by Matt Barr
Your chance of dying in a terrorist attack
According to one estimate, your chance as an American of dying by accidental drowning is 66 times greater than your chance of dying in a terrorist attack. (Or it might be seven times greater; see the post.)
As many Americans have been killed by lightning, accident-causing deer and allergic reactions to peanuts as terrorism, since they started keeping track, they say.
You're twice as likely to die crushed under a vending machine as you are to die in a terrorist attack, according to this source. You are 225,409 times more likely to die in an auto accident, another source says. More people accidentally shoot themselves to death than die in terror attacks, it says here.
If you decide how much you care about events like those of September 11, 2001 based on your calculation of how likely you, personally, are to die, then you're probably pretty sanguine about the whole thing. Good for you.
For my part, I remember experiencing a range of emotions and reactions five years ago. We were in Chicago; I was driving the Eisenhower into downtown as the World Trade Center attacks unfolded on WBBM. The Sears Tower loomed directly in front of me for several miles of bumper to bumper commute, and I anxiously watched the sky around it with a heart thumping in my throat.
Once at work, the radio told of an attack on the Pentagon, of "several" unaccounted-for airplanes, a plane crash in Pittsburgh. As elaborate and huge as the attacks seem now, that morning it seemed moreso. It seemed coast-to-coast, happening everywhere around us. My wife got the kids out of school.
I remember being frightened, angry, awestruck, painfully sad, hungry for answers and information and willing to nuke several Middle Eastern countries. I curiously don't remember thinking, "whew! I'm glad I wasn't in one of those buildings!"
Evidently, a lot of other people did feel that way. How likely was I, personally, to die in this attack? Less likely than my chance of being legally executed? Well, then. No big deal!
It's selfish, maybe even creepy, but to each his own. But as these amateur statisticians watch all the tributes, retrospectives and rerun cable news coverage today, does it begin to dawn on them that this was a big deal for reasons beyond its threat to our own, individual, personal lives? Or does that not compute?
Do they think I'm some dolt who's afraid there's a terrorist waiting around the next corner to shoot me in the head, and wants George W. Bush to protect me? Do they think I'm some kind of racist, willing to go balls to the wall to fight a bunch of anonymous Arabs but not the far more serious and deadly threats of heat exhaustion and falling off the toilet? Do they think I'm contributing to the success of terror attacks by exaggerating their impact, while they're working hard to ensure the terrorists don't win?
Do they think they're smarter than I am?
September 11 didn't make me fear for my life, or the lives of people close to me, any more than the JFK assassination made my parents fear for their lives. (And for extra credit, what's your chance of being elected President of the United States and then shot to death?) Probably a lot like the last generation's reaction to Kennedy's death, it made me feel powerless in the face of a profound, frustrating, awful loss. It was an affront to my country, its people and its principles. It brought us all together in an unprecedented way.
It made thousands of Chicagoans of all different political and ideological stripes gather in Pioneer Plaza and Daley Plaza September 14 to sing God Bless America in unison. I didn't get the sense we were all afraid for our lives, but I suppose I could just be naive, and to be fair, I didn't ask around.
There's a chance, I acknowledge, that the people who compare their chance of dying in the next terror attack to their chance of dying of avian flu have a non-selfish point to make, about perspective and allocation of effort and resources. To the extent they sound maddeningly unserious, that's my fault for overstating the terror threat. Fine. We've already established that they're smarter than I am.
But maybe on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, we can take some time to mull over whether September 11 might have been important for reasons beyond the threat to our individual lives. The awe and horror, the hole ripped in the New York skyline, the stories of phone calls from the planes, the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93.
Mayor Giuliani's heartbreaking prediction of casualties that would be "more than we can bear." Ted Olson's awful narration of the last times he spoke to his wife, aboard American Airlines Flight 77. Palestinians bouncing and cheering.
The impossible idea of brave firefighters climbing the stairs of a burning and doomed 110-story building, knowing, every last one of them, that they weren't likely to make it out. That reality making them climb faster, desperately trying to reach the trapped, not retreat to safety.
I think for one day we can set aside our own fear of dying, or smug satisfaction that we're personally safe, as the case may be, and remember these things.
It won't kill you.
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