Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Traffic and Terrorism, Apples and Oranges

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on June 29, 2010

When times are tough, families try to do anything they can to cut spending and save money.  The privileges and treasures that often give us all a much needed break from our hectic lives- like going out to restaurants on the weekends or embarking on a long vacation at a tropical resort- are usually the first things that are sacrificed from the family budget.  State governments too are forced to revamp and review their budgetary process when officials are strapped for cash.  Educational programs may be eliminated to make way for more spending on social services, or taxes may be added onto specific products (like soda and alcohol) in order to throw more money at a growing deficit problem.  Unfortunately, these same actions tend to marginalize and anger the same people that the state is supposed to serve, putting politicians in an uncomfortable and awkward position.

Given the horrible economic situation that the country is experiencing today, and the terrible unemployment rate that is hurting close to ten percent of American families, politics in the United States is all about saving money.  But with trillions of dollars in national debt, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an inefficient health care system and a draining social security system, how can the government actually stop spending without harming the national interest or placing even more hardship on the average American?

I’m really not sure what the answer is, which is why I’m still in school rather than campaigning for a seat on the town board, or running for office in Washington.  Nevertheless, this doesn’t hamper my understanding on where we shouldn’t cut spending…our national security infrastructure.  And we especially shouldn’t do it when one of the mainstream arguments for cutting the U.S. national security budget is misleading…”you have a greater chance of being killed in a car accident or struck by lighting than being a victim of terrorism.”

To be fair, I have to concede that this critique is not necessarily inaccurate.  In fact, research and numbers support the claim.  According to Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, an average of 40,000 Americans die in car crashes per year, a number that is over ten times that of the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history.  This figure becomes even more astounding when officials go on the record and use it as a comparison to terrorism.

It’s called a diversionary tactic, and it’s a clever way of portraying an act of terrorism as so miniscule and rare that Americans would be foolish to worry about it.  The fact that the United States hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil since September 11 only adds to the strength of this type of argument.

But how can you compare traffic deaths to terrorism when both are unique problems, with totally different motivations resulting in totally different situations?  One is the result of careless driving and/or bad weather (in addition to other factors), while the other is the result of a coordinated and premeditated act of violence aimed to intimidate and instill fear.  Using this comparison only focuses on the numbers while ignoring the circumstances and surroundings that make terrorism such a horrendous and psychologically devastating method.

More importantly, using the traffic-to-terrorism metaphor runs the risk of “dumbing down” the whole issue of terrorism and turning back the clock to a pre- 9/11 way of thinking; that somehow the United States is immune to the violence that has plagued so many other countries and killed so many of its citizens.

The United States has not suffered an act of foreign terrorism on its soil since September of 2001 (notice how I say foreign terrorism. Remember Maj. Nidal Hassan?).  This is obviously something that we should all be celebrating.  Part of this is due to luck, part of this is due to the tremendous talent of our national security officials and our military, and part of this is due to the way terrorists have chosen to operate in today’s global environment (a number of experts believe that Al’Qaeda, for instance, is focusing more of its energies on multiple, small-scale attacks against Americans than a single large and coordinated 9/11-style strike).  Whatever the cause of this nine-year terror free reign, our recent successes should not be used as a rationale for slashing our defense and security budget.  This is almost akin to shutting down the NYPD just because crime in New York City dropped.

Focusing on hard statistics is deceiving for another reason as well; depending on the specific organization and what they are trying to accomplish, the physical destruction of property and the killing of unarmed civilians could be secondary to the psychological impact of an attack. Look at what happened on Christmas Day when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to take down a passenger jet heading to Detroit.  On a technical level, he failed, but judging from Washington’s schizophrenic reaction, his operation could still be considered a success. AQAP (Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) certainly thought it was, and so did Osama bin-Laden, who hailed the Nigerian terrorist “a hero” to his fellow Muslims.

Can you really compare car accidents to terrorist attacks? I guess you can, but it’s really apples to oranges isn’t it?  Of course, there is more behind the numbers when we talk about traffic accidents as well, like how a family’s life is affected when a relative’s life is lost.  But the same is true for terrorism, except terrorist attacks have a toll on the national psyche that traffic deaths do not.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner at FP.com**


8 Responses

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  1. Sir_Mixxalot1 said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    The war on terror has INCREASED the terror threat and generated 1.5 billion pissed of muslims (some of them US citizens).
    At least the war on traffic is unlikely to be COMPLETELY counterproductive, like attacking Iraq (>1 million dead Iraqi civlians) or Af/Pak (> few hundred thousand dead muslims).

    • DMoloney said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:32 pm

      “At least the war on traffic is unlikely to be COMPLETELY counterproductive, like attacking Iraq (>1 million dead Iraqi civlians)”

      I think the iraq war was a mistake and cost a lot of people their lives but that million figure isn’t the most reliable.

