Some Reflections on What, if Anything, “Are We Safer?” Might Mean

With the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a central question repeatedly asked is whether that country has become safer from international terrorism or not. I have never quite understood precisely what this question means, but let me explore six possibilities.

1. Is the likelihood that an individual American will be killed by international terrorists higher or lower than before 9/11?

This is a tricky concept to deal with because the number of Americans killed within the United States by international terrorists in the five years since 9/11 is the same as the number killed in the five years before: zero. Although polls continue to show Americans notably concerned that they or members of their families might die at the hands of terrorists, astronomer Alan Harris has calculated that, at present rates and including the disaster of 9/11 in the consideration, the chances any individual resident of the globe will be killed by an international terrorist over the course of an 80-year lifetime is about 1 in 80,000, about the same likelihood of being killed over the same interval from the impact on the Earth of an especially ill-directed asteroid or comet. At present, Americans are vastly more likely to die from bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer than by terrorism within the country. That seems pretty safe.

2. Are Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda types more or less capable of inflicting damage on the United States?

International terrorists would have to increase their capabilities considerably to change such astoundingly low probabilities. Even if they were able to pull off “another 9/11″ every three months for the next five years, the chance an individual American would be killed in one of them would still be two one-hundredths of one percent. Although there is concern that they will become vastly more dangerous by obtaining and setting off nuclear weapons or something like that, they do not seem to have become more capable generally since 9/11. The number of Americans who have been killed worldwide by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda types has increased considerably since 9/11, but this is almost entirely because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the “are we safer” question is focused on the dangers to Americans at home, not abroad. Outside these war arenas, the number of people worldwide (few of them American) who have been killed by such terrorists may have gone up a bit since 9/11, but in five years the number killed in explosions set off by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda types stands at 900 or so—notably smaller than the number who have drown in bathtubs (300-400 per year, or over 1,500) in the United States alone during the same period.

Moreover, whatever they may be doing overseas, they don’t seem to be here: a secret FBI report in 2005 reported that after more than three years of intense and well-funded hunting, the agency had been unable to identify a single true Al Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country—rather impressive given the 2002 intelligence estimate that there were up to 5000 people loose in the country who were “connected” to Al Qaeda. [1] Some attribute this to luck, good protection, the distractions of the war in Iraq, patience in planning additional attacks, or the breaking up of the Afghan training camps, but, as I have argued elsewhere, the evidence could be taken to indicate either that they aren’t trying very hard or that they are far less dedicated, diabolical, and competent than the common image would suggest.

The recent alleged bombing plot in London doesn’t so far suggest much in the way of enhanced terrorist capacities (and, of course, those guys were over there, not over here). The author of the dramatic claim that the plotters were envisioning “mass murder on an unimaginable scale” said when pressed that he meant “on a scale never before witnessed in Britain,” rather deflating the import of the initial widely-quoted assertion. And security expert Bruce Schneier has noted that chemists have been debunking the likely effectiveness of the scheme and that the plot was hardly imminent: none of the conspirators had bought airline tickets while some didn’t even have passports.

3. Are there more people out there who hate the United States?

Polls around the world strongly suggest the answer to this is a decided “yes.” The post-9/11 events that seem to have inspired this change are the American attack upon (and, increasingly it seems, debacle in) Iraq and now the destruction inflicted on Lebanon by U.S.-supported Israel.

However, the United States was far from beloved in the most relevant area, the Middle East, before 9/11 either, and hatred for American Middle East policy is what principally drove the attacks. It was in the mid-1990s when America’s UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked on television’s “60 Minutes” whether she thought the sanctions-induced deaths of perhaps half a million Iraqi children was “worth it.” Without taking issue with the death toll estimate, she replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” [2] Although this remarkable acknowledgement amazingly provoked no comment at the time in the United States, it quickly became famous in the Arab world.

