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Did the U.S. Overreact to the 9/11 Attacks? Undoubtedly

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A decade ago I was wrestling a paragraph in my home office when my wife called out from another room, alarm in her voice. The music station she was listening to had interrupted a song to announce that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. We turned on the television, which had a live shot of smoke billowing from one of the Twin Towers, just in time to see a jet smash into the other tower.

On impulse, I ran up a hill near the house, from which you can see the Manhattan skyline 30 miles south. From the hilltop, I could see only smoke where once the Twin Towers had stood. Stunned, I thought about my son and daughter, then eight and six years old. I had hoped that they would grow up in a relatively peaceful world. Was I wrong?

I still believe we’re headed toward a less violent future—with the proviso that the U.S. learns how to deal with terrorism in a more rational manner.  In a previous post, I presented examples of iatrogenesis—ostensible cures for diseases and other problems that end up doing more harm than good. To my list, which included religion, communism and psychiatric drugs, I should perhaps add recent U.S. counterterrorism programs. Yes, the U.S. had to respond to al Qaeda’s horrific attack, but we clearly overreacted.

This conclusion emerges from risk-benefit analyses of post 9/11 counterterrorism efforts by 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. In the most recent issue of Homeland Security Affairs, Mueller and Stewart noted that after 9/11, U.S. officials had warned that we could expect many more such attacks, and that terrorism represented an “existential” threat, as the former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff had put it.

These fears triggered a surge in counterterrorism spending. Mueller and Stewart estimate that the response to 9/11 by federal, state and local governments as well as private corporations has totaled $1 trillion. The costs include measures such as beefed up intelligence, hardening of facilities and more robust airport screening but exclude the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even granting that terrorism evokes powerful emotions and hence deserves more attention than other dangers, Mueller and Stewart 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.”

chart comparing annual fatality risks

Mueller and Stewart noted that, in general, government regulators around the world view fatality risks—say, from nuclear power, industrial toxins or commercial aviation—above one person per million per year as “acceptable.” Between 1970 and 2007 Mueller and Stewart asserted in a separate paper published last year in Foreign Affairs that a total of 3,292 Americans (not counting those in war zones) were killed by terrorists resulting in an annual risk of one in 3.5 million. Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), a deer (one in two million) or on a commercial airliner (one in 2.9 million).

The global mortality rate of death by terrorism is even lower. Worldwide, terrorism killed 13,971 people between 1975 and 2003, an annual rate of one in 12.5 million. Since 9/11 acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim militants outside of war zones have killed about 300 people per year worldwide. This tally includes attacks not only by al Qaeda but also by “imitators, enthusiasts, look-alikes and wannabes,” according to Mueller and Stewart.

Defenders of U.S. counterterrorism efforts might argue that they have kept casualties low by thwarting attacks. But investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies suggest that 9/11 may have been an outlier—an aberration—rather than a harbinger of future attacks. Muslim terrorists are for the most part “short on know-how, prone to make mistakes, poor at planning” and small in number, Mueller and Stewart stated. Although still potentially dangerous, terrorists hardly represent an “existential” threat on a par with those posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

In fact, Mueller and Stewart suggested in Homeland Security Affairs, U.S. counterterrorism procedures may indirectly imperil more lives than they preserve: “Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year.”

The funds that the U.S. spends on counterterrorism should perhaps be diverted to other more significant perils, such as industrial accidents (one in 53,000), violent crime (one in 22,000), automobile accidents (one in 8,000) and cancer (one in 540). “Overall,” Mueller and Stewart wrote, “vastly more lives could have been saved if counterterrorism funds had instead been spent on combating hazards that present unacceptable risks.” In an e-mail to me, Mueller elaborated:

“The key question, never asked of course, is what would the likelihood be if the added security measures had not been put in place? And, if the chances without the security measures might have been, say, one in 2.5 million per year, were the trillions of dollars in investment (including overseas policing which may have played a major role) worth that gain in security—to move from being unbelievably safe to being unbelievably unbelievably safe? Given that al Qaeda and al Qaeda types have managed to kill some 200 to 400 people throughout the entire world each year outside of war zones since 9/11—including in areas that are far less secure than the U.S.—there is no reason to anticipate that the measures have deterred, foiled or protected against massive casualties in the United States. If the domestic (we leave out overseas) enhanced security measures put into place after 9/11 have saved 100 lives per year in the United States, they would have done so at a cost of $1 billion per saved life. That same money, if invested in a measure that saves lives at a cost of $1 million each—like passive restraints for buses and trucks—would have saved 1,000 times more lives.”

