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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

National Security, Terrorism, and the Bird Flu

BirdflucartoonThis great cartoon by Tom Toles (Washington Post) captures what I've been blogging about (here, here, and here) with regard to national security, terrorism, and privacy.  We're spending tons of money on elaborate ways to detect terrorists, such as Secure Flight, data mining, searches of bags in NYC subways, and so on.  Meanwhile, we're not giving sufficient attention to an even greater threat -- a potential bird flu pandemic. 

The risk of being killed by terrorism is very low.  Terrorism works because it is dramatic, because people's fear is disproportionate to the risk, because governments respond in such a frenzied fashion, curtailing civil liberties and making everyday life more inconvenient for cosmetic security measures that add little to no additional real security. 

Here's a list of the top 20 leading causes of death in 2002 from the CDC.  I'm looking for a more complete list of death statistics beyond the top 20, so if anybody knows where I can find them, please let me know.  Let's assume a terrorist attack of 9-11 proportions each year -- which is, of course, not likely and not borne out by history, as terrorist attacks have been few and far between.   Note that 9-11 wouldn't even make the top 20 causes of death! 

Cause of Death

Number of Deaths


Heart Disease

576, 301


Malignant Neoplasms






Chronic Low. Respiratory Disease



Influenza & Pneumonia



Alzheimer’s Disease



Diabetes Mellitus






Unintentional Injury









Parkinson’s Disease









Aortic Aneurysm



Benign Neoplasms



Liver Disease









Nutritional Deficiencies


9-11 Terrorism


Certainly, there are costs to terrorism beyond lives and injuries.  There's the anger from being wronged, as well as the creation of a sense of vulnerability.  Certainly, we should devote resources to fighting terrorism.  But programs such as Secure Flight and data mining, which have yet to deliver any benefits, which are costing millions to study and develop, and which pose significant concerns for privacy and civil liberties, strike me as incredibly wasteful.  The same is true with the NYC subway searches.  It's a waste of money and resources that could be used in addressing the more serious (and often preventable) risks of death in our society . . . like the bird flu. 


Posted by Daniel Solove on August 3, 2005 at 01:42 PM in Daniel Solove, Information and Technology | Permalink


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» All for the birds? Why Solove is Only Mostly Right about Terrorism Threats from PrawfsBlawg
I agree with Dan Solove's comments below that we are likely misallocating specific resources in the war on Islamist terrorism, and that avian flu is a likely killer that is not sufficiently on the radar of media and policymakers alike. I do think that ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 3, 2005 3:22:59 PM

» Preparing for a Bird Flu Pandemic from Concurring Opinions
Bird flu has now captured the attention of the news. While I'm generally not one to become overly concerned with armaggedon scenarios, a flu pandemic strikes me as a particularly realistic and frightening possibility. Pandemics occur periodically, and ... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 13, 2005 2:20:43 PM


Terrorism risk is a difficult issue because past data is not a great predictor of future outcomes, unlike for example deaths from cancer, heart disease, etc. Terrorism morphed quickly in the 1990s into a catastrophic risk. Although 9/11 is the new benchmark of catastrophe, we can't discount the possibility of an attack far greater in scope through a nuclear, chemical or biological agent. Thus, a comparison of terrorism against other risks is difficult. Another point to consider is that the harms from terrorism goes beyond the direct economic costs of the immediate injury. For example, assume a series of coordinated bombings against Wal-Mart, Sears, Macy's and the Mall of America during the height of the Christmas shopping season. The immediate damage may be in the several tens of millions, a rather small amount, but the indirect effect on the national economy will be huge. This was the same motive in the Bali bombings several years ago. Because the risk is difficult to assess (though it is insurable), a policy based on a standard cost-benefit may be misleading.

Posted by: Robert Rhee | Jul 1, 2007 11:44:49 PM

Yea, and look how effective they've been for their quarter of a century. Almost like the IRA, which was so devestatingly effective for almost an entire century...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 4, 2005 6:07:18 PM

Well Paul, don't be too hard on yourself, most people have forgotten the fact that modern Jihad has waged war against humans for well over a quarter of a century which, by the way, has been around far longer than the dangerous threats from diseases such as AIDS.

Posted by: syn | Aug 4, 2005 6:00:23 PM

Oooh, of course, syn, because the danger to us is determined by the inflammatory words of its source. I forgot.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 4, 2005 9:32:56 AM

When did 'heart disease' (or any other disease on your list) issue a declaration of war against infidels?

Posted by: syn | Aug 4, 2005 8:27:53 AM

The only people creating worry about bird flu are those who will be funded to study the situation. Post

As for terrorism: Post

Posted by: Chuck Simmins | Aug 3, 2005 10:25:46 PM

I agree with you, but would counsel against making this argument. People will think you lack social skills. E.g.,

Dinner companions/people I'm stuck sitting next to: Terrorism is a huge threat. We thus need to surrender freedom for safety!
Others: [applause]
Me: It's sorta funny we say that as we eat this cheesecake. We're actually more likely to die from eating too much than from terrorism.
DC/PISSNT: You hate America!

