This is a very startling fact that has some serious ramifications for public policy. Jim Harper wrote recently at the Cato Institute:
'In case it needs saying: Police officers are unlike terrorists in almost all respects. Crucially, the goal of the former, in their vastest majority, is to have a stable, peaceful, safe, law-abiding society, which is a goal we all share. The goal of the latter is … well, it’s complicated. I’ve cited my favorite expert on that, Audrey Kurth Cronin, here and here and here. Needless to say, the goal of terrorists is not that peaceful, safe, stable society. I picked up the statistic from a blog post called: “Fear of Terror Makes People Stupid,” which in turn cites the National Safety Council for this and lots of other numbers reflecting likelihoods of dying from various causes. So dispute the number(s) with them, if you care to. I take it as a given that your mileage may vary. If you dwell in the suburbs or a rural area, and especially if you’re wealthy, white, and well-spoken, your likelihood of death from these two sources probably converges somewhat (at very close to zero). The point of the quote is to focus people on sources of mortality society-wide, because this focus can guide public policy efforts at reducing death. (Thus, the number is not a product of the base rate fallacy.) In my opinion, too many people are still transfixed by terrorism despite the collapse of Al Qaeda over the last decade and the quite manageable—indeed, the quite well-managed—danger that terrorism presents our society today. If you want to indulge your fears and prioritize terrorism, you’ll have plenty of help, and neither this blog post nor any other appeal to reason or statistics is likely to convince you. Among the John Mueller articles I would recommend, though, is “Witches, Communists, and Terrorists: Evaluating the Risks and Tallying the Costs” (with Mark Stewart).'
Consider that the Global War on Terror has defined our era in public policy, cost trillions of dollars, and has been the justification for an unprecedented expansion of the federal surveillance and police state in violation, critics would argue, of America's cherished civil liberties and Constitution, especially its citizens' right to privacy, to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, and to be accorded due process if accused of a crime.
The War on Terror has come at so great a cost, yet it addresses a harm to society that statistically-speaking, is so insignificant and unusual that you are actually more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist(!). Why expend so many limited means and dispense so casually with America's civil liberties, rule of law, and the separation of powers to pursue such limited ends?
The statistic is so shocking because we've fought terrorism like it's an imminent threat to our very existence as a society, rather than an extremely rare harm that our own CIA suggests is a predictable consequence of the other trillions of dollars the US spends maintaining global hegemony and involving itself in and micro-managing the policies and even wars of distant foreign countries.
Why the disconnect between the reality and the public policy to address that reality? It is the result of the disconnect between the reality and our perception of it. Though terrorist attacks are unusual and pose a relatively insignificant threat to Americans (consider how much more likely you are to die of heart disease than from a terror attack), they are so horrific when they happen, and our media accords them such wall-to-wall coverage that they make a very deep impression on voters and policy makers.
We all remember 9-11 and the impression it made on us. We all remember being horrified, confused, angry, and afraid, and instead of guiding public policy on a scientific basis, using facts, statistical composites, and cost-benefit analyses, we have turned over the reigns of public policy to the deepest anger and dread inspired by the acts of terror we have seen on our television screens.
And isn't that the goal of terrorism?