Putting Risk In Context
The U.S. Department of State reports that only 17 U.S. citizens were killed worldwide as a result of terrorism in 2011.* That figure includes deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and all other theaters of war.
In contrast, the American agency which tracks health-related issues – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control – rounds up the most prevalent causes of death in the United States:
Comparing the CDC numbers to terrorism deaths means:
– You are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack
– You are 33,842 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack
(Keep in mind when reading this entire piece that we are consistently and substantially understating the risk of other causes of death as compared to terrorism, because we are comparing deaths from various causes within the United States against deaths from terrorism worldwide.)
Wikipedia notes that obesity is a a contributing factor in 100,000–400,000 deaths in the United States per year. That makes obesity 5,882 to 23,528 times more likely to kill you than a terrorist.
The annual number of deaths in the U.S. due to avoidable medical errors is as high as 100,000. Indeed, one of the world’s leading medical journals – Lancet – reported in 2011:
A November, 2010, document from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services reported that, when in hospital, one in seven beneficiaries of Medicare (the government-sponsored health-care programme for those aged 65 years and older) have complications from medical errors, which contribute to about 180 000 deaths of patients per year.
That’s just Medicare beneficiaries, not the entire American public. Scientific American noted in 2009:
Preventable medical mistakes and infections are responsible for about 200,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to an investigation by the Hearst media corporation.
And a new study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety says the numbers may be up to 440,000 each year.
But let’s use the lower – 100,000 – figure. That still means that you are 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism.
The CDC says that some 80,000 deaths each year are attributable to excessive alcohol use. So you’re 4,706 times more likely to drink yourself to death than die from terrorism.
Wikipedia notes that there were 32,367 automobile accidents in 2011, which means that you are 1,904 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack. As CNN reporter Fareed Zakaria wrote last year:
“Since 9/11, foreign-inspired terrorism has claimed about two dozen lives in the United States. (Meanwhile, more than 100,000 have been killed in gun homicides and more than 400,000 in motor-vehicle accidents.) “
President Obama agreed.
According to a 2011 CDC report, poisoning from prescription drugs is even more likely to kill you than a car crash. Indeed, the CDC stated in 2011 that – in the majority of states – your prescription meds are more likely to kill you than any other source of injury. So your meds are thousands of times more likely to kill you than Al Qaeda.
The financial crisis has also caused quite a few early deaths. The Guardian reported in 2008:
High-income countries such as the UK and US could see a 6.4% surge in deaths from heart disease, while low-income countries could experience a 26% rise in mortality rates.
Since there were 596,339 deaths from heart disease in the U.S. in 2011 (see CDC table above), that means that there are approximately 38, 165 additional deaths a year from the financial crisis … and Americans are 2,245 times more likely to die from a financial crisis that a terrorist attack.
Financial crises cause deaths in other ways, as well. For example, the poverty rate has skyrocketed in the U.S. since the 2008 crash. For example, the poverty rate in 2010 was the highest in 17 years, and more Americans numerically were in poverty as of 2011 than for more than 50 years. Poverty causes increased deaths from hunger, inability to pay for heat and shelter, and other causes. (And – as mentioned below – suicides have skyrocketed recently; many connect the increase in suicides to the downturn in the economy.)
The number of deaths by suicide has also surpassed car crashes. Around 35,000 Americans kill themselves each year (and more American soldiers die by suicide than combat; the number of veterans committing suicide is astronomical and under-reported). So you’re 2,059 times more likely to kill yourself than die at the hand of a terrorist.
The CDC notes that there were 7,638 deaths from HIV and 45 from syphilis, so you’re 452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior than terrorism. (That doesn’t include death by autoerotic asphyxiation … discussed below.)
The National Safety Council reports that more than 6,000 Americans die a year from falls … most of them involve people falling off their roof or ladder trying to clean their gutters, put up Christmas lights and the like. That means that you’re 353 times more likely to fall to your death doing something idiotic than die in a terrorist attack.
The same number – 6,000 – die annually from texting while driving. So you’re 353 times more likely to meet your maker while lol’ing than by terrorism.
The agency in charge of workplace safety – the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration – reports that 4,609 workers were killed on the job in 2011 within the U.S. homeland. In other words, you are 271 times more likely to die from a workplace accident than terrorism.
The CDC notes that 3,177 people died of “nutritional deficiencies” in 2011, which means you are 187 times more likely to starve to death in American than be killed by terrorism.
Approximately 1,000 Americans die each year from autoerotic asphyxiation. So you’re 59 times more likely to kill yourself doing weird, kinky things than at the hands of a terrorist.
Some 450 Americans die each year when they fall out of bed, 26 times more than are killed by terrorists.
Scientific American notes:
You might have toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which the CDC estimates has infected about 22.5 percent of Americans older than 12 years old
Toxoplasmosis is a brain-parasite. The CDC reports that more than 375 Americans die annually due to toxoplasmosis. In addition, 3 Americans died in 2011 after being exposed to a brain-eating amoeba. So you’re about 22 times more likely to die from a brain-eating zombie parasite than a terrorist.
There were at least 155 Americans killed by police officers in the United States in 2011. That means that you were more than 9 times more likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer than by a terrorist. ()
Around 34 Americans a year are killed by dog bites … around twice as many as by terrorists.
The 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Center notes that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than terrorism. And see this.
The Jewish Daily Forward noted in May that – even including the people killed in the Boston bombing – you are more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. And see these statistics from CNN.
[The risk of being killed by terrorism] compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has just published, Background Report: 9/11, Ten Years Later [PDF]. The report notes, excluding the 9/11 atrocities, that fewer than 500 people died in the U.S. from terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2010.
Scientific American reported in 2011:
John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, and Mark Stewart, a civil engineer and authority on risk assessment at University of Newcastle in Australia … contended, “a great deal of money appears to have been misspent and would have been far more productive—saved far more lives—if it had been expended in other ways.”