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A Skeptical Look at September 11th
How We Can Defeat Terrorism by Reacting to It More Rationally
At the one-year anniversary, we examine reactions to the September 11,
2001, attacks in the context of other causes of premature deaths. An
objective of terrorism is to multiply damage by inducing irrational
fears in the broad population. One defense is to learn to evaluate such
situations more objectively.
Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris
Human beings might be expected to value each life, and each death,
equally. We each face numerous hazards-war, disease, homicide,
accidents, natural disasters-before succumbing to "natural" death. Some
premature deaths shock us far more than others. Contrasting with the
2,800 fatalities in the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001
(9/11), we barely remember the 20,000 Indian earthquake victims earlier
in 2001. Here, we argue that the disproportionate reaction to 9/11 was
as damaging as the direct destruction of lives and property. Americans
can mitigate future terrorism by learning to respond more objectively to
future malicious acts. We do not question the visceral fears and
responsible precautions taken during the hours and days following 9/11,
when there might have been even worse attacks. But, as the first
anniversary of 9/11 approaches, our nation's priorities remain radically
torqued toward homeland defense and fighting terrorism at the expense of
objectively greater societal needs. As we obsessively and excessively
beef up internal security and try to dismantle terrorist groups
worldwide, Americans actually feed the terrorists' purposes.
Every month, including September 2001, the U.S. highway death toll
exceeds fatalities in the WTC, Pentagon, and four downed airliners
combined. Just like the New York City firefighters and restaurant
workers, last September's auto crash victims each had families, friends,
critical job responsibilities, and valued positions in their churches
and communities. Their surviving children, also, were left without one
parent, with shattered lives, and much poorer than the 9/11 victims'
families, who were showered with 1.5 million dollars, per fatality, from
the federal government alone. The 9/11 victims died from malicious
terrorism, arguably compounded by poor intelligence, sloppy airport
security, and other failed procedures we imagined were protecting us.
While few of September's auto deaths resulted from malice, neither were
they "natural" deaths: most also resulted from individual, corporate,
and societal choices about road safety engineering, enforcement of
driving-while-drunk laws, safe car design, and so on.
Customers at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wal-Mart watch President Bush
give his speech to the nation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Credit: C. E. Mitchell/Black/Star.
A Lack of Balance
Why does 9/11 remain our focus rather than the equally vast carnage on
the nation's highways or Indian earthquake victims? Some say, "Oh, it
was a natural disaster and nothing could be done, while 9/11 was a
malicious attack." Yet better housing in India could have saved
thousands. As for malice, where is our concern for the 15,000 Americans
who die annually by homicide? Apparently, the death toll doesn't matter,
not if people die all at once, not even if they die by malicious intent.
We focus on 9/11, of course, because these attacks were terroristic and
were indelibly imprinted on our consciousness by round-the-clock news
coverage. Our apprehension was then amplified when just a half dozen
people died by anthrax. Citizens apparently support the nation's sudden,
massive shift in priorities since 9/11. Here, we ask "Why?"
Suppose we had reacted to 9/11 as we did to last September's auto
deaths. That wouldn't have lessened the destroyed property, lost lives
and livelihoods, and personal bereavement of family and associates of
the WTC victims. But no billions would have been needed to prop up
airlines. Local charities wouldn't have suffered as donations were
redirected to New York City. Congress might have enacted prescription
drug benefits, as it was poised to do before 9/11. Battalions of
National Guardsmen needn't have left their jobs to provide a visible
"presence" in airports. The nation might not have slipped into
recession, with resulting losses to businesses, workers, and consumers
alike. And the FBI might still be focusing on rampant white-collar crime
(think Enron) rather than on terrorism. While some modest measures
(e.g., strengthening cockpit doors) were easy to implement, may have
inhibited some "copycat" crimes, and may even lessen future terrorism,
we believe that much of the expensive effort is ineffective, too costly
to sustain, or wholly irrelevant.
