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July 19, 2007

Reality Check (List)

By Stephen Pizzo

Terrorists hurt and kill real people somewhere on earth everyday. And killing Americans here is right at the top of their wish list. But before we decide how to respond to that threat, we need to objectively assess just how severe it is.


What are the odds you're going to get murdered today? Are they higher or lower than they were yesterday, or last week, or ten years ago?

Say you make it through today, what about tomorrow? What are the odds you'll get killed tomorrow... and when I say killed, I don't mean falling in the shower, or run over by a drunk driver while crossing the street – I mean killed violently by another person? 

Let's take the question down one level. What are the odds someone you love, care about or just know, will be slain today, tomorrow, or even during your entire lifetime ?

I figure the odds of any of those things happening to you or anyone you know range somewhere between slim and slimmer. And, despite  the steady flow of fear mongering out of Washington, those odds have changed little, if any, over the last six years.

Since none of us likes to think about dying, we try not to. Which is why we need to force the issue every now and then. Otherwise the terrorists win. Which terrorists? Both kinds. The Islamically-poisoned ones that want you to live in fear, and our own mis-leaders in Washington, who have found it most useful to leverage terrorist threats to keep you living in fear.

If you took to heart every claim or threat made by these two groups on any given day, you'd never leave the house.

Al-Qaida keeps claiming that the attacks of 9/11 were the first of many to come. And that the next attacks will be even bigger. 

To get itself re-elected in 2004, the Bush administration assured us they had al-Qaida on the run, that they were weaker than ever. This month the same folks, now under pressure because of it's disastrous war in Iraq, warned us that, “they're baaaaaaaaaaacccck.” That al-Qaida has regrouped and is stronger (and scarier) than ever.

Does al-Qaida and the Bush administration employ the same PR firm? Sure sounds like it. Al-Qaida says, “We're gonna get you.” The Bush administration says, “Al-Qaida is still trying to get you.” The only change today is that the administration has ginned up it's warnings, adding now that they just don't want to kill you but also “your children and grand children too.” (At this pace, can an al-Qaida threat to our family pets be far behind? Will they plant Dandelions in suburban lawns, return VHS tapes un-rewound, litter?)

I don't mean to trivialize all this. Certainly terrorism is real and terrorists hurt and kill real people somewhere on earth everyday. And I do not doubt for a second that killing Americans here is right at the top of their lunatic wish list.

All I am suggesting is that, before we decide how to respond to that threat,  we assess precisely what it is terrorist and terrorism really threatens. 

So here's my reality check.

1)What threat does Islamic terrorism pose to America?
Even at it's most vicious and effective levels, could it overthrow our government, take control of our institutions, subjugate the people and impose its will on the nation? No. Not even close. The “best” Islamic terrorists can hope is to be very annoying. By blowing things up from time to time they can disrupt a few city blocks, kill X-number of  innocent people and, in so doing, assure that the last thing the rest of Americans would want is a country run by murderous sociopaths like them.

2)How should we respond to terrorist threats and acts on US soil?
The same way we respond to other potentially lethal threats – with some degree of proportionality.  Lots of things kill Americans every year that we don't “declare war” on. For example:

Over the last 20 Years on Average:       
Americans killed each year in auto accidents    42,116
By the common flu    20,000
Murdered by common criminals  15,517

Food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses,
325,000 hospitalizations,
and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

On 9/11 somewhere around 3000 innocent people were killed by terrorists. Since then only five people died on US soil tied to a terrorist-type attack (the Anthrax letters.) So, 3005 divided by six years gives us a rough average of 500 Americans a year dying at the hands of terrorists.

Could it get worse? Sure. All manners of death statically rise and fall, which is why they have to be averaged. It could also get safer, driving the average lower. All we can do is make our decisions on the things that have already happened -- or not happened.

So, as the terrorist headquartered in Pakistan and the ones dug in in Washington threaten and warn  we're so to be toast, the only sane way way to respond is to stop – take a deep breath and try to put  those threats into some kind dispassionate perspective. The best way to do that is to compare the likelihood of dying from various threats, not just one:

According to statisticians at The National Safety Council:

You face 1 chance in 84 of dying in an auto accident during your lifetime
You face 1 chance in 218 of dying in a fall
You face 1 chance in 1113 of dying in a building fire
You face 1 chance in 193 of being poisoned to death by something
You face 1 chance in 314 of being killed by a gun

Using the same metrics employed in that study, your odds of being killed on American soil by a terrorist attack is 1 chance in 7496. (Another way of looking at it is that every day you drive to work you are 90 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.)

Speaking of cars, John Edwards got a lot of flack for claiming that the term, “War on Terror,” was little more than a bumper sticker slogan. His point was that the current administration has used it as a propagandistic slogan to gin up fear and support for it's ruinous foreign policies and it's anti-democratic domestic actions. The numbers – and the odds – support Edward's claim.

When you look closely you see Edwards was right on the mark. How so? Because:

Your chances of dying an unnatural death are not a single iota greater today than they were before 9/11.

Nor is your nation threatened by them. Terrorists pose no genuine military, social or constitutional threat to America's democracy, Government or way of life.

In fact, the only documented threat to the American way of life has come from our own government's reaction to terrorism. To date, the only liberties Americans have lost have been lost at the hands of their own government by citing terrorism as the reason.

The Dept. of Homeland Security -- isn't. The truth of the matter is that the Dept. of Homeland Security is a giant pork distribution agency. DHS has far less to do with securing the homeland than it does in  providing members of Congress and the administration a way to funnel billions of federal tax dollars into the coffers of state and local governments around the country.

While DHS forces you to take your shoes off at airport security check points and to get a passport to get back into your country after visiting the Caribbean, each and everyday over 3000 aliens successfully swim, stroll or drive across the Mexican border right into the US.  Were the Dept. of Homeland Security really about homeland security it's very first act would have been to plug such an enormous hole in the country's security.

But HMS had done almost nothing to plug that hole.  Instead billions of dollars have been spent on municipal bling, like  new fire engines for the Dog Patch volunteer fire department, gas masks and decontamination stations Mayberry-sized police departments and high-tech HazMat gear for first responders in rural towns so poor they can't even attract a single doctor to care for its own citizens.

I only mention all this because today the administration is releasing the latest National Intelligence Estimate – or at least those parts of it they want you to know about. Most of the NIE will remain classified.

But the message will be the same as it has been since 9/11 -- “Be afraid. And stay that way. Let us do what we feel we need to do to protect you.”

Personally I would rather they protect me from those things most likely to kill my ass, and my children and grandkid's asses as well. Things like global warming, food poisoning, nuts who can get their hands on loaded guns and toxic products flowing into the country from places like China. (You know it's gotta be bad when even their dog food is deadly.)

Those are the things you should worry might kill you. Because death at the hands of some Koran-ically lobotomized terrorist is about as likely as waking up tomorrow morning to learn that Dick Cheney resigned from office, announcing he was undergoing a sex change operation so he could marry his longtime secret lover, Ted Kennedy.

Authors Bio:

Stephen Pizzo has been published everywhere from The New York Times to Mother Jones magazine. His book, Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans, was nominated for a Pulitzer.