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Terrorism and Real Risk

by bdietrich on April 25, 2013

Please be afraid.

Thriller, horror, and mystery writers depend on it. We also depend on you being afraid of the wrong things, because the risk of what we obsess about is vanishingly small compared to what we’ll probably die of.

This topic came to mind during the non-stop, frenetic news coverage and citywide shutdown of Boston after the Marathon bombings. Perfectly understandable, and I was as glued to the drama as anyone.

But as tragic as the event was, it occurred in a world where about 6,850 Americans die every day, according to the Center for Disease Control. The vast majority, of course, succumb to sickness.

Globally, the casualty rate is 153,000 a day, or 56 million dead a year, which is within the ballpark of death estimates for all of World War II.

And soldiers were shooting more than bullets in that war. I once read Europe actually gained population during the war years.

I co-taught a university course on risk analysis and was fascinated by the numbers. Even taking into account the slaughter of 9/11, you’re statistically about twice as likely to be slain by a bee sting as a terrorist.

Makes for a bad thriller, though.

Between 1997 and 2001, and including 9/11, 3,974 Americans were killed by terrorism and 3,147 by police. Let’s hope the police victims were all bad guys!

In the same period, accidental electrocution killed 5,171. But no one is shutting off the switch.

Americans kill themselves at nearly twice the rate they are murdered. The figures I had for 2004 were 32,439 suicides and 17,357 murders.

Accidents, murders, and suicide combined make up about 6 percent of deaths. The four biggest ways to increase your risk are, in order, obesity, poverty, smoking, and drinking. Which doesn’t do much for a taut plot.

The couple times I’ve ridden around with police, they seemed to spend most of their shift keeping drunk  couples from killing each other. This anecdotal observation is borne out by 2009 statistics showing about half of American murders were the result of domestic arguments, not felony crimes like robberies or Mafia hits.

And yep, guns account for most murders, followed by hands and blunt instruments. The real cool stuff is vanishingly rare: seven poisonings, two by explosives, eight forced drownings, etc. Come on, murderers, show more imagination! We need it for our plots.

Our love affair with firearms is a $4 billion a year industry, with one gun (and one car) for almost every American. We have about 37 private guns for every soldier in the world. Really.

And yes, auto accidents killed 32,367 Americans in 2011. Dan Gardner, in his book ‘Risk,’ cited one study that calculated 1,595 additional auto deaths were caused after 9/11 by people electing to drive instead of fly.

Gardner also calculated that an American child was 26 times more likely to be killed in an auto accident than to be abducted by a stranger.

Our perception of risk is important because it affects our politics. The website Slate has been tracking American gun deaths since the Newtown massacre, and had a toll of 3,591 between Dec. 14 of 2012 and April 22 of this year. Yet the Senate couldn’t even pass background checks on gun sales – a measure polls show is favored by 80 to 90 percent of Americans – while politicians pushed to be on TV to thunder about the Boston bombers who killed three.

What does kill us? Half of us go from heart disease and cancer.

Why do we worry so much about remote threats – a terror attack – and so very little about eating the next donut? We’re probably hard-wired to worry about attack from prehistoric times.

Novelists also know we fear the unexpected, the unexplained, and the unfair, all of which describe a terrorist attack. It’s sudden, indiscriminate, and insane. All factors in pumping up many a plot.

But it isn’t as likely to kill you as choking, a hospital surgical mistake, or merely walking and being hit by a car.

Thank goodness. Let’s leave the worst stuff to fiction.

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