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Revising Our Christmas List


It is all over the news. It dominates the political debate and the upcoming election cycle. It has Congress passing new legislation. It has journalists editorializing and pundits talking. But most of all, it has American citizens frightened, frightened enough to listen to and support ideas not introduced in this country in decades, if ever.

What is the "it?" Terrorism. Terror attacks here, in the U.S. The fear of injury or death from a terror attack in the U.S. has become so palpable that people now consider it a real threat to themselves. But is it? Even after a year in which ISIS and its affiliates have had unfortunate success, the risk of being injured or killed by a terror attack here in the U.S. is extremely small. In fact, a brief comparison to the odds of injury or death from other risk factors in this country will go a long way to easing the fear about terrorism, and hopefully a little way toward ameliorating the dangers that pose the biggest threats to our daily lives.


The Centers for Disease Control has compiled information on the most prevalent causes of death in this country, and compared the incidence of those causes to the likelihood of death due to a terror attack. The numbers offer a startling insight into the irrationality of the fear surrounding being injured or killed by a terror attack here at home (or even abroad, although the statistics only deal with the U.S.). For instance, there were 32,367 fatal automobile accidents in 2011, making it 1,904 times more likely for a person to die from a car accident than from a terror attack. In fact, in the 14 years since 9/11, approximately 400,000 people have lost their lives in car accidents in the U.S., while even with the recent attack in San Bernardino, California, approximately 3 dozen people have lost their lives due to terror attacks on U.S. soil.

Another prevalent cause of death in this country is medical error: the CDC estimates that 200,000 people die from medical errors and complications related to them every year. That means that a person is 5,882 times more likely to die due to a surgical error, prescription drug mix-up, or hospital infection than from a terror attack. Similarly, alcoholism causes 80,000 deaths a year, making it 4,706 times more likely that a person would die from it than from a terror attack. Finally, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the U.S., causing over a half million deaths annually. Americans are 35,000 times more likely to die from heart disease and its complications than from a terror attack.


With the above statistics, how can the present paranoia about terrorism be explained? One reason that Americans fear injury and death from terror attacks than other much more likely causes is the constant discussion of and reporting about terrorism by the media. In the era of cable news and social media, the events of Paris seem like they happened next door rather than an ocean away. The constant replaying of stories in the 24 hour cable news network cycle makes it seem as if there is constant danger.

Another reason for the fear of injury and death from terror attacks being disproportionate to the actual risk is that politicians and those in power are purposely inflating the risk for their own agendas. Fear inflation is easy, since it taps into basic human instincts of putting fear onto a foreign identifiable threat (rather than a somewhat amorphous domestic problem like heart disease or car accidents). Take the example of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the American response to it. Only two people died from Ebola in the U.S., and neither one of those patients had contracted the virus here. In total, there were only a little more than a dozen cases of the Ebola virus documented in the U.S. Yet there were quarantine measures enacted, demands that travel and trade between the U.S. and the West African countries affected with Ebola be suspended, and general panic among many citizens. The "better safe than sorry" mode leads to emotional rather than reasoned responses.


There are those who argue that given the incredibly low risk of injury or death from a terror attack in the U.S., the billions and billions of dollars spent on counter-terrorism efforts since 9/11 would have been better spent on decreasing the risk of injury or death from motor vehicle accidents, heart disease, obesity, or cancer. People in the U. S. are much more likely to die from these causes, and billions of dollars spent on making cars and roads safer, fighting heart disease and obesity, curing cancer, and making treatments for all of these affordable would go a long way toward decreasing the mortality rates.

The flip side of the above argument is that the money spent on counter-terrorism since 9/11 is what has kept the risk of injury and death from terror attacks in this country incredibly low. Since proving a negative is extremely difficult, supporting or negating that claim may never be possible.


What is possible, however, is a proportional response to the real risks facing us. Texting or calling on smartphones while driving claims 6,000 lives annually, making an American citizen 353 times more likely to die while sharing emojis when driving than from a terror attack. Like terrorism, the risks associated with using a smartphone while driving--and the risks associated with driving under the influence, with medical error, and the other factors identified by the CDC--require a long-term national response. Long-term responses are not nearly as easy or popular as catchy sound bites, but maybe they are what should be on our collective Christmas list.


If you or a loved one have been injured in a motor vehicle accident or due to medical error, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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