Questioning Terrorism Policy

Worth reading:

…what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

Posted on September 18, 2010 at 6:05 AM42 Comments


Frank Ch. Eigler September 18, 2010 6:47 AM

There doesn’t seem much there to read – just rhetorical questions we’ve heard hundreds of times before … “is abu ghraib making us safer” blah blah. Perhaps Bruce can explain what he believes the new contribution of this article is.

Alexander Hoogerhuis September 18, 2010 6:52 AM

There is nothing new in these arguments. A very valid reason for still asking them is just what is being asked her: why is it so impossible to have this debate, and what makes this so hard to accept?

MathFox September 18, 2010 8:19 AM

I’ld like to add another question:

Why does the US accept causalities under soldiers sent to Iraq and Afhanistan “to defend democracy” and not under civilians at US soil?

However, police officers are fair game. Could it be that US government uses a different definition of “democracy” than its citizens?

Corbett September 18, 2010 8:39 AM

|” …why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about…” |

Because there are NO serious public figures (significant government officials or major politicians/parties) who believe personal liberty is a primary right or goal.

Power is their objective. They seek to rule.

Anti-Terrorism is merely a convenient ploy to consolidate political power against the citizenry — by destroying the last fragments of civil liberties and Constitutional due process.

That Anti-Terrorism ploy has been spectacularly successful — most Americans were suckered in completely. A few (… like B.S.) now scratch their heads… wondering what’s going on. But it’s too late to see the truth.

Nobody September 18, 2010 8:45 AM


In the question you asked, most draw a distinction in two ways:

First, there is a question as to whether it is right or appropriate to deliberately put in harms way someone who had never elected to be involved. This covers the difference between civilians and all-volunteer forces, such as the police and the (modern) military.

Second, even if you’re considering draftees (a weak spot of my first point), the people in those lines of work are not just casually acting the part on the side — it is their job, often their only one, and they receive a great deal of training to fulfill it in a way that helps ensure a much higher chance they’ll survive.

D September 18, 2010 8:54 AM

I’ve started thinking that Bruce has hired someone to find “interesting” news bits for posting to the blog. Even if that’s not the case, I’m becoming disappointed that, whether he’s doing this himself or has someone on-staff, he doesn’t present his own thoughts on the subjects he posts. Since his blog posts lag news sites by a few days, I’m not coming here for the news, I’m coming here for the discourse and I expect Bruce to have started that discourse with his input, opinion, or questions.

John September 18, 2010 8:57 AM

This debate has never had much traction and the situation isn’t getting any better.

It’s a heck of a neat trick when you think about it. Like getting fired but staying on the payroll, forever. What has happened in America would make the most appalling tyrant envious. You can be voted out of power but loose nothing… the nightmare continues.

The events of 9/11 provided a once in a life time opportunity to build a gilded temple to hatred and then declare it a monument to all that is “American” and righteous.

The “Real American”, Fox News educated, guy on the subway who has been charged with the responsibility of determining what is suspicious doesn’t put the well informed in a debating mood. We’re left to think… “Don’t tase me bro”.

proceng September 18, 2010 9:16 AM

[Why does the US accept causalities under soldiers sent to Iraq and Afhanistan “to defend democracy” and not under civilians at US soil?]
We are not really “accepting” of them (with the possible exception of “some” professional politicians who have never served in the military). We are, however, resigned to it (I say this as the parent of TWO people currently serving – one with FOUR tours in Iraq).

[However, police officers are fair game. Could it be that US government uses a different definition of “democracy” than its citizens?]
Police officers (and fire fighters) tend to run TOWARDS situations that anybody else would run FROM. That is just the price that they (and their families) live with in order to give back to the community. We decry the loss of any life lost, but none so much as that of those who protect the rest of us.

Jeffman September 18, 2010 9:59 AM

Thank you for the service of your family members but I believe you missed the point of @Mathfox’s first question.
To avoid another domestic attack, we seem to be willing to either accept or be resigned to taking an open-ended stream of military casualties. I believe it’s because Joe Sixpack really only has skin in the domestic game and, aside from some mandatory flag-waving, he is insulated from the military effects that you are so personally aware of. I was always big on “Send in the Marines” until my friend’s teenage boy joined the USMC.
If we are going to be in a state of endless war, we need a draft so that everyone becomes an interested party. Then we can have REAL cost/benefit decisions made.

