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

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


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Last year, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States, I posted a column arguing that the U.S. overreacted to these horrific acts of terrorism. Today, on the eve of 9/11, I’m posting an edited version of that column, the gist of which remains all too relevant.

My conclusion that the U.S. overreacted to 9/11 is based in part on risk-benefit analyses by John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University (and key source for my book The End of War), and Mark Stewart, a civil engineer and authority on risk assessment at University of Newcastle in Australia. In a paper published last year in 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 put it.

These fears triggered a surge in counterterrorism spending. Mueller and Stewart estimated 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.”

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 in Foreign Affairs, 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.”

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 6,500 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 doubled its annual defense spending in the past decade, which is now roughly equal to that of all other nations combined (as I pointed out in my previous column).

Osama bin Laden, who was finally killed by U.S. forces on May 2, 2011, 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. One is Representative Ron Paul, who has argued for deep cuts in military spending and abolition of the Department of Homeland Security, which he calls a threat to Americans’ liberty. Another is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2007 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–one in seven million–is only half the risk from terrorism. The comments of Bloomberg and Paul nonetheless give me hope that as the traumatic memory of 9/11 recedes our leaders will begin devising more rational policies toward terrorism and other security threats.

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. scientific earthling 8:44 pm 09/10/2012

    No they did not. However they ignored the true perpetrators of the crime and sought to delude their nationals that, they were retaliating by attacking an ignorant nation of primitives.

    The true perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were the Saudi Arabians. The USA’s response should have been a multiple hydrogen bomb destruction of the main religious centres in Saudi Arabia. The attack came from the extreme religious majority that is of Saudi origin. Till today they are the financial and ideological force behind all religious intolerance and terrorism.

    The Japanese did not retaliate against Australia, when they were attacked by group of killers who trained in outback Australia.

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  2. 2. hanmeng 9:09 pm 09/10/2012

    This post is spot on. Yes, the U.S. overreacted and continues to overreact to the terrorist threat.

    However, if this is science, why do we so rarely see writers at the Scientific American apply the same cost/benefit analysis to other items?

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  3. 3. dsrichmond 9:12 pm 09/10/2012

    “Actually, according to Mueller and Stewart, Americans’ annual risk of dying from lightning—one in seven million—is only half the risk from terrorism.”

    Mm, I think you mean “almost double”, not “only half”. 1:7,000,000 is a *greater* risk than 1:12,500,000. Half the risk of 1:12,500,000 is 1:25,000,000. The large numbers make it confusing, so think of it this way: half of 1:4 is 1:8, not 1:2. These are fractions—larger denominators make a smaller number. The chances of getting struck by lightning are higher than the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack, though the fact that the denominators go in the opposite direction is certainly a cause for confusion.

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  4. 4. Mykeljon1 10:19 pm 09/10/2012

    @scientific earthling. I can only hope that you are making a very bad joke here. If not, then your comment is wrong on many levels. You say they did not over-react. Then you say they attacked the wrong countries. That seems to be an over-reaction. Then you suggest a nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia. If that is not an over-reaction, I don’t know what is. In such an attack, millions of innocent people would have died, making the U.S. the most evil of all countries in the history of the world. Tens of thousands more in uninvolved countries downwind of Saudi Arabia would die as well. There is a lot more I could write but I have a feeling that even this much is beyond your level of comprehension.

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  5. 5. julianpenrod 10:42 pm 09/10/2012

    Of course it was over-reaction. For the “rank and file”. The “rank and file” never did receive any benefits anywhere near the immense international damage done and Constitutional violations committed. Especially considering that September 11 was a fabricated fraud to inspire that kind of over-reaction. But there’s a reason why the reaction didn’t benefit the “rank and file”. They were never supposed to be the beneficiaries of it! Only the craven power mongers of the New World Order were supposed to gain from it! That’s how it was engineered! And they did benefit! And, in fact, it was not so much designed only that the “rank and file” wouldn’t benefit, but it was intended that they, in fact, would be disadvantaged by it!

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  6. 6. Stanchev 11:24 pm 09/10/2012

    @scientific earthling, Attitudes such as yours only fuel the flames of hatred among the small minority of Muslims that actually want to do us harm, and I assure you, it’s a small minority. There are 1 billion Muslims on earth and bombing their most sacred sites probably really will turn the majority of Muslims against us. This is a war on terror, not a war on Islam. The majority of Muslims are innocent people. grow up.