Some leaders got it right when they implored Americans after 9/11 to
return to their daily routines, for otherwise "the terrorists will win."
Unfortunately, such exhortations seemed aimed at rescuing the travel
industry rather than articulating a broad vision of how to respond to
terrorism. We advocate that most of us more fully "return to normal
life." We suggest that the economic and emotional damage unleashed by
9/11, which touched the lives of all Americans, resulted mostly from our
own reactions to 9/11 and the anthrax scare, rather than from the
objective damage. We recognize that our assertion may seem inappropriate
to some readers, and we are under no illusion that natural human
reactions to the televised terrorism could have been wholly averted and
redirected. We, too, gaped in horror at images of crashing airplanes and
we contributed to WTC victims. But from within the skeptical community
there could emerge a more objective, rational alternative to post-9/11.
Citizens could learn to react more constructively to future terrorism
and to balance the terrorist threat against other national priorities.
It could be as important to combat our emotional vulnerability to
terrorism as to attack Al Qaeda.
Terrorism, by design, evokes disproportionate responses to antisocial
acts by a malicious few. By minimizing our negative reactions, we might
contribute to undermining terrorists' goals as effectively as by waging
war on them or by mounting homeland defenses. We do not "blame the
victims" for the terrorists' actions. Rather, we seek that we citizens,
the future targets of terrorism, be empowered. As Franklin D. Roosevelt
famously said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." We can
help ensure that terrorists don't win if we can minimize our fears and
react more constructively to future terrorism. We don't suggest that
this option is easy or will suffice alone. It may not even be possible.
But human beings often best succeed by being rational when their
emotions, however tenacious and innate, have let them down.
Death and Statistics
It is a maxim that one needless or untimely death is one too many. So
20,000 victims should be 20,000 times worse. But our minds don't work
that way. Given the national outpouring of grief triggered by the
estimated 6,500 WTC deaths, one might have expected celebration in late
October when it was realized that fewer than half that many had died.
But there were no headlines like "3,000 WTC Victims Are Alive After
All!" The good news was virtually ignored. Weeks later, many - including
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - continued to speak of "over 5,000
deaths" on 9/11.
To researchers in risk perception, this is natural human behavior. We
are evolved from primitive nomads and cave dwellers who never knew,
personally, more than the few hundred people in their locales. Until
just a few generations ago, news from other lands arrived sporadically
via sailors; most people lived and died within a few miles of where they
were born. Tragedies invariably concerned a known, nearby person. With
the globalization of communication, the world-not just our local
valley-has entered our consciousness. But our brains haven't evolved to
relate, personally, to each of 6 billion people. Only when the media
singles out someone-perhaps an "average layperson" or maybe a tragic
exception like JonBenet Ramsey-do our hearts and minds connect.
When an airliner crashes, and reporters focus on a despairing victims'
spouse or on the last cellular phone words of a doomed traveler, our
brains don't think statistically. We imagine ourselves in that airplane
seat, or driving to the airport counseling center when our loved one's
plane is reported missing. Actually, 30,000 U.S. commercial flights
occur each day. In 2001, except for September 11th and November 12th
(when an airliner crashed in Queens, New York, killing more passengers
and crew than in the four 9/11 crashes combined), no scheduled, U.S.
commercial air trips resulted in a single passenger fatality. Indeed,
worldwide airline accidents in 2001-including 9/11-killed fewer
passengers than during an average year. But statistics can't compete
with images of emergency workers combing a crash site for body parts
with red lights flashing. We are gripped by fear as though the tragedy
happened in our own neighborhood, and another might soon happen again.