Mueller and Stewart’s analysis is conservative, because it excludes the most lethal and expensive U.S. responses to 9/11. Al Qaeda’s attacks also provoked the U.S. into invading and occupying two countries, at an estimated cost of several trillion dollars. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 Americans so far—more than twice as many as were killed on September 11, 2001—as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans.

The U.S. has also damaged its moral reputation by imprisoning without trial, torturing and assassinating alleged terrorists even in nations, such as Pakistan and Yemen, with which we are not at war. All these actions have helped arouse rather than quell anti-American sentiment among Muslims and others. In spite of its economic woes, the U.S. has more than doubled its annual defense spending in the past decade, which is now almost equal to that of all other nations combined.

Osama bin Laden, who was finally killed by U.S. forces in June, never again pulled off an attack as cataclysmic as the one on 9/11. But he didn’t have to, because we—the U.S.—wreaked so much destruction ourselves. In 2004 bin Laden gloated that he was “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” the same strategy with which he and other jihadists—with U.S. backing—drove Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Mueller and Stewart—who present a detailed critique of counterterrorism policies in Terror, Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security (Oxford University Press, 2011)—noted that a major obstacle to more rational policies is a shortage of “that oxymoronic commodity,” political courage. But a few politicians have dared to question the view of terrorism as a peril to civilization. In 2007 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that people are more likely to be killed by lightning than terrorism. “You can’t sit there and worry about everything,” Bloomberg exclaimed. “Get a life.

Actually, according to Mueller and Stewart, Americans’ annual risk of dying from lightning, at one in seven million is only half the risk from terrorism. Bloomberg’s comments nonetheless give me hope that as the traumatic memory of 9/11 recedes our leaders will begin devising rational, non-iatrogenic policies toward terrorism and other security threats. After all, as Mueller has pointed out (pdf), we’re already living in period when casualties from warfare are extraordinarily low, by historical standards. So I still hope—I believe!—that my children will live to see a day when lightning poses a greater danger than terrorism or war.

Table from “Hardly Existential,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, Foreign Affairs, April 2, 2010


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mr. Peabody II 11:43 pm 09/7/2011

    This article is so ultra-shallow and stupid that it is beyond comment. The author is an imbecile.

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  2. 2. yoshyusmc 1:16 am 09/8/2011

    So by your own admission WW2 would have never been worth the cost to fight Germany and Japan?

    Like Mr. Peabody mentioned your article is shallow, and would be a mistake to base the policy of our great Nation on what you and a sheltered college professor who safely “crunches” numbers “after” the fact.

    As you mentioned some critics point out that the war in Iraq/Afghanistan have prevented attacks and has acted as a big draw for all the worthless terrorist to go to and die in, rather than going to our malls, bus stops, coffee shops.

    Speaking of WW2, I like how you just say why can’t we just put the money towards preventing car accidents (I would like to hear your ideas on how to prevent that?) instead spending money to fund a just war (The Soldiers involved in prisoner abuse did see their day in court, unlike the countless terrorist who break the rule of law every day) against extremist.

    According to a report created by the Congressional Research Service for members of Congress, the cost of WW2 adjusted for todays numbers was over $4 TRILLION dollars!

    While the current cost of Iraq/Afghan wars is ranging around $1.1 TRILLION dollars!

    Gasp that is shocking, except you have to take into consideration the total percent of GDP these wars are costing our Nation.