4. Do the haters see more or less value in striking the United States?

In his excellent book, The Far Enemy, Fawaz Gerges argues that mainstream Islamists–the vast majority within the Islamist political movement–have given up on the use of force except perhaps against Israel, and that the remaining jihadis who are still willing to apply violence constituted a tiny minority before 9/11. But he goes on to note that the vast majority even of this small group primarily focuses on various “infidel” Muslim regimes and consider those among them who carry out violence against the “far enemy”–mainly Europe and the United States–to be irresponsible and reckless adventurers who endanger the survival of the whole movement. From this perspective, suggests Gerges, the 9/11 attacks proved to be substantially counterproductive by massively heightening concerns about terrorism around the world. The key result among jihadis and religious nationalists was a vehement rejection of Al Qaeda’s strategy and methods, particularly after reactions to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terrorism in Muslim countries brought suppression of the movement.

Thus a reasonable conclusion is that, while we are less safe in that more people around the world hate the United States (or least its foreign policy) than did so before 9/11 (or, actually, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq), we are more safe in that even fewer people than before 9/11 think striking the U.S. directly makes much sense.

5. Are we more or less vulnerable to attack?

Compared to what? (as Henny Youngman replied when asked, “How’s your wife?”) Being invulnerable? All societies all the time are “vulnerable” to tiny bands of suicidal fanatics in the sense that it is impossible to prevent every terrorist act. There is no way to make everything completely safe from that any more than every store can be protected against shoplifting or every street can be made permanently free of muggers. This fundamental condition has hardly altered since 9/11—and essentially it cannot substantially be altered. Nor is it new or dependent on modern technology. As a friend of mine has pointed out, 19 dedicated, suicidal, and lucky terrorists could probably have scuttled the Titanic, drowning all aboard.

After 9/11 Homeland Security officials set out at Congressional urging to tally up a list of potential targets in the United States. By 2004, they had enumerated 33,000, to the apparent dismay of Homeland Security czar Ridge. Dismay was premature: within a year, the list had been expanded to 80,000. Although the list has remained secret–we wouldn’t want to put ideas into the head of your average diabolical terrorist, after all, as they argue over whether target 52,789 is more or less attractive than target 21,347. However, there have been a number of leaks indicating that miniature golf courses have been included on this exquisite exercise in self-parody, as well as Weeki Wachee Springs, a roadside waterpark in Florida notable for its mermaids.

“Homeland security cannot be had on the cheap,” proclaims Senator Joseph Lieberman. The problem is that it cannot be had on the expensive either. It is possible to make any individual target—like the Washington Monument–more secure from terrorism. But, unless funds are infinite, society can’t defend against every possibility—or even against a large number of them. To be blunt (and obvious), it is simply not possible to protect every bus, every shop, every factory, every tunnel, every bridge, every road, every mall, every place of assembly, every mile of railroad track. Some relevant statistics: in the United States there are 87,000 food-processing plants, 500 urban transportation systems, 80,000 dams, 66,000 chemical plants, 590,000 highway bridges, 5,000 airports, 12,800 power plants, 2 million miles of pipelines, and 2 billion miles of cable, not to mention some 13,000 McDonald’s (at this writing). Meanwhile, the Post Office handles nearly 200 billion pieces of mail each year. Nor is it possible to secure every border or have perfect, or for that matter, semi-perfect, port security—a particular vulnerability, among billions, that has attracted the focused attention of many worriers, if not so far of any actual terrorists. The United States can import over a billion dollars’ worth of shoes in a single month, notes Schneier–is each shoe box to be inspected?

Moreover, if one tempting target becomes less vulnerable, your inventive terrorist could simply move on to others. Thus, if airplanes have become more difficult to hijack and fly into targets (not so much because of enhanced security measures but because, as demonstrated in the fourth plane on 9/11, passengers and crew will now fight), there are still plenty of trains and buses out there. If the Washington Monument seems to have become a difficult target after years of expensive renovation, the agile terrorist might be led to cast an eye about for other notable tall, pointy objects—the Seattle Space Needle, for example. A displacement effect might even increase casualties: the destruction of the Washington Monument might be more embarrassing than that of the Space Needle, but it would probably cost fewer lives.

To simplify things, it might seem to make more sense to come up with a list of things that aren’t prospective targets. A tree in the middle of a forest might seem a likely prospect for this list. But what about forest fires? Five skilled terrorists, each armed with a match, could set off five of those simultaneously. They would be aided in their efforts by the park service’s propensity prominently to publicize which forests at any given moment are the driest and most tinderbox-like. Maybe in our determined quest to inconvenience terrorists we’d need to classify that information, hoping that campfire builders as well as smoking backpackers and motorists (but not your wandering malevolent terrorist) would have enough sense to be able to tell whether they are venturing through forested areas that are dry or not.

