One of the most common themes in post-9/11 politics is for public figures to campaign based on the public’s fear of terrorism. Candidates from across the political spectrum regularly point to “increased threats from terrorists at home and abroad” as the reason you should elect them so they can keep you safe.
While combating terrorism is important and a crucial part of the nation’s national security strategy, the State Department’s annual Country Reports On Terrorism, which was released late last week, shows that its importance as a leading topic of public concern may be overstated. McClatchy’s Warren P. Strobel notes that the State Department report finds that only 25 American civilians were killed by terrorism worldwide last year:
There were just 25 U.S. noncombatant fatalities from terrorism worldwide. (The US government definition of terrorism excludes attacks on U.S. military personnel). While we don’t have the figures at hand, undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism.
Matt Yglesias compares the numbers and finds that Strobel’s hunches about traffic accidents are right. He writes, “26 Americans died in vehicle accidents in Mexico between 1 August 2009 and 1 January 2010, so it’s safe to say you’re dramatically likelier to die abroad in a traffic accident than a terrorist attack.”
But it isn’t just foreign traffic accidents that are deadlier to Americans than terrorism. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, more than 13,000 Americans died from the common seasonal flu between January and April 2009, with “no fewer than 800 flu-related deaths” occuring every single week, meaning that 32 times as many Americans died as a result of the flu in a single week during this period of 2009 than died during the entire year from terrorism.
Yet if Americans want to find a threat more dangerous to their lives than terrorism, they don’t even need to go outside and get into their car or interact with their neighbors and catch the flu. All they have to do is look to their canine companions. DogsBite.org, which compiles press reports of dog bite fatalities, recorded 32 reported incidents of dogs fatally killing humans last year.
Once again, the threat of terrorism is a serious national security concern and should be seen as such. But given its relatively low fatality rate in comparison to other threats to humanity — the State Department’s report found that 58,142 people were killed by terrorist attacks worldwide in 2009, a fraction of the three million children who died from easily preventable malnutrition and hunger a year before — a more reasoned assessment of our priorities is needed.