My first version of this was much longer, but I have summarized my thoughts more for you and provided links for more information.
For the past twenty-five years, I have been studying risk, risk probabilities, risk perception, and the common errors that people make in perceiving risk. I have helped companies apply these ideas and testified in court to help juries understand events that are part of legal disputes. In honor of the Tenth Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, I decided to apply these tools to how the world reacted, in particular the US which is what I am most familiar with.
The first thing to know is that the most common error people make in perceiving risk is that salient, newsmaking events are perceived as more likely and more severe than less salient, less newsmaking events. So we overestimate the risk events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks and underestimate the risk of events like not being able to afford health care, undertreating your diabetes, and dying five years earlier than you would have. You may argue that 3500 people died on 9/11. But how many people have died, suffered through untreated illness or injury, lost hours of time, were humiliated by TSA strip searches, etc because of our reaction. And how many crimes occurred because law enforcement has been redirected towards homeland security?
What I did was looked at the responses that we made and the responses we could have made and thought about their benefits compared to their costs. Of course, these are all loose estimates, but 25 years of experience does give me a pretty good sense of these things. And there is supporting research available. They find the risk of dying in a terrorist attack is one in 12.5 million. Compare that to the one in 1 million chance of drowning on your bathtub.
First I looked at what we did do.
- We created the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Authority
- We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.
- We passed the Patriot Act.
- We locked down our borders and made it harder for foreigners to visit, go to school, or immigrate.
The benefits of these things has been some reduction in the likelihood of future terrorist attacks by catching, killing, and deterring terrorists. But what were the costs? The wars have easier to measure costs. We have spent over $1.3 trillion dollars and had 5000 soldiers and many civilians killed. How about DHS and TSA? $500 billion dollars, and we have lost a lot of time waiting in security lines, lost dignity being searched on occasion, and been inconvenienced by having to bring a single quart Ziploc of 3-ounce liquids. What are the economic costs? Remember Reagan beat the Soviet Union by forcing them to spend so much on their military that they couldn't keep up their standard of living. It would be ironic if Bin Laden's legacy is that he did the same thing to us.
The Patriot Act has infringed on our civil liberties in less tangible ways. For example a 70-year old man left his cell phone in the food court of the Mall of the Americas. He went back a few minutes later to look for it, nervous that is was permanently lost or stolen. Because there was an “unattended item” and because he “looked nervous” the mall security reported the incident to the police, the police reported the incident to the FBI, and the FBI put his family on the watch list. Now any time he or anyone in his family goes to an airport, they are singled out for a hand search. There are also lost liberties that we don’t even know about. Warrantless wiretaps are not announced to the public. Perhaps the FBI is reading this right now and putting me on the watch list!!
And according to James Thurber at American University, many FBI anti-gang programs were canceled to shift resources to homeland security. How many crimes were committed or lives were affected by this? Hard to measure, but a serious consequence.
What if we took a more minimalist approach? What would that look like? Perhaps we did only the following:
- Bomb the heck out of every Al Queda (including Al Shabab, AQAP, etc) hideout, training ground, and base of operations that we knew about. This would reduce their resources significantly and send a strong message that we are not going to take attacks lying down,
- Increase intelligence operations overseas to better ferret out attacks before they occur and infiltrate the terror groups.
- Improve the communication links between intelligence and law enforcement agencies domestically (police, FBI), internationally (CIA, Interpol), and globally (other countries domestic agencies).
- Put together a series of educational programs modeled on the See Something Say Something program that helps people in different industries recognize suspicious behaviors and make it easy to report. I don’t mean Patriot Act type reactions, just more awareness and compilation of statistics to identify real suspicious behavior.
Would this second approach reduce the risk of terrorist attacks? Perhaps not as much as what we did, but perhaps more. What have me lost in international political capital that would have helped us keep economic rivals in check and protect our interests abroad. Would a minimalist approach cost as much? Not by a long shot. And refreshing my example above, what if we could take all the money we spent on the wars, DHS, and TSA and use it to improve our education, infrastructure, and innovation. How many lives would be saved and improved by having a stronger economy, stronger job market, and better educational system?
This is where the real guessing comes in, but I suspect that we would increase worldwide happiness, wellbeing, and life expectancy with the minimal response than with what we did. Personally, I don’t think it is an order of magnitude difference. In other words, I’d give points. But I would put serious money on even odds.
John Horgan of Scientific American wrote an editorial with a similar conclusion.