Editor’s Note: Jennie M. Easterly served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Joshua A. Geltzer served as Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council and, before that, as Deputy Legal Adviser to the National Security Council. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.
Bathtub accidents kill more Americans than terrorism
The authors argue that Americans expect their government to protect them from terrorist attacks and investing in counter-terrorism efforts is more than justified
More Americans die from accidents in the bathtubs than from attacks by terrorists. Should we then care so much more – and spend so much more – to prevent terrorist attacks than bathtub mishaps? We think so. The reason is simply human nature. And the terrorist attack last month in Paris, on the eve of the critical French elections, showed once again that human nature is, in many ways, unchanging.
Recent commentary in the pages of the New York Times and Financial Times and on blogs such as Lawfare has revived debate over whether we are spending too much time, effort, and resources on stopping terrorist attacks when very few Americans are killed by terrorists – by some estimates, approximately one-third the number who die each year in the bathtub. We strongly agree with those who consider that comparison a fallacy.
Deaths from terrorism – even just attempted acts of terrorism – simply scare people in ways that other acts of violence do not. It’s partly the randomness. It’s partly the viciousness. It’s partly the media attention that makes all of us relive each attack over and over. But whatever the reasons, people simply fixate on, and in turn react to, terrorism to a degree unmatched by other violence.
And a lot flows from that. Because of voters’ fears, terrorism can distort domestic politics – exactly as much of France, the rest of Europe, and the broader global community feared would occur after last month’s terrorist attack on the Champs Elysees, and indeed, as we fear might happen, goaded by President Trump, the next time an attack occurs here in the United States. And terrorism can distort foreign policy, too, dragging countries into conflicts abroad or providing an excuse for doing so. This, of course, appeared to be part of the dynamic that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, shaped how the US public thought about going to war in Iraq in 2003 – an especially notable influence in that Iraq bore no responsibility for those attacks.
In fact, terrorism can undermine the stability and political trajectory of entire regions. ISIS is, in a sense, more than a terrorist group, given its (shrinking) hold on territory in Syria and Iraq, but it has garnered the world’s attention largely through its acts of terrorism beyond the territory it controls. And ISIS has changed the direction of much of the Middle East for at least a generation, setting back development in large swaths of territory, altering alliances throughout the region, and producing thousands of children raised to embrace barbaric violence and intolerant extremism.
Much of the recent debate over the bathtub fallacy has been a statistical one, assessing whether the numbers really bear out the comparison. To us, that’s beside the point.
So long as human nature yields a reaction to terrorism that shakes domestic politics, redirects foreign policy, and upends regional stability, terrorism demands our attention. Of course, so does the quite explicit expectation of the American public that its government protect it from this form of deliberately targeted, violent death in particular – whereas the American public has expressed no such concern about the accidental perils of the bathtub.
Recognizing the role that human nature plays in shaping reactions to terrorism reinforces the importance of building resiliency in our communities, societies, and polities to do what we can at least to mitigate the risks associated with those reactions.
There is a world of difference between demagogues who would hype the threat of terrorism to scaremonger and true leaders who can speak to the importance of dutiful preparation, effective response, and calm reflection before reaction.
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In our time working on counterterrorism policy at the White House, we helped to ensure that President Obama prepared the American public for what could happen, and reassured the public when something, tragically, did happen. Indeed, certain swaths of the American public appeared to react to the horrific events in San Bernardino and later Orlando less in post-9/11 fashion and more in line with the type of grim stoicism reminiscent of British and Israeli societies that have suffered longer series of terrorist attacks. But other loud voices – including, of course, the candidate who became our current President – continued to call for extreme measures in response
Building resilience where we can is important, because it can minimize the effects of terrorism. But pretending those effects are – or ever will be – the same as the effects of deaths from bathtubs elevates cold statistics over human nature. That’s a dangerous basis for making policy.