    I do agree that the response to 9/11 is by raw numbers, a overreaction and you can probably make the same argument for the Pearl Harbor attack. I love that some actually puts in perspective like that. I believe the US government should have right from the beginning engaged in a limited coup to topple the leadership of Al Qaeda rather than a large military response in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq that was nothing more than a result of residual panic since the 9/11 attacks.

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  7. 7. Saijanai 12:53 am 09/11/2012

    Perl Harbor was a deliberate Act of War perpetrated by a sovereign nation. I don’t think you can draw a parallel between our response to 9/11 and our response to Perl Harbor (maybe Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inappropriate, but that came years later).

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  8. 8. Mark Robinson 1:09 am 09/11/2012

    @dsrichmond – you’re comparing the wrong statistics. Should be Terrorism in United States with Lightning in United States. I think you’ll agree that 1 in 7m is half the risk of 1 in 3.5m.

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  9. 9. m 1:49 am 09/11/2012

    At the moment you ask philosophical questions, what ifs.

    For here and now there is only one solution and thats push on until every last terroist is dead. Which is good really it means more jobs for Americans.

    I cannot see a useful reason to remove troops when a war with china is coming and they need to be battle ready. As far as I can see, they need to be battle ready for the next 50 years. So you best find someone else to invade ASAP.

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  10. 10. ericandi 2:21 am 09/11/2012

    This article is an absolute disgrace. I don’t know where to be begin. I don’t think this even deserve the respect of a response, yet I am so disgusted that feel compelled to respond.

    The basic premise of this article is disgusting. Trying to statistically justify or unjustify the war on terror. These radical terrorists want us all dead and they flew commercial airliners loaded with innocent civilians into the one of the greatest American landmarks. They have been actively pursuing nuclear and chemical weapons with the hope of wiping us off the planet. You should be ashamed of yourself. I only hope that the families of the victims of 9-11 don’t come across this garbage. Do you they will be convinced that we overreacted to the threat? How about the citizens of New York city who witnessed multiple skyscrapers collapse with thousands of people inside of them. Or the hundreds of firefighters, policeman, and other first responders who died in the attacks. There is no doubt that the war on terror has stopped hundreds of potential attacks against U.S and allied interests world wide. The war on terror has been an absolute success. Bin Laden is dead as well as dozens of top Al Qeada commanders. Just today we killed Al Qeads #2 man. Of course Al Qeada was not the same threat as Nazi Germany however in modern times it doesn’t take a traditional army to pose a significant threat to our society and our freedoms. One attack on U.S at an mall, sporting event, or God forbid a extremely soft target like an elementary school, would do tremendous damage to our economy and our free way of life.

    What do you suppose a “proper” response would have been? Lob a few cruise missles at a terrorist training camp like Bill Clinton did? How did that work out for us? A few year later, the twin towers, Pentagon, and White House were attacked by commericial jet liners.

    I’m not done laying out my argument, but I am done wasting any more of my time on this trash article.

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  11. 11. jimmywat 2:51 am 09/11/2012

    The author of the article should be praised for standing up and rationally arguing the point, on which he is correct. However, it was not an actually an “over-reaction”, but used the attacks as an excuse for a planned, cynical grab for oil and to establish military bases to surround Russia and control the near-east (it is really not the middle east, despite the convention of calling it that – just look at a map). It was also a war to take oil off the market, to get the price up.

    As for Pearl Harbor, the US had embargoed Japanese oil – an act of war. So the US had already defacto declared war on Japan at the time. Moreover, Roosevelt and the Military brass knew the attack was coming – the deliberately withdrew their best carriers and waited for Japan to give them a cause to enter a hot war with Japan. So Pearl Harbor is a very apt comparison.

    And lastly, PBS has aired a very revealing documentary of the collapse of the towers that shows beyond reasonalbe doubt that it was not the airplanes that brought the towers down. This dovetails with the the pre-planned attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan.
    http://video.pbs.org/video/2270078138/

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  12. 12. In-Tokyo 4:50 am 09/11/2012

    The seeds of WWII were sown when the U.S. sent Perry’s “black ships” to open Japan. People seem ignorant of the fact that Western powers forced Asian countries to legalize Heroin and do other things against their interests.