    It doesn’t take a college professor to know that our GDP is considerably larger than than what it was in WW2, and such it took up a staggering 37.5% of the US GDP during 1941-195.

    While a majority will definitely consider the cost of WW2 most justifiable, however according to what you are saying it would not be worth your RISK ANALYSIS.

    In comparison the wars in IRAQ/AFGHAN only take up a measely 4.3% of GDP!

    Obviously your logic fails when you are trying to put a dollar cost on freedom, and protecting American citizens abroad and at home.

    This is why Mr. Horgan the COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS should never leave the business board room, or the college campus for that matter when dealing with matters of National Security.

    Because if that the way our leaders thought back in 1941, we would probably be speaking German or Japanese at this very moment.

    Instead, we have turned the aforementioned countried into some of the top modern countries in the world today.

    If we decided to “NOT OVER REACT”, could you say for certain that Libya, and Egypt would have still fought to overthrow their dictators with Saddam and the Taliban still in power?

    Put a dollar cost on all of those INTAGIBLE benefits.

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  3. 3. MarkHenryC 3:05 am 09/8/2011

    An uncharacteristically poor grade of comment so far. A chunk of spam, a pointless bit of abuse and an ad-hominem rant.

    Sure, the exercise in lives-for-dollars exercise is purely academic, but that was kind of the point.

    Anyway, soldiers in the field sometimes have to make such zero-sum judgements based on the information in front of them.

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  4. 4. mlbbchbill 7:13 am 09/8/2011

    Totally disagree…it’s much more than just numbers that some pin headed profs spit out…as BHO said, ‘they bring a knife, we bring a gun.’ The only way to win is the total defeat of the enemy. We should have glassed over, nuked, them all – Afgahn and Iraq.

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  5. 5. Desert Navy 7:32 am 09/8/2011

    The premise of the article is that the US “undoubtedly” overreacted. The info isn’t presented in a “purely academic” manner. It was heavily personalized by the author and his final judgment pronounced.

    You can’t put a price-tag on peace-of-mind and a sense of safety. If the US fails to respond in a manner that restores confidence to the people of the US our entire economic engine could collapse.

    Constantly worrying and stressing about the safety of you and your family lowers ones health, life-expectancy, productivity, income and IQ.

    You can’t just turn it into a balance sheet. Like you’re trying to decide between a 3′ post and rail fence or an 8′ chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire in a bad neighborhood. Which choice would make you feel better about leaving your wife & kids home alone for a couple of nights? There’s a huge cost differential between the fencing options and pretty much no difference in home invasions, all other things being equal.

    So you can trade your Volvo in for a Yugo but I’m willing to spend more for peace-of-mind.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 8:30 am 09/8/2011

    “Desert Navy”, you said, “You can’t put a price-tag on peace-of-mind and a sense of safety. If the US fails to respond in a manner that restores confidence to the people of the US our entire economic engine could collapse.” Didn’t our economic engine collapse when Bush overreacted and plunged us into two unnecessary ‘frightfully expensive’ wars? The Presidential Historical Society placed Bush 6th on the top 10 worst presidential list in America because of the way he handled the attack, the economy and his two wars.

    If we start expensive wars with everyone who throws a stick at us, we will become the Axes Of Evil like Bush did. The U.S. is not the Huns and we should not try to control the world and push our democracy down the throats, at the end of a gun or bomb, of those who think differently than we, or have more oil than we. If our military can protect us at 10,000 miles away, don’t you think they can protect us better here on our own soil without the thousands of casualties or the trillions of lost dollars?