Since international terrorists active in the United States—thus far at least—have eschewed trees to concentrate on buildings in major cities, many think it reasonable to suggest that protective efforts should disproportionately focus on major cities. Thoughtful and presumably well-paid planners had by 2003 come up with a terrorist hitlist of seven: New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and Los Angeles. This exercise in metropolitan chauvinism, however, proved to be notably unpopular in places like, for example, Columbus, Ohio–not to mention Oklahoma City, kept off the list presumably because, although it suffered far more deaths from terrorism than all but two of the cities on the list, it had been the target merely of a domestic terrorist. Accordingly, the list was quickly expanded to 30 and, by 2005, to 73 (including Oklahoma City). It is not at all clear how one can even begin to “protect” large (or even not-so-large) cities against random acts of terror that can be carried out by a single individual with a bomb in a backpack.

Moreover, it is entirely possible that international terrorists might one day come to realize there is more payoff for them in hitting more ordinary and typical targets because that would scare more people. Of particular appeal to terrorists, perhaps, would be towns that tend to be synonymous with ordinary America, in part because they have peculiar or amusing names, like Peoria, Illinois, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Pocatello, Idaho, Azusa, California, or Xenia, Ohio. After all, if a bomb goes off in one of those, it can go off anywhere.

Actually, although the big-city premise holds thus far for the United States, terrorists overseas, even since 9/11, have often targeted tourist areas that are not in major cities, particularly hotels, in the case of Egypt, and a nightclub, as in the case of Bali.

Massive efforts to screen communications are also likely to prove to be wasteful exercises. Some people have characterized the process as trying to find a needle in a haystack by adding more hay. The effort principally leads to the accumulation of monumental amounts of data, and it creates an impossible number of false positives. Not only does this effort cost a large amount of money (no one yet seems to have tallied up how much), but it has not led to the detection of many–or maybe even of any–real terrorists in the United States. Moreover, notes security expert Schneier, gathering massive surveillance banks of such data not only constitutes an invasion of privacy, but the databases themselves become hugely attractive targets for criminals and identity thieves.

The process is also expensive and disruptive. In what can only be called an act of highest heroism, American Enterprise Institute analyst Veronique de Rugy has actually tried to figure out the budget of the Department of Homeland Security. She comes up with an extensive list of highly questionable expenditures. One that might be added stems from the way the Pentagon has extrapolated extravagantly from 9/11 to conclude grandly that “it is unsafe to have employees in urban office buildings,” and is in the process of moving tens of thousands of people in its more obscure agencies out of the area with little consideration about how they will manage to get to work on highways that are already congested.

It would seem to make more sense to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.

6. Are we more or less likely to commit suicide if attacked?

In 2003, while Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge bravely declared that “America is a country that will not be bent by terror” or “broken by fear,” General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was ominously suggesting that if terrorists were able to engineer an event that managed to escalate 9/11′s damage by killing 10,000 Americans, they would successfully “do away with our way of life.”[3] The sudden deaths of that many Americans–although representing less than four thousandths of one percent of the population–would indeed be horrifying and tragic, the greatest one-day disaster the country has suffered since the Civil War. But the only way terrorist acts could conceivably “do away with our way of life” would be if, bent and broken, we did it to ourselves in reaction. The process would presumably involve repealing the Bill of Rights, boarding up churches, closing down newspapers and media outlets, burning books, abandoning English for (North) Korean, and refusing evermore to consume hamburgers.

After predicting with great assurance that there would be terrorist events in connection with the 2004 elections, alarmist Michael Ignatieff of Harvard insists with equal certainty in his book, The Lesser Evil, that “inexorably, terrorism, like war itself, is moving beyond the conventional to the apocalyptic.” Unlike Myers, he goes on patiently to explain how the United States has become more likely to kill itself in response to a terrorist attack. Although Americans did graciously allow their leaders one fatal mistake in September 2001, they simply “will not forgive another one.” If there are several large-scale attacks, he confidently predicts, the trust that binds the people to its leadership and to each other will crumble, and the “cowed populace” will demand that tyranny be imposed upon it, and quite possibly break itself into a collection of rampaging lynch mobs devoted to killing “former neighbors” and “onetime friends.” The solution, he thinks, is to crimp civil liberties now in a desperate effort to prevent the attacks he is so confident will necessarily impel us to commit societal, cultural, economic, and political self-immolation.