Some responses to 9/11 were rational. Soon after jumbo jets were used as
flying bombs, workers in landmark skyscrapers might reasonably have
feared that their building could be next. With radical Muslims preaching
that Americans must be killed, it might behoove us to avoid conspicuous
or symbolic gatherings like Times Square on New Year's Eve or the Super
Bowl. Surely disaster managers must plug security loopholes that could
permit thousands or millions more to be killed. But when police chiefs
of countless middle American communities beef up security for their
anonymous buildings, and search fans entering hundreds of sports fields
to watch games of little note, official reactions to terrorism have run
amok. To imagine that Al Qaeda's next target might be the stadium in,
say, Ames, Iowa, is far-fetched indeed.
Finite Resources, Infinite Alarm
Americans' WTC fears only grew when six people died from mailed anthrax.
Postal officials patiently explained that public risks were minimal. But
millions donned gloves to open their mail or gingerly threw out unopened
mail; post offices rejected letters lacking return addresses; urgent
mail was embargoed; and for weeks the national dialog centered on one of
the least hazards we face. An NPR radio host asked the Postmaster
General if the whole U.S. Postal System might be shut down, despite
expert opinion that-in a world faced with diabetes, salmonella
poisoning, and AIDS-anthrax will remain (even as a biological weapon) a
bit player as a cause of death. Its sole potency is in the context of
terrorism: if, by mailing lethal powder to someone, the news media
choose to broadcast hysteria into every home so that the very future of
our postal system is questioned, then the terrorist has deployed a
powerful weapon indeed. But his power would be negated if we were to
react to the anthrax in proportion to its modest potential for harm.
Research on risk perception has shown that our reactions to hazards
don't match the numerical odds. We fear events (like airliner crashes)
that kill many at once much more than those that kill one at a time (car
accidents). We fear being harmed unknowingly (by carcinogens) far more
than by things we feel we control ourselves (driving or smoking). We
fear unfamiliar technologies (nuclear power) and terrorism far more than
prosaic hazards (household falls). Such disproportionate attitudes shape
our actions as public citizens. Accordingly governments spend vastly
more per life saved to mitigate highly feared hazards (e.g., on aircraft
safety) than on "everyday" risks (e.g., food poisoning). Risk analysts
commonly accept, with neutral objectivity, the disparity between lay
perceptions and expert risk statistics. Sometimes it is justifiable to
go beyond raw statistics. Depending on our values, we might be more
concerned about unfair deaths beyond an individual's control than
self-inflicted harm. We might worry more about deaths of children than
of elderly people with limited life expectancies. We might dread
lingering, painful deaths more than sudden ones. We might be more
troubled about "needless" deaths, with no compensating offsets, than
about fatalities in the name of a larger good (e.g., of soldiers or
police). Or, in all these cases, we might not.
Why should terrorism command our exceptional attention? That the 9/11
terrorists maliciously attacked the symbolic and actual seats of our
economic and military power (WTC/Wall Street and the Pentagon) should
concern us if we truly think that future attacks might destroy our
society. But who believes that? Government responses seem directed
mostly at stopping future similar attacks . . . which returns us full
circle to the question: why should that have become our primary national
goal, at the sacrifice of tens of billions of dollars, of some of our
civil liberties, of our travelling convenience, and of many of our
Instead of rationally apportioning funds to the worst or most unfair
societal predicaments, homeland security budgets soar. Nearly every
airport administrator, city emergency management director, mayor,
legislator, school district supervisor, tourist attraction manager, and
plant operations foreman felt compelled after 9/11 to "cover their
asses" by visibly enhancing their facility's security. Superfluous
barricades were erected, search equipment purchased, and guards hired.
Postage rates and delivery delays increase as envelopes are searched for
anthrax. Even the governor of West Virginia announced a "West Virginia
Watch" program; while some vigilance in that state does no harm, it is
unlikely that Wheeling is high on Osama bin Laden's target list.
Meanwhile, programs unrelated to "homeland security" suffer. Finite
medical resources were diverted to comforting people that their flu
symptoms weren't anthrax . . . or testing to see if they were.
