“Reliable estimates of the number of justifiable homicides committed by police officers in the United States do not exist.” A study of killings by police from 1999 to 2002 in the Central Florida region found that the national databases included (in Florida) only one-fourth of the number of persons killed by police as reported in the local news media.
An average of 545 people killed by local and state law enforcement officers in the US went uncounted in the country’s most authoritative crime statistics every year for almost a decade, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The first-ever attempt by US record-keepers to estimate the number of uncounted “law enforcement homicides” exposed previous official tallies as capturing less than half of the real picture. The new estimate – an average of 928 people killed by police annually over eight recent years, compared to 383 in published FBI data – amounted to a more glaring admission than ever before of the government’s failure to track how many people police kill.
The revelation called into particular question the FBI practice of publishing annual totals of “justifiable homicides by law enforcement” – tallies that are widelycited in the media and elsewhere as the most accurate official count of police homicides.
As shown below, that means that you’re 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist.
You’re Much More Likely to Be Killed By Brain-Eating Parasites, Texting While Driving, Toddlers, Lightning, Falling Out of Bed, Alcoholism, Food Poisoning, Choking On Food, a Financial Crash, Obesity, Medical Errors or “Autoerotic Asphyxiation” than by Terrorists
Daniel Benjamin – the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the United States Department of State from 2009 to 2012 – noted last month (at 10:22):
The total number of deaths from terrorism in recent years has been extremely small in the West. And the threat itself has been considerably reduced. Given all the headlines people don’t have that perception; but if you look at the statistics that is the case.
Time Magazine noted in 2013 that the chance of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States from 2007 to 2011, according to Richard Barrett – coordinator of the United Nations al Qaeda/Taliban Monitoring Team – was 1 in 20 million.
Let’s look at specific numbers …
The U.S. Department of State reports that only 17 U.S. citizens were killed worldwide as a result of terrorism in 2011.* That figure includes deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and all other theaters of war.
In contrast, the American agency which tracks health-related issues – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control – rounds up the most prevalent causes of death in the United States:
Click to enlarge
Comparing the CDC numbers to terrorism deaths means:
– You are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack
– You are 33,842 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack
(Keep in mind when reading this entire piece that we are consistently and substantially understating the risk of other causes of death as compared to terrorism, because we are comparing deaths from various causes within the United States against deaths from terrorism worldwide.)
Wikipedia notes that obesity is a a contributing factor in 100,000–400,000 deaths in the United States per year. That makes obesity 5,882 to 23,528 times more likely to kill you than a terrorist.
The annual number of deaths in the U.S. due to avoidable medical errors is as high as 100,000. Indeed, one of the world’s leading medical journals – Lancet – reported in 2011:
A November, 2010, document from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services reported that, when in hospital, one in seven beneficiaries of Medicare (the government-sponsored health-care programme for those aged 65 years and older) have complications from medical errors, which contribute to about 180 000 deaths of patients per year.
That’s just Medicare beneficiaries, not the entire American public. Scientific American noted in 2009:
Preventable medical mistakes and infections are responsible for about 200,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to an investigation by the Hearst media corporation.
But let’s use the lower – 100,000 – figure. That still means that you are 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism.
The CDC says that some 80,000 deaths each year are attributable to excessive alcohol use. So you’re 4,706 times more likely to drink yourself to death than die from terrorism.
Wikipedia notes that there were 32,367 automobile accidents in 2011, which means that you are 1,904 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack. As CNN reporter Fareed Zakaria wrote last year:
“Since 9/11, foreign-inspired terrorism has claimed about two dozen lives in the United States. (Meanwhile, more than 100,000 have been killed in gun homicides and more than 400,000 in motor-vehicle accidents.) “
High-income countries such as the UK and US could see a 6.4% surge in deaths from heart disease, while low-income countries could experience a 26% rise in mortality rates.
Since there were 596,339 deaths from heart disease in the U.S. in 2011 (see CDC table above), that means that there are approximately 38, 165 additional deaths a year from the financial crisis … and Americans are 2,245 times more likely to die from a financial crisis that a terrorist attack.
The CDC notes that there were 7,638 deaths from HIV and 45 from syphilis, so you’re 452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior than terrorism. (That doesn’t include death by autoerotic asphyxiation … discussed below.)
The National Safety Council reports that more than 6,000 Americans die a year from falls … most of them involve people falling off their roof or ladder trying to clean their gutters, put up Christmas lights and the like. That means that you’re 353 times more likely to fall to your death doing something idiotic than die in a terrorist attack.
The same number – 6,000 – die annually from texting or talking on the cellphone while driving. So you’re 353 times more likely to meet your maker while lol’ing than by terrorism.
The agency in charge of workplace safety – the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration – reports that 4,609 workers were killed on the job in 2011 within the U.S. homeland. In other words, you are 271 times more likely to die from a workplace accident than terrorism.
The CDC notes that 3,177 people died of “nutritional deficiencies” in 2011, which means you are 187 times more likely to starve to death in American than be killed by terrorism.
Approximately 1,000 Americans die each year from autoerotic asphyxiation. So you’re 59 times more likely to kill yourself doing weird, kinky things than at the hands of a terrorist.
As noted above, there were an average of 928 Americans killed by police officers in the United States each year in “justifiable homicides”. That means that you were more than 55 times more likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer than by a terrorist. That number does not include unjustifiable homicides.
