Terrorism, we have been assured, is no big deal. You are more likely to die from falling off a ladder or slipping in the shower. So says Nicholas Kristof. And so once said Barack Obama.
People who are soft on terrorism are tough on ladders. We can now have large public demonstrations to ban bathtubs. There, that will solve the problem of Islamist terrorism. Dare we note note that it is destroying large parts of the Middle East and that has invaded Europe. To which Kristof tells us to put our collective heads in the sand.
Don’t fear terrorism. Fear bathtubs. And, God help us, you must be terrified of automobile accidents… surely they kill more Americans every year than do acts of domestic terrorism.
For the sake of their argument, those who misuse statistics in this way ignore the cost of terrorism in other parts of the world. The carnage in Syria, for example, tends to remain hidden.
If you like facts and if you believe in using them promiscuously, the fact about comparing deaths from ladder falls to deaths from domestic terrorism feels dispositive. In truth, it is misusing information, roughly like saying that even if it is a fact that Col. Mustard’s fingerprint is on the murder weapon if he was in Egypt when the crime was committed, he could not have done it.
Any number of learned authors have taken Kristof to task for his intellectual dereliction. One notes that Kristof is a reporter, but he is not a thinker. His column demonstrates the point on a regular basis. Among those who have critiqued his column are Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, Justin Fox on Bloomberg, David French on National Review and Alex Nowrasteh at Cato (via Maggie’s Farm.)
Ganesh shows why the analogy is a cheap effort at confusing the issue:
… most people can intuit the difference between domestic misfortune and political violence. The latter is an assault on the system: the rules and institutions that distinguish society from the state of nature. Bathroom deaths could multiply by 50 without a threat to civil order. The incidence of terror could not.
Terrorists want you to change the way you live. They want to undermine our culture and force us to replace it with theirs. It does not have the same impact as dying in the bathtub.
In addition, Fox and several others have noted that ladders and bathtubs, even automobiles are useful. They do something good for us. This do-goodism is accompanied with a certain risk, but we assume the risk because it is statistically very low when compared to the utility. Besides, we have some measure of control over it. We are generally aware of the risks and take suitable precautions. At times, we are careless and we might even be punished for our carelessness by having an accident. But, the situation is not comparable to watching the Boston Marathon and having a pressure cooker blow in your face.
When we are victims of an act of terrorism, the act is designed to take control of our minds… by persuading us that we deserved to be victimized. Terrorists want us to believe that our own evil deeds provoked them and forced them to punish us. Terrorism is designed to invade our minds and to make us feel guilty.
As you know, the Obama administration and many members of the alt-left insist that the cause of Islamist terrorism is our own Islamophobia. Add to that whatever we have done in the Middle East… especially America’s support for Israel… and you see that terrorism has a psychological and political goal. It wants to influence the culture. It wants to control our minds. It wants to convert us to Islam. It wants to persuade us to change our policy.
The nature of the threat from a ladder is radically incommensurate with that of Islamist terrorism.
Fox also notes that the analogy is specious because it misuses statistics—who could have imagined that:
Finally, comparing the incidence of terrorism with that of common accidents is an incompetent and irresponsible use of statistics. Household accidents are lots and lots of small, unrelated events. As a result, while individual accidents can’t be predicted, the overall risk is easy to quantify and is pretty stable from year to year.
Terrorism is different. There are small incidents, but there are also huge ones in which hundreds or thousands of people die. It’s a fat-tailed distribution, in which outliers are really important. It also isn’t stable: Five or 10 or even 50 years of data isn’t necessarily enough to allow one to predict with confidence what’s going to happen next year. It’s a little like housing prices -- the fact that they hadn’t declined on the national level for more than 50 years before 2006 didn’t mean they couldn’t decline. Meanwhile, the widespread belief that they wouldn’t decline made the housing collapse more likely and more costly.
Speaking of fat tails, the attack on the World Trade Center did not just kill more than two thousand people. It destroyed an enormous amount of property and disrupted the lives of many thousands more. The economic cost far surpassed that of lightning strikes. The psychological damage, the sense of having been attacked and of being made to look weak and inconsequential was vast.
Moreover, terrorism produces stress. And stress is unhealthy. Again, it is not a random event that befalls an individual. It is an assault on a nation or a culture. The two should not be confused.
If, after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Franklin Roosevelt had addressed Congress and declared that more people did from mosquito bites than died at Pearl Harbor would they country have risen up to cheer him? Would he have received the Kristof Award for indulging in mindless analogies? Or would he have been run out of office?