Charitable funds that would have nurtured the homeless flowed, instead,
to wealthy families of deceased Wall Street traders. Funds for education
and pollution control go instead to "securing" public buildings and
events. Billions of extra tax dollars are spent on military operations
in Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than on enhancing American
productivity. If we truly believe in "life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness" and that each life is precious, we must resist selfish forces
that would take advantage of our fears and squander our energies and
fiscal resources on overblown security enhancements.
Many say that spending for extra security can do no harm. But there is
harm when politicians act on views, like those of a New Yorker who
earlier this year disparaged complaints about airport queues, saying, "I
hope that they will be inconvenienced, and will always be
inconvenienced, because we should never forget the 5,000 [sic] who
died." "Inconvenience" sounds innocuous, but it means lost time, lost
money, lost productivity, as well as increased frustration and cynicism.
Disproportionate expenditures on marginal security efforts take
attention, time, and resources away from other more productive
enterprises. Moreover, our civil liberties are eroded by the involuntary
nature of our "sacrifices." When a person irrationally fears crowded
elevators and takes the stairs instead, only that person suffers the
inconvenience of their personal response. But when everyone, fearful or
not, is forced to suffer because of the fears of others, then such
measures become tyrannical: we should expect rational deliberation and
justifications by our leaders before accepting them. But in the
aftermath of 9/11, tens of billions of dollars were immediately
reallocated with little public debate. Skeptics might well question our
society's acquiescence to popular hysteria and proactively challenge our
leaders to balance the expenditures of our resources.
Misperceptions of Risk
Consider some misperceptions of risk. Many news headlines just before
9/11 concerned shark attacks and the disappearance of Chandra Levy, an
extreme distortion of serious societal issues (only ten people annually
are killed by sharks worldwide). We can laugh at, or bemoan, the
triviality of the media. But such stories reflect our own illogical
concerns. If, in allocating funds among different hazards, we
deliberately choose to value the lives of Manhattan skyscraper office
workers, postal employees, or airline frequent flyers more than we value
the lives of agricultural workers or miners, it is a conscious, informed
choice. But it is rarely objectivity that informs such choices. In order
to help laypeople and leaders to put our options into perspective,
skeptics, teachers, and journalists alike have a responsibility to put
the objective past and potential threats from terrorism into contexts
that ordinary people can relate to.
Let's compare 9/11 with other past and potential causes of mass death.
Note that we generally can't compare prevention costs with lives saved;
at best, we can compare expenditures with lives not saved. For example,
we can compare the cost of air traffic control with midair collision
fatalities, but we can only guess at the toll without any such air
9/11 deaths are similar to monthly U.S. traffic fatalities. Whatever
total private/public funds are spent annually, per life saved, on
improved highway and motor vehicle safety, alcohol-while-driving
prevention efforts, etc., it hardly approaches homeland security
The 9/11 fatalities were several to ten times fewer than annual deaths
from falls (in the home or workplace), or from suicide, or from
homicide. One can question the effectiveness of specific safety
programs, counseling efforts, or laws; but, clearly, comparatively
paltry sums are spent on programs that would further reduce falls,
suicides, and murders.
In autumn 2001, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) predicted that
20,000 Americans would die from complications of influenza during the
then-upcoming winter, most of which could be prevented if susceptible
people were vaccinated. The CDC advisory was typically buried inside
newspapers whose banner headlines dealt with the anthrax attacks, which
killed just a few people.
Twice as many people died in the worst U.S. flood (stemming from the
1900 Galveston hurricane) as at the WTC. Floods and earthquakes are
major killers abroad (each of ten disasters killed over 10,000 people,
and a few over 100,000, during the last three decades, chiefly in Asia)
but are minor killers in modern America. Hurricane Andrew did great
physical damage even though fatalities were few. What are sensible
expenditures for research in meteorology and seismology, for mandatory
enhancement of building codes and redevelopment, and for other measures
that would mitigate natural disasters?
