Just How Likely Are You To Be Killed By Terrorist Action?

So, let’s forget ideology. Forget whether we hate the current president because he is black, or support him because he is; forget the political hype in the current presidential campaign.

Let’s feed our head by looking at the facts in the form of statistics.

There is one likely event in American life that has the same probability of happening as being killed in the United States as the result of the action of a terrorist. But I’ll leave that until last.

When all else fails.

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Knight is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s off with her head,

Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head

First, we need to look at just how many people have been killed by terrorists.

In science, we throw out the single result that is wildly different from the norm when looking for solutions and in this case the terrible events of 9/11 are the anomaly, with about 3,000 deaths. There are precise numbers but those involve American citizens and non-citizens; nevertheless, the number was about 3,000.

But over the past decades there were also several years when there were absolutely ZERO deaths in the U.S. from terrorist action. That includes 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2011, according to statistics compiled by the University of Maryland.

So, speaking of averages, which is how you determine policies such as who or what to watch and where you put funds to save the most lives, is it more likely you will be killed by a nuclear accident than a terrorist?

Well, no actually, because NO civilian in the U.S has ever been killed due to a nuclear reactor accident. Yes, Three Mile Island was a big scare but in actuality no one even got a scratch from TMI.

Even Chernobyl only caused about 80 deaths directly, and all were either firefighters or military sent in to cope with the accident. People are still living in Chernobyl to this day.

So, what about other dangers we face in everyday life? How do they compare to the threat of terrorism?

You are not only a bit more likely to die because you are hit by lightning than you are by a terrorist, you are almost 50 times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.

But how about all terrorist attacks any place in the world?

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 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.

You are also 20,000 times more likely to die from complications of obesity.

You are between 5,882 and 20,000 times more likely to be killed by medical errors in a hospital (wrong diagnosis, wrong medicine, hospital acquired infections, etc.).

The CDC also report that every year 3,177 people in America die of nutritional deficiencies; that is, you are 187 times more likely to starve to death in America than you are to be killed by a terrorist, although that number probably includes those with medical or psychological conditions (Crohn’s disease, bulimia nervosa, body dysmorphic disorder, etc.).

Going by the amount of news coverage and the importance placed on terrorism, on which the candidates who based their campaigns generating as much fear as possible, you might think that a typical decade, say 2004 through 2014, would see 3,000 or perhaps even 10,000 dead – 300 to 1,000 per year on average.

But this isn’t something you have to speculate about; we can just look up the numbers at various official web sites. One that is easy to understand is from the University of Maryland.

A Pennsylvania farm.
A Pennsylvania farm – more dangerous than terrorists?

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer; the total number of terrorist-related deaths in the U.S. for the 10-year period was an astounding 36! Not, by the way, 36 per year, but 36 TOTAL – or fewer than four per year.

Yes, terrorism is terrible and the perpetrators should be hunted down and locked up. But it isn’t really very dangerous if you are in the U.S. or most countries.

BTW, by way of comparison, the number of people killed by lightning strikes in the U.S. averages 49 PER YEAR, or more than 10 times as many as are killed by terrorists.

If you want to include 9/11, then it is only fair to look at much longer periods, many decades, in which case the data become a bit fuzzy but is certainly fewer than 100 deaths per year on average.

Between 1970 and 2015 approximately 500 people were killed in the U.S. by terrorists. That, depending on the precise numbers, is 44 or 45 years – or fewer than 12 people per year.

Include 9/11 and you get 3,500, or 78 per year, more than are killed by lightning, but fewer than are killed by police.

Not including 9/11 in the data means you are nine to 10 times more likely to be killed by some kind of policeman in the U.S. than by a terrorist. Of course, if you are white the chances are a lot smaller, but people of every background and ethnicity die every year as the result of collateral damage from high speed police chases that are often initiated for something as minor as a bad tail light.

Including 9/11, you are slightly more likely to be killed by police action.

How about other factors versus terrorism?

Governments use statistics to decide where to put mitigation efforts and, in general, they consider one death per million per year as not worth worrying about.

Counting 3,300 killed by terrorists between 1970 and 2007 means the risk is about one in 3.5 million (including 9/11).

Numbers don’t mean much without something to compare them to.

White tail deer kill about one in 2 million per year, nearly twice as many.

White tail deer.
White tail deer – more dangerous than terrorists?

There are one in 950,000 deaths each year in bathtubs, and one in 1.5 million dies from a home appliance accident.

But what about the world as a whole?

Actually, there were 13,971 killed by terrorism in the entire world between 1975 and 2003, or about one in 12 million.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WANNqr-vcx0All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue our present efforts to track terrorists and prevent attacks – in fact, the low numbers show these efforts ARE worthwhile; but the question is, should we spend many times more on this threat?

One analysis of the problems caused by making Grandmother take her shoes off in the airport shows that it has caused more people to travel by car. After all, I can drive from my home in central Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., FASTER than I can drive to an airport, wait in line, board an airplane, fly to D.C., and eventually take a cab into Washington.

The estimate from that analysis shows that about 500 MORE people die each year due to the extra driving miles directly related to the TSA.

Finally, there is only one danger I was able to find that was exactly as likely to kill an American in the U.S. as was a terrorist.

According to The 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Center, you are exactly as likely to be killed by having a piece of your furniture, such as a heavy bookcase or large television set, fall on and crush you. Of course, that mostly happens to infants or toddlers, but terrorists don’t just kill adults.

So, the question I pose to my fellow “journalists,” the ones on TV who interview candidates or moderate debates, is why do you spend days asking about photographs of candidates’ wives and never once ask about the real threat from terrorism?

I’m a science writer and a Silver Owl member of the National Press Club (35+ years member), but I also have two decades working in emergency management and my partner has worked in the intelligence community on terrorism threats.

John McCormick, Groundhog Press Inc.
Member, AAAS
Science Editor, Perihelionsf.com