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  7. 7. jbairddo 8:41 am 09/8/2011

    WTC attack was the second, the first by truck in the basement failed, the US was asleep at the wheel. Stats don’t tell the story of what might have been prevented 10 years ago if in 1993 Bill Clinton had decided that this was a travesty and actually said US security was going to be first rate. It is apparent that the idiots in Washington also called this attack an aberration. Oops, guess it wasn’t.
    The stats suggest that money used for other things is well used which is a complete fallacy. We have been spending millions yearly on public health and we as a nation are fatter than most (not all though, so maybe it is doing some good). Stop smoking programs, a joke but they take credit for it, smokers stop cuz it costs too much to smoke. Many studies have shown that to the case, but statistics are used to show that when non smoking hot lines and other worthless crap is instituted (at the same time cigarette taxes go up to pay for these programs), smoking rates go down. But the CDC and state gov’ts give the credit to the program to justify this stuff and then bloggers believe the govt’s lies. Public health money quit providing a benefit when sewers and clean public water was available. Public health officials couldn’t tell you if salt was bad for you after 50 years of studies and billions of dollars wasted. You want to spend money on auto safety? Don’t let people text, drive after 2am, have kids in the car, do makeup, use the cell, this isn’t rocket science and you can’t fix stupid, quit spending millions to pay for it.
    From public health perspective, look at neighboring countries, what could Mexico do to prevent its murder rate, how about legalizing something no more dangerous than driving (actually its a lot less dangerous than driving) and you can then tax it to pay for other stupid programs that don’t work.
    Good science will never direct public health funds in a constructive way until politicians (including public health administrators) stay out of the funding arena.
    And BTW, violence is ingrained in some people, hence gun control, knife control or anything else control doesn’t work.

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  8. 8. JamesDavis 8:46 am 09/8/2011

    The last fours years Bush was in office, he lost $1 billion in American cash (7 “18 wheel truck loads”), and over a hundred thousand bombs and weapons in Afghanistan. He got that weasel look on his face when he was asked ‘where did it go’. He said he had no idea where it went. Where did that $1 billion in cash and those 100,000 weapons and bombs go, and why wasn’t there an investigation? We have heard nothing else about that big mystery.

    When Clinton left office, this country was over $1 trillion to the good; when Bush left office, we were $2.9 trillion in the red and climbing like a rocket into space. I think the professors figures are very low.

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  9. 9. CGLH 1:50 pm 09/8/2011

    The miss directed programs the author cites are typical of the Bush Administration’s lack of essential skills in numerous areas of Governance.

    The author greatly underestimates the skills of the terrorists’ core.

    Regardless of the death rate from a threat, the twin towers, Pentagon and failed White House attacks were chosen for not only their very visible assault on the State as represented by these buildings, but by the actual capabilities housed therein.

    The author is also wrong in that the attack provoked the Iraq war. That war was in the planning stage before the attack, the Bush administration was so focused on fomenting an Iraq war, it wasn’t capable of dealing with the Al Qaeda intelligence that was coming in. Then it ignored that Afghanistan problem because of its focus on Iraq.

    There is a legitimate issue between Guns and Butter, but, when SA ventures into social policy, it should be a lot more careful about the tone and intellectual credibility of the article(s) it chooses to post to its web site. This really does SA no credit and reinforces the anti-intellectual deniers who are either fools or paid fellow travelers of corporate interests.

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  10. 10. Desert Navy 2:57 pm 09/8/2011

    “This really does SA no credit and reinforces the anti-intellectual deniers who are either fools or paid fellow travelers of corporate interests.”


    Which of those two are you?

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  11. 11. bartonlp 3:31 pm 09/8/2011

    After 911 I suggested our response should have been to fly 130′s over Afghanistan and shove bales of $100 bills out the back. That would have been more effective and much much cheaper than the current outcome.

    We have spent billions of dollars on TSA and have put the American public at great inconveniences, greater risk and almost bankrupted air travel.

    Do I feel safer when I fly? NO!

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  12. 12. Marc Levesque 5:58 pm 09/10/2011

    Great. Thanks.

    Some of the comments are surreal.

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  13. 13. Thoughtful Thespian 8:27 am 09/14/2011

    What a complete moron he is. Perhaps the reason the odds of dying from a terrorist attack are so small is because we spent the money and did the necessary things to save his worthless hide. It seems everyone must have a cause, his seems a little silly.

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  14. 14. Mctrader 5:22 pm 09/19/2011

    First off, offering al qaeda propaganda up as proof of a winning strategy is repugnant!