      “or Af/Pak (> few hundred thousand dead muslims).”
      The afghan intervention has overall been beneficial to the Muslims in Afghanistan, if certain Muslims elsewhere have a problem with it they should recognize that most afghans see the invasion as a good thing and stop being guided by their anti-American prejudice.

  2. Delia Ruhe said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Since the arms industry is mostly what’s holding together what’s left of the US economy, there isn’t much chance that the focus will shift from war to road-kill. Same goes for the “war on drugs.” Why shift the focus to prevention and rehab when you can spend it on military adventures in Latin America and Afghanistan, where GDP depends a lot on the drug trade? If you want to support a military establishment in the manner to which it has become accustomed, you have to wage wars. Otherwise, the electorate might start to question the fact that three-quarters of taxpayer money is going to the Pentagon and to servicing the debt for past wars.

  3. TransTrist said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Seriously, now. For many people, traffic fatalities are like suicides – you’ve chosen to drive drunk, or tired, or stoned, or to ignore red lights and speed limits, and now you’re dead. Personal choice. Secondly, those deaths are, sorry to say, statistical. Men weren’t born with ability to travel at speeds exceeding 50 mph, so time and again their organic deficiencies will catch up. Finally, the car is a complicated contraption propelled by means of controlled explosions, fully able to contribute its own share of statistical unsafety at any given moment (a blown tire?). All that together creates the feeling that while we’re able to reduce the fatalities at the margins, people will die on the roads as long as they use cars.

  4. TheBlackCat said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I recommend a book called Risk by Canadian journalist Dan Gardner. It is essentially about this topic, though looking at it from the point of view of public fear and anxiety, and demonstrates how factors such as evolutionary psychology, the media and financial interests combine to make us fear low probability threats such as terrorism and child murderers much more than much higher probability ones such as car accidents and diabetes.
    I think there’s also an element of anger behind such preferences; it’s easier to find someone to blame, and to want revenge – a powerful but stupid emotion – against, in events such as 9/11 than in a wide variety of car accidents.

  5. RoboBass said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    This topic has boiled my blood for years, going back before 9/11. In New York City, for example, something like 1.5 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed and 40 injured by cars and trucks each day (Since NYPD refuses to release stats on this, no one knows for sure). It is not just speeding, but general unsafe and careless driving. The highways in the northeast are crowded with SUV’s (with primitive suspensions which make them unsafe even at 50mph) tailgating each other at 80mph. Not to mention the death and suffering caused by auto and truck emissions. The deep pockets of the transportation industry are effective in thwarting any progress with these issues. If they can save themselves $1.10 for a dollar spent on lobbying, they’ll do it, no matter the human toll.

    But this is just modern American corporate capitalism. We wage pointless foreign wars to keep our military suppliers in business. We tolerate drug wars in Mexico because of the windfall profits it generates for US small arms manufacturers and the private prison industry. We needn’t even go into mineral extraction, but how about toleration of incredible human rights abuses by a country whose weapons purchases we actually subsidize?

    The problem (although few Americans seems to see any problem at all) is the system which has evolved, where the large corporations make the rules and choose the government, which exists to serve them. The Supreme court likes this system, and has decided to make it permanent. The cost is basic human dignity and often life itself. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Perhaps when a gallon of filthy chemical contaminated water drawn from the tap costs as much as a gallon of gas at the pump, people will start to ask themselves what the hell has gone wrong.

  6. TransTrist said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Our defense budget was large before 9/11

    And it will remain large even if Osama would hang himself and all members of the Al-Qaeda join the Episcopalian church. What is true, however, is that it isn’t necessary to hunt al-Qaeda in Afghanistan by trying to build a democracy in that accursed place.

  7. Dan said, on June 29, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Al’Qaeda’s capabilities have diminished over the last decade, making it extremely difficult for the organization to plan, launch, and successfully execute another 9/11 style attack. But from some of the research out there, AQ’s inability to kill a mass quantity of Americans may not just be the result of recruitment struggles or financial pressure. Al’Qaeda’s core leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas have come to recognize that their organization is not what it used to be in terms talent and resources. Therefore, they are coming to endorse quick, small-scale attacks overseas, which can still paralyze a population.

    Bin-Laden (if he’s still more than a figure head at this point is anyone’s guess) & Company understand that they no longer have a strength in numbers…Panetta’s assessment of 60 to 100 fighters in Afghanistan seems to confirm this. But Al’Qaeda isn’t sitting on their heels and reminiscing back to the glory days when they had a safe haven with a few thousand fighters at their disposal. Instead, they are adapting to the changing environment, setting up franchises across the Middle East and North Africa (AQAP, AQI, AQM) and they are changing their attack strategy.

    The threat is still there, so the idea that the U.S. Government should start cutting money from national-security is not really politically acceptable at this point. I’m not sure if it ever will be. Instead, perhaps we should be using existing funds more efficiently so we don’t have to expand the defense budget in the near future. Plus, the defense budget now is at an extenuating circumstance; the United States is not normally engulfed in two wars.

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