NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 24, 2005

The chances are greater that you will die from falling off a ladder than by the hands of a terrorist, says Benjamin Friedman (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

It is ridiculous to assume that all Americans should fear terrorism because the odds of dying in a terrorist attack are minuscule, he says. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • The odds of dying from a terrorist attack are about 1 in 88,000, while the odds of dying from falling off a ladder are 1 in 10,000.
  • Even in 2001, automobile crashes killed 15 times more Americans than terrorism and the leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer and strokes.

Additionally, people overestimate risks they can picture and ignore those they cannot, he says:

  • Government warnings and 24-hour news networks make certain dangers -- from shark attacks to terrorism -- seem more prevalent than they really are.
  • As a result, the United States spends billions of dollars annually protecting states and locations that face no significant threat of terrorism.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff wants to trim the pork from the department's budget, but efforts to link funding with risk have failed largely because haphazard spending is consonant with the current U.S. strategy that tells Americans to be afraid, says Friedman.

Moreover, it is unlikely that terrorists can strike any place, any time and with any weapon. However, this assumption is the guiding principle of our homeland security strategy, although it ignores probability. Instead, the government should focus more on what is probable and less on what is possible, says Friedman.

Source: Benjamin Friedman, "So what are you afraid of?" Dallas Morning News, August 14, 2005.


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