    Next, this article was obviously written by an individual who never felt the need to leave his ivory tower to know the mind and understand the ideas he is pontificating about. Having fought on the battlefield, and seeing the enemy face to face, I can tell you with certainty if they werent fighting us there, they would be fighting us here. Unless you have been there and looked into the eyes of a guy who wants nothing more than to die while killing you, you have no perspective about just how dangerous a world we live in. Ask Israel what their airport screenings are like!

    Next, what does a civil engineer and a political scientist know about conducting a thorough and compelling analysis about risk/benefit analysis when it comes to counter terrorism, domestic security, the nuances of asymmetric warfare, and the modern intelligence gathering…especially when coupled with the complexities of understanding the psycology of religious extremists…nothing, thats what. What insights could they possibly have? 2 guys in academia are gonna publish conclusions that actually contend, we should deal with terrorism in a more rational manner. Here is the rationale, they want to kill you, and their god commands it. How do you stop someone hell bent on taking out as many people as he can before being put down…you take him out first. That is the rationale…how it should go about being adjudicated is up for discussion…but to deny the danger they pose to our way of life, is just niave!

    Next, you say that utilizing the money spent on stopping another terrorist attack could be better spent on stopping violent crime…terrorism is violent I guess we agree…stop violent crime!

    Next, myriad attacks have been thwarted since 9-11, in the USA. What a great accolade for the hard work of our counter intelligence and law enforcement officials! Make no mistake, Bin laden was planing other attacks on the USA, check out the intel we nabbed from his compound…so yes a vigilent posture has been, and still is the correct action to take! It is idiocy to consider 9-11 an aberition…after all, it was the 2nd time the same site was attacked, for the same reason! Then consider the US cole, the embassy bombings, the marine barracks…if anything 9-11 was a crescendo, not an aberition. Al qaeda is cunning, highly adaptive, mobile, and anything but stupid. Can you rig a south african 155mm to detonate in a daisy chain, using a garage opener…mind you, the US has the ability to jam radio frequencies…can you still make it work…or how about homemade EFP’s, could you place an IR trip wire? They can, the fact that you underestimate them so woefully, is proof positive of how little you understand the situation.

    Next, take out the oxy, and what you have is moronic conjecture and a platform no politician has embraced because it is sheer lunacy! Terrorists and what they want and who they represent and how many people dont oppose their activities does have a possibility of bringing down our civilization. If they had their way, the USA is destroyed and we either join them or die. Short of that, look what happens when an attack occurs…the markets reel and confidence is shaken. Our economy takes a beating, and in this environment, any such jarring could be disaterous.

    Lastly, though not least, your grasp of the law of war is lacking to say the least. POW’s are not given trials, they are held until hostilities end and then they are released, provided they will no longer make war on us. Get a clue, and dont pander and try to spread the harmful and dangerous idea that we are safe from terrorism. The idea is “millions for defense, not one cent for tribute” get with the program, your skepticism has become delusional and rings truer of paranoia than of critical thought

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  15. 15. In-Tokyo 7:11 am 09/12/2012

    It’s really sad that the editor’s of Scientific American remove posts putting American military involvement into realistic historical perspective, while allowing calls for the total nuclear destruction of entire countries to remain in the comments on their site.

    Americans are clueless about how our actions led to political instability, regime change, and militarization in Japan. Events in 1945 started directly in 1868 when American ships sailed into Japan and fired off their vastly superior cannons to obtain capitulation to the terms the US wished for.

    I would expect at least the readers here to understand cause and effect better but …

    Anyway, was Al qaeda really in Iraq?

    The US should realistically look at how it built up and supported Al queda to counter the Soviet threat.

    Ok so my point is that we need to understand the consequences of our actions. To not do so is ignoring reality.

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  16. 16. Clayrichard 9:34 pm 01/28/2014

    First we create a problem, then we spend millions or even trillions of dollars, plus thousands of lives, to make it worse. The American way.

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  17. 17. bgiltner 8:00 pm 11/24/2014

    Learn the truth about 9/11:

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