Ian Mason September 18, 2010 10:11 AM

Reading the opening quote I thought, “That theme sounds familiar, who said that? Oh, yes, me, here, five years ago.”

To quote:

We are, in fact, back to trade-offs and difficult ones to make.

If people of my father’s generation hadn’t been prepared to trade their lives for my freedom I would not be living in the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” but in “Greater Germania”. The freedoms I enjoy cost lives.

This sort of moral calculus with lives is unpleasant to discuss and even more unpleasant to do but may be the only way to preserve a free society. Since the bombings two weeks ago 132 people will have been killed, 1384 will have been seriously injured and 11639 people will have been otherwise injured on average on the roads in the UK. All those figures are higher than the corresponding figures for the bombings. We aren’t about to ban cars, buses, trucks, roads etc. We accept that if we are to have motorised transport we will kill some people. We may have to accept that if we want a free western style society that it will cost some innocent lives. In both cases we will try to minimise death by proportionate restrictions on what we can do. The question is that of what is proportionate, or if you prefer, what’s an acceptable trade-off.

I for one will accept a finite (and probably small) risk that I or my loved ones will be killed by a terrorist bomb if it means that I don’t live in a police state.

Mike S September 18, 2010 3:57 PM

An alternative to waging eternal war around the world is to simply be very picky about immigration. Why do we allow terrorist immigrants to freely move about the country, and then batten down the hatches on absolutely everyone to “prevent” the terrorists from being able to act? Why so much fear about seeming “racist” by implementing strict security at the borders, but instead search the world for people to kill?

And if the goal in fighting terrorism was to prevent Americans from being killed, how many Americans have we sent to the enemy for killing since 9/11?

A quick Google search turned up this site, giving numbers for:

U.S. troops killed [5] 1,140
U.S. troops seriously injured [6] 3,420
Contractors killed [9] 298
Contractors seriously injured [10] 2,428

U.S. troops killed [17] 4,414
U.S. troops seriously injured [18] 31,882
Contractors killed [21] 933
Contractors seriously injured [22] 10,569

That’s way more than were killed or injured in 9/11, yet we are happy to have our fellow men killed or maimed where the evening news isn’t allowed to broadcast footage from, while we endure ever more onerous police state controls that only ever control the law-abiding.

The government will kill far more of us than foreign agents will.

blue92 September 18, 2010 6:37 PM

“Why do we allow terrorist immigrants to freely move about the country?”

It’s true. All we have to do is keep all the terrorist/immigrants shackled when they’re not under the watchful eye of their government overlo… I mean, caretakers.

For our next trick, we will solve all our health care issues by consulting loony documentaries from the 70’s.

jt September 18, 2010 6:55 PM

@Mike S – there is no way to screen out “terrorist immigrants” w/o vast amounts of money plus undermining the US economy by blocking lots of non-terrorists in the process. Our country is built on immigration. If one hundreds of thousands or even a million people is a terrorist, how can you possibly identify that person without dozens or hundreds of false positives. Which hurt us and waste resources.

PS – And what about terrorism by non-immigrants? Abortion clinic bombings, attacks on government facilities by white US-born Americans? 9/11 was probably an anomoly in terms of impact – it skews our understanding of who terrorists are.

KirbyG September 18, 2010 9:52 PM

The logical extension of this conversation is: how many deaths is too many?

If we accept that deaths are part of the cost of being free, how high does the death toll have to rise before that changes?

If deaths from drunk driving get too high, we change the laws. If deaths from some toxin get to high, we change the laws. What do we do if the deaths from terrorism get too high? Who decides what’s too high? What changes? Is this whole discussion just putting off the current state of affairs to a slightly later time, after a higher death toll?

David Leo Thomas September 19, 2010 12:40 AM

2001 was a banner year for terrorism. Roughly 5 time the usual number of deaths worldwide, and about 100 times the usual number of American deaths.

Were the attacks of 9/11/2001 unfortunate, undesirable, tragic? Absolutely. Did they merit a response? Of course. Were they intolerable? Is preventing recurrence worth any cost? Do they represent an existential threat to our country, our way of life, or even very many of our fellow citizens and human beings?

