist DID sneak a nuclear weapon into a US city. These types of explosives do best high up in the sky. If you detonate one in a city center, it will be well-contained, killing a few thousand people perhaps, but nothing compared to your local hamburger chain. Dirty bombs are scary, and they can contaminate a few city blocks, but they don’t kill many people either. They probably wind up killing jobs, unless you’re in the decontamination business.
What about chemical weapons? Syria has used them recently. Same for ISIS. And while the casualties are horrifying to watch, death counts are typically very low. Syria was recently accused of dropping barrel bombs with chlorine gas. It’s painful, and it burns lungs, but so far only one person has died, and that was at the ground zero location of the strike. There’s a higher risk for other types of gas or chemical attacks, but it all depends on the wind speed and direction. These attacks do best in open fields, but there aren’t a lot of people in open fields, standing around, like in World War I.
I could go through the other various methods of terrorist attacks, but the bottom line is that these events are carried out based on their symbolic or shock value, not on the numbers of dead. Their spark is based on attention, and the media, which survives on advertising, is more than happy to carry the flame. Even in Syria, where one can argue there is the highest concentration of terrorist organizations fighting per capita, the highest estimates for deaths for the last 5 years has been 470,000 people, and that’s only because the Syrian, Russian and US Governments have had the battlefield advantage of using air power to drop bombs from above. Without jets, the kill count would be much, much lower. And even at it’s highest, it’s still far below the number of Americas who have died from cancer (over 1.2 million in the same period).
Hospital deaths are slow, boring and unspectacular affairs. They take place in remote locations, leaving infrastructure and the ordinary pace of daily life alone. They provide the comfortable illusion that everything is fine. But ask anyone if they know someone who has died of cancer or a heart attack, and they will tell you yes. Ask about a terrorist attack? Hardly ever. That being said, if there’s a national crisis at all, there is a health care crisis. There is a diet and exercise crisis. There is also an education crisis and crime crisis in our inner cities. If we could divert a fraction of the money we spend on national defense, our security apparatus and the ‘War on Terror’ towards health care, making it free for all, and encouraging/promoting exercise and proper eating habits we could certainly save more lives. On September 11, 2001, over 3000 Americans lost their lives in a spectacular, fiery explosion. The next day, just like every day in the United States, over 5000 people lost their lives from miscellaneous, unspectacular, causes based on personal choice, and nobody seemed to notice.