Incidentally, since I hate dinner parties, I use this argument often. But be careful. (Once some anti-smoking zealot self-righteously - and without being asked - told me to stop smoking cigars. I told him that the trans fat in the chips he was eating would kill him before any cigars killed me. For some reason, he didn't like having the "it'll kill you sword" turned back on him.) You've been warned. ;^>

Posted by: Mike | Aug 3, 2005 4:49:12 PM

Dan Markel has just posted some thoughts about this post. I've replied to him in a comment to his post. Here's what I wrote:


You make some good points. A few responses.

1. You write that terrorist attacks affect us differently than accidental deaths and deaths from other causes. I agree. You also say: "That set of reactions is not irrational, and thus, it's not irrational to spend more dollars to reduce one kind of death than another one." I also agree with this, but I do think we owe it to ourselves to consider the costs of devoting so many resources to terrorism, especially when it means investing in security measures with a highly dubious security payoff and some very troublig civil liberties costs.

I don't think that it is entirely irrational to react the way we do to terrorism. In a different context, Judge Guido Calabresi observes: "We spend millions of dollars to save the lives of clearly identified individuals who are in immediate danger dollars, which, if applied to generalized safety, would protect and preserve many more." GUIDO CALABRESI, IDEALS, BELIEFS, ATTITUDES AND THE LAW 6 (1985). Just as it is human nature to react more to actual lives than to statistical ones, it is human nature to react more to dramatic and horrifying events such as terrorism than to the rather un-dramatic deaths caused by the flu and other things.

But that said, I believe we must step back and try our best to assess the threats we face as rationally as possible. This doesn't necessarily mean going by the cold hard numbers, but we should at least think about the relative risks we as a society are facing. My posts are a reaction to the fact that there's so much focus on national security as a terrorism issue and that we need to begin getting a bit more of a broader perspective on national security. Often, discussions begin by considering a security proposal and weighing it against its costs to privacy and civil liberties rather than really assessing its overall benefit for security.

2. It's true that terrorists might try to use more destructive means than those used on 9-11, such as nuclear or biological weapons. It is here where our security measures are at their most shortsighted. We expend a ton of resources on airline security, when we already have a lot of security for airlines and the potential damage from an airline attack is not nearly as large as that from a dirty bomb or biological attack. Future 9-11's get prevented by locking cockpit doors and by the fact that airline passengers will no longer be taken by surprise. Do we really need to spend millions to develop such programs as Secure Flight, which have taken on many incarnations (it used to be called CAPPS II, which was later scrapped and renamed "Secure Flight) and have yet to even be proven to actually work? We have enough airline security. Let's move on to other threats.

As for nuclear and biological weapons, I think we're doing not so good a job at guarding against these. I doubt that Secure Flight or data mining will be of much help here. I doubt that searching a few backpacks out of 4.5 million subway riders in NYC will help with this as well. Instead, addressing these threats involves enlisting the aid of other countries, tracking nuclear material, ensuring that "loose nukes" are no longer loose, ensuring that we are prepared in the event of such an attack, etc. As this article demonstrates we're not doing a good job at taking many of these steps.

In the end, I just think we need to get much smarter about security. I'm tired of hearing about how we must make sacrifices in privacy and civil liberties so we can be more secure. We're not being made more secure; in fact, many of these security measures are leading us astray, and we're neglecting to focus on more dangerous security threats and more effective security measures. That's what saddens me the most . . . we're losing privacy and security at the same time!


Posted by: Daniel Solove | Aug 3, 2005 3:57:21 PM

I've posted something in response to this directly above. Tried a trackback but it wasn't working, so here's the link.

Posted by: Dan | Aug 3, 2005 2:48:56 PM

actually, strike that last link, which is probably much more detailed than you want. This PDF looks more likely, although it crashes my computer every time I try to download it.

and now that I've flexed my internet research muscles, back to work :-)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 2:32:08 PM

Dan: this looks to have massive data...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 2:27:32 PM

I was also wondering where crime statistics fit on this list. Surely murders, other homicides, and manslaughter would be in the top 20?

- Anon

Posted by: anon | Aug 3, 2005 2:18:26 PM


I certainly agree with you, and I can only speculate about the marginal untility of dollars spent on some of the above causes of death vis-a-vis terrorism. My guess is that if we spent a lot more on ensuring we had more flu vaccines and ensuring that more people got vaccinated we could save a lot of lives. Nutritional deficiencies sure seem preventable too.

I also don't see car accidents on this list, which I believe cause about 40,000 fatalities per year. Many of these might be preventable too. I just saw a story on CNN about how certain redesigns of roadways and intersections can dramatically cut down on accidents.

I'm looking for a better more comprehensive list of death statistics, especially one that includes more data about deaths from accidents, injuries, and so on. Does anybody know where I can find more data?


Posted by: Daniel Solove | Aug 3, 2005 2:10:09 PM

yeesh, I don't even know what half of those things are.

nonetheless, even though I agree with you, we have to also take into account that the marginal utility of, say, one more dollar spent on cancer research may be lower than the marginal utility of another dollar spent on terrorism activities simply because there's only so much that can be researched at our current level of knowledge etc.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 1:57:11 PM

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