Nearly 400 Americans die each year due to drug allergies from penicillin. More than 200 deaths occur each year due to food allergies. Nearly 100 Americans die due to insect allergies. And 10 deaths each year are due to severe reactions to latex. See this. There are many other types of allergies, but that totals 710 deaths each year from just those four types of allergies alone … making it 42 times more likely that you’ll die from an allergic reaction than from a terror attack.
Some 450 Americans die each year when they fall out of bed, 26 times more than are killed by terrorists.
You might have toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which the CDC estimates has infected about 22.5 percent of Americans older than 12 years old
Toxoplasmosis is a brain-parasite. The CDC reports that more than 375 Americans die annually due to toxoplasmosis. In addition, 3 Americans died in 2011 after being exposed to a brain-eating amoeba. So you’re about 22 times more likely to die from a brain-eating zombie parasite than a terrorist.
Around 34 Americans a year are killed by dog bites … around twice as many as by terrorists.
The 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Center notes that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.
[The risk of being killed by terrorism] compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has just published, Background Report: 9/11, Ten Years Later [PDF]. The report notes, excluding the 9/11 atrocities, that fewer than 500 people died in the U.S. from terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2010.
John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, and Mark Stewart, a civil engineer and authority on risk assessment at University of Newcastle in Australia … contended, “a great deal of money appears to have been misspent and would have been far more productive—saved far more lives—if it had been expended in other ways.”
Mueller and Stewart noted that, in general, government regulators around the world view fatality risks—say, from nuclear power, industrial toxins or commercial aviation—above one person per million per year as “acceptable.” Between 1970 and 2007 Mueller and Stewart asserted in a separate paper published last year in Foreign Affairs that a total of 3,292 Americans (not counting those in war zones) were killed by terrorists resulting in an annual risk of one in 3.5 million. Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), a deer (one in two million) or on a commercial airliner (one in 2.9 million). [Let’s throw a couple more fun facts into the mix … The risk of choking to death on food is 1 in 4,404, and the risk of dying by falling out of furniture (including couches, chairs and beds) is 1 in 4,238. So you’re almost a thousand times more likely to die from one of these rare causes of death than terrorism.]
The global mortality rate of death by terrorism is even lower. Worldwide, terrorism killed 13,971 people between 1975 and 2003, an annual rate of one in 12.5 million. Since 9/11 acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim militants outside of war zones have killed about 300 people per year worldwide. This tally includes attacks not only by al Qaeda but also by “imitators, enthusiasts, look-alikes and wannabes,” according to Mueller and Stewart.
Defenders of U.S. counterterrorism efforts might argue that they have kept casualties low by thwarting attacks. But investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies suggest that 9/11 may have been an outlier—an aberration—rather than a harbinger of future attacks. Muslim terrorists are for the most part “short on know-how, prone to make mistakes, poor at planning” and small in number, Mueller and Stewart stated. Although still potentially dangerous, terrorists hardly represent an “existential” threat on a par with those posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
In fact, Mueller and Stewart suggested in Homeland Security Affairs, U.S. counterterrorism procedures may indirectly imperil more lives than they preserve: “Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year.”
The funds that the U.S. spends on counterterrorism should perhaps be diverted to other more significant perils, such as industrial accidents (one in 53,000), violent crime (one in 22,000), automobile accidents (one in 8,000) and cancer (one in 540). “Overall,” Mueller and Stewart wrote, “vastly more lives could have been saved if counterterrorism funds had instead been spent on combating hazards that present unacceptable risks.” In an e-mail to me, Mueller elaborated:
“The key question, never asked of course, is what would the likelihood be if the added security measures had not been put in place? And, if the chances without the security measures might have been, say, one in 2.5 million per year, were the trillions of dollars in investment (including overseas policing which may have played a major role) worth that gain in security—to move from being unbelievably safe to being unbelievably unbelievably safe? Given that al Qaeda and al Qaeda types have managed to kill some 200 to 400 people throughout the entire world each year outside of war zones since 9/11—including in areas that are far less secure than the U.S.—there is no reason to anticipate that the measures have deterred, foiled or protected against massive casualties in the United States. If the domestic (we leave out overseas) enhanced security measures put into place after 9/11 have saved 100 lives per year in the United States, they would have done so at a cost of $1 billion per saved life. That same money, if invested in a measure that saves lives at a cost of $1 million each—like passive restraints for buses and trucks—would have saved 1,000 times more lives.”
Mueller and Stewart’s analysis is conservative, because it excludes the most lethal and expensive U.S. responses to 9/11. Al Qaeda’s attacks also provoked the U.S. into invading and occupying two countries, at an estimated cost of several trillion dollars. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 Americans so far—more than twice as many as were killed on September 11, 2001—as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans.
In 2007 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that people are more likely to be killed by lightning than terrorism. “You can’t sit there and worry about everything,” Bloomberg exclaimed. “Get a life.”
Indeed, the Senior Research Scientist for the Space Science Institute (Alan W. Harris) estimates that the odds of being killed by a terrorist attack is about the same as being hit by an asteroid (and see this).
Terrorism pushes our emotional buttons. And politicians and the media tend to blow the risk of terrorism out of proportion. But as the figures above show, terrorism is a very unlikely cause of death.
* Note: Subsequent official reports – published in 2012 and 2013 – show that even fewer Americans were killed by terrorists than in the previous year.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). The Centre for Research on Globalization will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article.