I find these dire scenarios implausible. The United States is unlikely to be toppled by dramatic acts of terrorist destruction, even extreme ones. As it happens, officials estimated for a while last year that Hurricane Katrina had inflicted 10,000 deaths–the tolerance level set by General Myers. Although this, of course, was not a terrorist act, there were no indications whatsoever that, while catastrophic for the hurricane victims themselves, the way of life of the rest of the nation would be notably done away with by such a disaster. It is also easy to imagine scenarios in which 10,000 would have been killed on September 11–if the planes had hit the World Trade Center later in the day when more people were at work for example–and indeed, early estimates at the time were much higher than 3,000. Any death is tragic, but it is hardly likely that a substantially higher loss on 9/11 would have necessarily have triggered societal suicide.

We already absorb a great deal of tragedy and unpleasantness and still manage to survive. We live with a considerable quantity of crime, and the United States regularly loses 40,000 lives each year in automobile accidents. Moreover, countries have endured massive, sudden catastrophes without collapsing. In 1990 and then again in 2003, Iran suffered earthquakes that nearly instantly killed some 35,000 in each case. The tsunami that hit Indonesia and elsewhere in 2004 killed several times that many. But the countries have clearly survived these disasters: they constitute major tragedies, of course, but they hardly proved to be “existential” ones.

Thus the country can readily absorb considerable damage if necessary, and it has outlasted far more potent threats in the past. To suggest otherwise is to express contempt for America’s capacity to deal with adversity.

However, although the alarmists may exaggerate, a proclivity that is by nature (and definition) central to their basic makeup, the subtext of their message should perhaps be taken seriously: ultimately, the enemy, in fact, is us. Thus far at least, terrorism is a rather rare and, appropriately considered, not generally a terribly destructive phenomenon. But there is a danger that hysteria over it could become at least somewhat self-fulfilling should extensive further terrorism be visited upon the Home of the Brave.

A key element in a policy toward terrorism, therefore, should be to control, to deal with, or at least productively to worry about the fear and overreaction that terrorism so routinely inspires and that generally constitutes its most damaging effect.


[1] Bill Gertz, “5,000 in U.S. Suspected of Ties to al Qaeda; Groups Nationwide Under Surveillance,” Washington Times 11 July 2002: A1.

[2] “Punishing Saddam: Sanctions Against Iraq Not Hurting Leaders of the Country, But the Children Are Suffering and Dying,” 60 Minutes, CBS, May 12, 1996.

[3] Jennifer C. Kerr, “Terror Threat Level Raised to Orange,” Associated Press, December 21, 2003.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Five years after 9/11, are we any safer? In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller offers a set of provocative reflections on what that question might mean. Along the way, Mueller argues that the terrorist threat to American lives is overblown, and that the attempt to protect ourselves against any possible attack is impossible, and a waste of taxpayer money. “It would seem to make more sense,” Mueller writes, “to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.”

Response Essays

  • Clark Kent Ervin, Director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack counts himself among those who “strongly disagrees with both [John Mueller’s] premises and his conclusions.” Ervin stresses al Qaeda’s repeated intention to again attack the United States, and the alleged proliferation of terror cells in the United States and abroad. Ervin takes issue with what he calls Mueller’s “argumentum ad statisticum”–comparing terrorist murder to accidental death–and maintains that in a context of uncertainty about future attacks, “I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!”

  • Veronique de Rugy, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent. “Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.” The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

  • Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, argues that “the threat is getting wider without being deeper,” with new terror recruits failing to form “the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland.” Naftali argues that though the Bush administration deserves credit for weakening Al Qaeda, it has otherwise been “largely incompetent” in denying terrorists sanctuaries, and discouraging recruits to violent extremism. The main danger, Naftali contends, is that a terror group acquires a loose nuke, and the U.S. needs to attend more to this specific problem.