    The US sailed in, shot off their cannons and said agree to this letter.

    A long standing regime in Japan shortly folded and gave way to one hell bent on militarizing to match the threat of the West. That long standing regime had been standing for longer than the US has been in existence so don’t minimize the impact of the US’s threat nor the reaction to it.

    I teach Japanese school children about the segregation in South, and joke with their teachers that if Japan had followed US rules, that maybe the US would have said no Japanese people in sushi shops the way they said no (black) Americans in hamburger shops. I ask them point blank if “Whites only” means they could drink at those fountains.

    The legacy of Imperialism is still seen today in Egypt where age-old British rules are still impacting the distribution of vital water.

    I learned in college that political Islam basically started as a reaction to Western Imperialism.

    The war is Iraq is merely continue Imperialism in the guise of anti-terrorism under the premise that Iraqi’s would be better off without Sadam. Our economy runs on oil and surely that was more of an influence on the decision that actual threat level.

    To call for attacks on Saudi Arabia is so sadly misguided. While I do not believe that Pearl Harbor was justified, in honesty we must look at what we have done that contributed to the Japanese taking that direction. That we do not, that we whitewash, that we are afraid to look at the truth shows the general mental weakness of American thought. I say be strong and see things for how they are or really were!

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  13. 13. Kafpauzo 5:53 am 09/11/2012

    The reaction was a huge mistake on many levels. The worst of all was that it poured fuel on the fires of terrorism.

    It allowed terrorist leaders to instill hatred in ways that were not possible before. As a result, terrorism soared in ways never seen before.

    Whether this massive wave of terrorism will eventually reach the US is an open question. In any case, the additional massive terrorism does not make the world safer. It increases the danger.

    The added fuel was very easily predicted. It was predicted by many. The responses were “How can you support Saddam?” and “Either you’re with us or against us.” Rational discussion was rarely possible.

    Surprisingly often the US reacts like some extremely naive chess player, one who plans his games assuming that the opponent’s pieces will never move. When the opponent does make countermoves, the naive player is surprised, finds it entirely unexpected. Similarly, the US naively assumes that killing terrorists will reduce the number of terrorists.

    A killed terrorist will likely have at least one son and one brother who mourns his loved father or brother and swears to avenge him. When this happens, killing one terrorist begets two. So, by killing terrorists, you increase their number.

    Simply think what would happen if foreign soldiers came to the US and started killing people. Obviously you’d react. Just as obviously, you can’t expect an enemy to just calmly accept that you kill their people. They’ll react in ways very similar to how you would react.

    The obvious solution is to respond in different ways, in ways that reduce terrorism rather than pouring new fuel on it.

    It seems extremely unlikely that the US leadership would be so naive and stupid that they were unaware of these simple and obvious facts. You can’t reach such high positions if you’re that stupid.

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they were fully aware of this fuelling effect, and wanted it. After all, war is a hugely profitable business.

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  14. 14. nerdken 8:47 am 09/11/2012

    The overreaction was intended as such and was a great success for Bush/Cheney. Their goal was not improve security, but to cash in. Remember the color coded “how scared should you be” alerts with no associated protocol? Fear made it harder for the public to think rationally, so it was an effective tool for the administration to implement their program of running up debt to fund a corporate feeding frenzy, and leave the American public with the bill. If you follow the money, then the wars, airport security and spying bureaucracies aren’t ineffective policy at all. It was an exquisitely executed transfer of wealth. So much so, that we see articles like this.

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  15. 15. davidhill222 9:46 am 09/11/2012

    The US UNDERreacted….. Bush should have razed those muslin countries and their fundamentalist lunatics.

    The lives of one thousand muslins are not worth the life of a single Westerner.

    It is stupid to think that it is possible to act rationally with countries that are still living in the stone age.

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  16. 16. Kafpauzo 10:16 am 09/11/2012

    davidhill222, surely you’re more civilized than that? Or are you living in the stone age?

    Do you think primitive murderousness makes you superior to the people you want to kill? In what way?

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  17. 17. sethdayal 2:33 pm 09/11/2012

    Focusing hatred an war on a identifiable group via corporate media is one or the main characteristics of the fascist state.