Let’s keep some perspective. In that same year, we lost nearly 200 times as many people to heart disease. Put another way, if an event on the scale of 9/11 happened every month, every week, every other day – it still would not kill as many Americans as heart disease. And that’s just one of countless more significant threats to our health and safety that we’re dealing with – HIV, many cancers, homicide using firearms, homicide not using firearms, traffic accidents, and acute pancreatitis all killed more Americans than terrorism in 2001, and maintain those figures every single year – and still, encounters with death are rare in most of our lives. Something like 9/11 every year would not be a good thing, but we could cope.

The question is what kind of improvement we can make in our lives and our chances of death from terrorism, at what cost; because those resources might very well be better used elsewhere, and those rights might be guarding us against much worse than the tiny risk any of us faces of terrorist attack.

Na Yeo September 19, 2010 1:03 AM

40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year???

Either that is a typo that you were too lazy to fact check, or you should move to my country!

Clive Robinson September 19, 2010 1:28 AM

@ KirbyG,

“The logical extension of this conversation is: how many deaths is too many?”

Is more normaly asked the other way around as ‘what is the acceptable attrition rate’ and is often given as a normalisation to population size.

For instance during the cold war the Russian’s occasionaly did NBC training with real chemical weapons on their own troops. The “acceptable” combined death and injury rate was said to be 12.5% or 1/8th of deployed strength.

For certain types of surgery the mortality rate can be 10% or more.

These where considered acceptable rates by some people when compared to the alternatives.

That is there is a trade off of some kind. In the case of say certain kinds of cancer surgery it is a 90% chance of improving a patients life expectancy. That is, may be die in ~three months without surgery -V- ~90% live for atleast a year and ~10% die within a month. Which would you chose?

In the US for instance you tolerate a road “accident” death rate significantly over (~twice) that of the UK when normalised against population, likewise your death rates for violence and misadventure. And the UK rates are considered unacceptable against the rates for other European Countries. Also look at the normalised anual death rate for the US against other countries and life expectancy etc (you could easily conclude the US is not a safe or healthy place to be compared to Western Europe).

Looking at road deaths a significant part of it is atributable to the state of vehicles on the road. Part of this is “as built” deficiancies (ie built before say air bags, SIPS, etc), and a large part due to “deficient / defective maintanence” (ie not replacing worn tyres / brake pads etc).

We know from other forms of transport that “preventative maintanence” and “in service upgrades” can reduce this aspect of deaths to a small fractions of a percent of it’s current rate.

The question is at what cost?

Part of the cost will involve raising the death rate in other areas involved directly with the maintanence or as a consiquence of making or disposing of the parts replaced during preventative maintenance.

Thus there is a minima where trying to reduce the death rate in one area will simply raise it in others.

There has been an argument put forward that in the case of some deployed troops their overall death rate is actually less significant than it appears.

This is because the troops are not suffering the “civilian deaths” for their demographic which would be expected when they are not deployed.

The undeployed troop deaths usually go unreported in the national press in the same way as most civilian deaths due to accident, violence, misadventure etc do.

So the claim is the figures of combat deaths whilst accurate are in fact perception distorted because civilian deaths are not reported.

So the question is difficult to ask at best as all human endevor carries risk of death or injury either directly or indirectly and our perception of reality is distorted by the reporting mechanism we use (news media etc).

Haiko September 19, 2010 3:20 AM

YES! Finally someone is talking about this. Why we accept deaths in so many other areas (cars, war, hospitals, second rate stuff) but not from terrorism.

Mind you, I’m not keen to get blown up, but it seems the motivation for the safety of civilians is more than just concern, it is a desire for total control.

At what point will we need protection from those who protect us ?

blue92 September 19, 2010 12:10 PM

“In the US for instance you tolerate a road “accident” death rate significantly over (~twice) that of the UK when normalised against population…”

Given the relative population densities of the countries involved, it may make as much sense to normalize over distance travelled, in which case it’s more like 1.5x, not 2x.

40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year???

It used to be so, but that figure is a little off now. Total U.S. traffic deaths last year (2009) were under 34,000. The actual rate (deaths per distance travelled) has declined steadly and significantly.

C Walsh September 19, 2010 4:57 PM

I am reminded of the dystopian world in Terry Gilliam’s classic movie “Brazil”. Terrorism is a daily event, and the population is entirely blasé about it.