The 9/11 fatalities are just 1.5 percent of those in the nation's worst
epidemic (half a million died from flu in 1918), and also just 1.5
percent of the annual U.S. cancer fatalities. We have waged a "war" on
cancer, at the expense of research on other less feared but deadly
diseases; this war's success is equivocal (five-year survivability after
detection is up, but so are cancer death rates-though mainly due to
decades-old changes in smoking habits). Where should "homeland security"
expenditures rank against medical expenditures?
Impacts by kilometer-sized asteroids are extremely rare, but one could
send civilization into a new Dark Ages. The annualized American fatality
rate is about 5 percent of the WTC fatalities, although such a cosmic
impact has only 1/100th of 1 percent chance of happening during the
twenty-first century. Just a couple million dollars are now spent
annually to search for threatening asteroids. Should we spend many
billions to build a planetary defense shield, which would statistically
be in proportion to what we now spend on homeland security and the war
on terrorism? Might the threat to our civilization's very existence
raise the stakes above even the terrorist threat?
To us, these comparisons suggest that the nation's post-9/11
expenditures have been lopsidedly large, and that a balanced approach
would "give back" some funds to reduce deaths from falls, suicide,
murder, highway accidents, natural disasters (including even asteroid
impacts), malnutrition, and preventable or curable diseases . . . and
give back our civil liberties, and just the plain pleasures of life,
such as the arts and humanities, exploration, and national parks. And if
truly effective means to end wars could be found, they would be
especially worthy of funds, given the death toll from twentieth century
wars. Before homeland security becomes dominated by vested bureaucracies
and constituencies, there may yet be time to question its dominant role
in our priorities.
We advocate shifting toward objective cost-benefit analyses and
equitable evaluation of the relative costs of saving human lives. Of
course, subjective judgements have some validity beyond strict adherence
to numerical odds. But we need a national dialog to address these issues
dispassionately so that future governmental decisions can eschew
immediate, impulsive reactions. Individual skeptics, in our own lives,
can exemplify sensible choices. Among the many dumb things we should
avoid (e.g., smoking, driving without a seatbelt, or letting kids play
with firearms), we must also avoid driving instead of flying,
acquiescing uncomplainingly to ineffective searches at local buildings
and events, and generally yielding to the new "homeland security" mania.
Clear thinking about risks, rather than saying that "any improvement in
security is worth it," can reduce our societal vulnerability to
One constructive antidote to post-9/11 trauma is to enhance the
information available and to foster sound appreciation, evaluation, and
use of the information. Life is inherently risky, unpredictable, and
subject to things we cannot know...but there are things we do know and
can understand. Rather than scaring people about sharks, serial killers,
and anthrax, the mass media could help people understand the real risks
in their everyday environments and activities. Educational institutions
should help students develop critical skills necessary to make rational
choices. While avoiding intrusions into personal liberties, government
could nevertheless collect and assess statistical data in those arenas
(like air travel) where potential dangers lurk, concentrating protective
efforts and law enforcement where it is most efficacious.
To conclude, we suggest that most homeland security expenditures, which
in the zero-sum budget game are diverted from other vital purposes, are
terribly expensive and disproportionate to competing needs for
preventing other causes of death and misery in our society. While
prudent, focused improvements in security are called for, the sheer
costs of most security initiatives greatly distort the way we address
the many threats to our individual and collective well-being. Our
greatest vulnerability to terrorism is the persisting, irrational fear
of terrorism that has gripped our country. We must start behaving like
the informed, reasoning beings we profess to be.
The authors are grateful to many friends and colleagues, especially
David Morrison, for comments and criticisms that helped us to frame
About the Authors
Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris are research scientists at Southwest
Research Institute (Boulder, Colorado) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
(Pasadena, California), respectively. They developed their perspectives
on hazards from researching what is perhaps the lowest probability but
highest consequence hazard of all: the potential end of human
civilization due to impact of an asteroid or comet. Direct
correspondence to ***@boulder.swri.edu or ***@colorado.edu.