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  18. 18. ErnestPayne 4:39 pm 09/11/2012

    The short answer? Yes. The long answer? Yes squared. The Bush regime saw a popular war that would be short. What they failed to do was look at the history of invasions of Afghanistan (and their fate) and to examine other alternatives. Making the Afghan Government an offer it couldn’t refuse would have been far cheaper but American’s don’t think outside the box militarily. More than a decade later the US is still stuck in Afghanistan and whining that NATO should do more to help it.

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  19. 19. alexisalvarez 4:47 pm 09/11/2012

    It’s all about window dressing. It’s not what we actually do that matters, but what we’re perceived to be doing. And the reasoning and critical thinking skills of the American electorate have deteriorated to such a point that our political (so-called) leaders are easibly able to manipulate their way into wasting billions — the product of OUR labor — simply by fostering and then pandering to people’s fears, in the process needlessly and cavalierly imperiling our lives, our culture, our country and our integrity and reputation, and demeaning the sacrifice of the many people who have died for our freedoms.

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  20. 20. jgrosay 5:18 pm 09/11/2012

    Did anybody in the USA show any kind of a reaction to the September 11 attacks, besides feeling hurt by them, as they actually were?

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  21. 21. gogosian2010 1:31 am 09/12/2012

    TO ANSWER the writer’s headline rhetorical question == YES, the U.S. ‘went to war’ against “the wrong nation” again! ** We struck IRAQ, when UBL was hiding in PAKISTAN, under cover of local government’s & ISI protection. “WHEN SHALL WE EVER LEARN”? -30-

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  22. 22. Padgie 5:29 am 09/12/2012

    hey go davehill222, except that muslin= cotton gauze for dresses. You are the sort of guy we want to have his finger on the button. Your logic is as good as your spelling.

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  23. 23. brumon7 3:37 pm 09/12/2012

    Oh well! … But in the end suppose it’s just that “over-reacting” by the US that squeezed terrorism’s toll to half the one from lightning…

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  24. 24. brumon7 3:39 pm 09/12/2012

    … or, for that matter, the double… Just choose.

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  25. 25. Kafpauzo 10:37 am 09/13/2012

    brumon7, the problem is that it didn’t squeeze terrorism. Quite the contrary. It made terrorism soar to extreme levels, to levels never seen or imagined before.

    In a very short time, terrorism went from very, very rare to very frequent and a major problem.

    See my comment 5:53 am 09/11/2012.

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  26. 26. bucketofsquid 10:43 am 09/13/2012

    According to davehill222, anyone that is a threat should die and since his blind hatred is a threat to the stability of the United States I humbly suggest that he must be eliminated. Sadly, it will require a sociopathic nutjob to kill him so clearly he must do it himself. The rest of us are civilized so that only leaves him.

    As for ericandi – There is no reliable evidence that Homeland security, invading Iraq (which even G. W. Bush has admitted was a bad move) and the failed invasion of Afghanistan have made us any safer, even after several trillion dollars of expense. Indeed, there has been a significant increase in domestic groups opposed to the federal govt. and a noticeable increase in Americans moving to other countries and giving up their American citizenship. Some of these people are highly educated and have very good incomes.

    How can you possibly call that a success? Expanding the federal bureaucracy is just the Republican version of welfare.

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  27. 27. brumon7 4:58 am 09/14/2012

    @kafpauzo. pls read me well: I wrote terrorism’s TOLL.
    Agree with you about the exponential rise of visible terror frenzy in past decade, however who could deny 9/11 was just one step in that rise, begun well before “over-reacting”? pls muse a bit about this assumption: for visible frenzy to usher in bloodbaths,
    a limitless availability of $ is a prerequisite. Until that tap (you know which) isn’t corked for good, I’m afraid a reaction will be needed, any kind of prefix you choose to put before it.

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  28. 28. Kafpauzo 10:42 am 09/15/2012

    brumon7, all the more reason to choose strategies that reduce terrorism rather than pour more fuel on it.

    Of course many of the measures that have been introduced may have reduced the toll. But the pouring of new fuel has not.

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  29. 29. brumon7 6:55 pm 09/15/2012

    Kafpauzo… You’right. The problem rests in the choice of calibrated strategies: that seems to me a mammoth task, owing to the paucity of our present leaders’ skills and the obviously unpredictable moves of a mostly irrational foe.

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