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Violent U.S. Response to 9/11 Attacks Hurt More Than Helped*

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

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A year ago, on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States, I argued that the U.S. overreacted to these horrific acts of terrorism. Today, I’m posting an edited version of that column, the gist of which—especially given the current highly emotional debate over violent U.S. intervention in Syria–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 Mark Stewart, a civil engineer and authority on risk assessment at University of Newcastle in Australia. Mueller and Stewart note in Homeland Security Affairs that after 9/11, U.S. officials warned that we could expect many more such attacks, and that terrorism represents an “existential” threat, as the former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff put it.

Industrial accidents, cancer and auto accidents pose far greater risks to Americans than terrorism. Table from “Hardly Existential,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, Foreign Affairs, 2010.

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 contend, “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.”

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 assert 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). [See table.]

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 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 state. 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 suggest 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 write, “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 helped provoke 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 some 10,000 American soldiers and contractors so far—more than three times as many Americans 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.

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)—note that a major obstacle to more rational policies is a shortage of “that oxymoronic commodity,” political courage.

When it comes to security issues, reason and imagination also seem to be in short supply among our leaders, who are far too quick to resort to violence as a response to violence. I hope that, as the traumatic memory of 9/11 recedes, our leaders begin devising smarter policies toward terrorism and other security threats—as well as to crises like the one in Syria.

*Previous headline read: “Did United States Overreact to 9/11 Terror Attacks?”


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. kitas006 7:52 am 09/11/2013

    I find it chilling that “accidents” and deliberate attacks against a living human being can be lumped together in the same table. War, homicides and terrorist attacks cannot be compared to death caused by car accident, bath tub accident or even cancer for that matter!!! You have some great points here but I strongly believe this table should better categorize accidents vs senseless horrific loss of human life! There is a big difference.

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  2. 2. WarmNeutron 10:47 am 09/11/2013

    I would say that the phrase “existential threat” is wildly overblown; even Nazis and Communists don’t pose existential threats. The real existential threats never announce themselves with a bang; instead they are the ones that gradually creep up on you and quietly erode the fabric of the country. For instance the biggest existential threat currently comes from the wealthiest Americans rigging the whole political and social system to their benefit so that the entire country’s progress slows to a snail’s pace.

    Think of how many people these wealthy Americans have “killed” from disease, poverty, drug crimes etc. just because they refuse to pay taxes that could provide a safety net to the majority of citizens. Terrorism is indeed a screaming red straw man; the real threats are all from within, from people who don’t look an inch like Al Qaeda but whose actions are tearing the social foundation of this country apart. The real killers are all sitting in Washington and Wall Street.

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  3. 3. tuned 11:12 am 09/11/2013

    1) Your figures for terrorism are bunk.
    9/11/01 alone was 3000 in the US, and I deeply suspect many terror incidents are being fudged as “other”.
    2) No society that relies on passivity for defense has
    ever survived as a nation.
    3) Jesus is a nice symbol for how he lived his life within
    his society, but even so his enemies DID slaughter him.
    Not a good example to defend children.

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  4. 4. Noone 2:31 pm 09/11/2013

    Hitler never wanted to go to war against America, and only did so 12/11/41 after we declared war on his ally Japan 12/08/41. War against Hitler was thus entirely an over-reaction to some imagined threat against America itself.


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  5. 5. gsosbee 3:13 pm 09/11/2013

    Why 911! a few causes & failures:

    The Rand group issues a *false statement regarding 911, etc., and thereby misleads the American public on the resolve & capacity of human beings around the world to address the crimes against humanity ongoing by the fbi/cia .

    *The RAND report sums up: “Thus far, despite al Qaeda’s intensive online recruiting campaign, their numbers remain small, their determination limp, and their competence poor.”

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  6. 6. plswinford 3:22 pm 09/11/2013

    I love counter-common-sense articles. Many empires have ruined themselves by spending too much on the military (i.e. the empire formally called Great Britian). Bin Laden cost us at least 1.5 trillion dollars. Now we are 17 trillion dollars in debt. So yes, we need to measure our responses.

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  7. 7. indigogenius 6:03 pm 09/11/2013

    I know your position is not popular with the crowd. My position is more complex than the purely economic, risk-to-benefit ratio, but I also prefer truth to fiction.

    Unfortunately most people prefer the creation of new Gods (or Saints), Gods of the State, to the old ones which may have actually had something to do with the making of man (or Saints which may actually deserve a little admiration).

    Thank you for writing an article which at least focused on one aspect of truth.

    I wish that other sciences, not just the politics of convenience-driven ones, also came under increased scrutiny.

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  8. 8. MikeB 10:13 am 09/12/2013

    I could not agree more with the thrust of this article. A one-time, never-to-be-repeated, lucky sucker punch carried out be a rag-tag group of largely overlooked terrorists has resulted in the loss of thousands of US servicemen and women, billions of dollars wasted, a more insecure Middle East, radical Islam enjoying a boom industry, onerous inspections at airports, and a quantum leap in pervasive government snooping. Osama bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest fantasies, thanks to a superpower’s collaboration in turning itself inside out in fear and loathing. It has apparently escaped everyone’s attention that the purpose of TERRORISTS is to TERRORIZE, and if we refuse to go along they have failed. My favorite comment on all this was by some obscure comedian on the occasion of the unveiling of the color-coded terrorist threat alerts: “We once had a president who told us the only thing we had to fear was fear itself; now we have a president who tells us it’s our patriotic duty to be afraid, and helps us out with a color-coded scale.” Rarely in human history has a great power so debased itself voluntarily.

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  9. 9. rkipling 3:14 pm 09/13/2013

    A hockey-playing peacenik?

    The hockey playing explains everything.

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  10. 10. adisciam 2:21 am 09/14/2013

    There is a major difference between people killed by accidents/illness and ware/terrorism: intent !
    When intent is factored in, you will see an increase in deaths if no strong action is taken.
    Unfortunately I see this all the time here in Israel where we have been fighting Islamic terrorism for long before the rest of the civilized world has.

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  11. 11. Chryses 2:15 pm 09/14/2013

    *Previous headline read: “Did United States Overreact to 9/11 Terror Attacks?”

    The previous headline was less dishonest than the current headline.

    Link to this
  12. 12. M Tucker 12:20 pm 09/17/2013

    John, I caught the 10 minute debate (“Is war innate in human beings?”) you had with Dr. Malcolm Potts (a reproductive scientist) on Day 6. I thought you presented a good case but 10 minutes is just not long enough.

    Anyone interested can find a audio of the program here:

    Link to this

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