BW September 19, 2010 5:02 PM


Then as soon as something bad happens, some clown will show it could be prevented and sue you for not preventing it.

Lawyers have killed common sense thinking, globally.

This is not a US only problem.

Tamara September 19, 2010 9:18 PM

This is a very good article to remind us of the trade-offs we make everyday.

Whomever thinks more people Don’t die in car wrecks each year than in terrorist attacks in the US should review the NTSB site of statistics, or the Highway Safety page at The numbers are very clear.

I read the point to be: we cannot possibly protect against any and every possible attack. And most of us value our freedom over a tyrannical state supposedly trying to keep us safe yet not succeeding.

Risk analysis: what’s more likely?

Notice I didn’t even say the word “terrorist”–because I’m not sure what that word means anymore–someone outside our borders? Someone inside who hates the system? Someone inside/outside sort of us, not us, was us, not us anymore? Not sure what that word means anymore, but we knee jerk to that word like a bunch of well trained marionettes these days.
It has now become meaningless and is not useful for serious security.

The entire reaction to fear of an attack is a simple math question. And the math answer is simple–you cannot protect against every possible attack.

In my opinion, you can shore up your own behaviors to behave in ways that prevent someone wanting to attack you, but to do that you’d have to admit you have some responsibility for what happens in your world. That’s a bit contentious here these days. It’s easier to blame boogey men.

But if you stick to the Math of it, it’s simply irrational to spend so much time and money and inconvenience trying to fight an unseen and unpredictable attack. Better to plan on recovering from it and trying to avoid scenarios that provoke such outrage.

I respect the reminder this article is in helping us to think about what will keep us safe. And realizing what is so much financial waste and irrational reaction.

There are a lot of people now making their living, and some making incredibly great profits, off of our fear. I think we should evaluate their roles in our future and not pay out of fear for useless, ineffective “security” products.

“Bullies for Freedom” isn’t working for me anymore.


Fred September 19, 2010 10:22 PM

There’s no tradeoff, because converting to a dictatorship wouldn’t eliminate terrorism. In 1999 293 people died in Russia in terrorist apartment bombings. Last month seven people died in China from a bomb in Xinjiang province.

The choice is between freedom, with occasional terrorist atrocities, and tyranny, with occasional terrorist atrocities.

Even if there were a tradeoff, well, freedom isn’t free.

Ali September 20, 2010 6:38 AM

“40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year”

The answer is personal rather than statistical. It is summed up in one single word ‘Pride’. A terrorist attack hurts the pride Americans (or any other country for that matter) have. Someone non-american comes in and kills Americans. It makes everyone feel weak to accept that this will ‘simply continue’. On contrary War and being killed therein has always been a matter of pride (it does not matter you win or lose), martyrdom though not always wise inspires the human kind esp. when done for a cause (and yes it inspires the terrorists as much as the Americans). Pride is lost when a non-american kills an american on american soil. That pride must be regained by retaliation – at the expense of war even if that war leads to loss of more American life on foreign soil.

Being killed in a car accident is not a matter of pride, its just bad driving. It is not seen in the same way.

Imagine after 9/11 Bush saying “Oh that was nothing to worry about, its was just like a big american car accident. Such terror attacks happen. We don’t have to change our way of life. Yes we have lost a some of our Pride, but what the heck”. Would Americans accept that. Would the families of those who died accept that?

Unfortunately because we are human and we don’t do all things by statistics and numbers.

xd0s September 20, 2010 9:25 AM

@Ali great points, and very accurate in explaining the immediate reaction to 9/11 (let’s get the bad guys in Afghanistan) but it becomes less accurate over time (let’s invade Iraq, let’s change Air Transportation security, let’s open extra-national prisons to avoid legal issues, etc.)

Politicians have to be seen as doing something about the problem that is perceived, even if it isn’t a real problem. Often doing something at great expense is easier than simply explaining the problem isn’t what it appears to be. This is made worse (in the US at least) by politicians on the “other side” trying to show that what ever is done by their opponent is wrong. Truth and facts are optional and only used if they fit the narrative.

The balance we hope can be achieved is that our “leaders” can do the (tip of the hat to Colbert) truthiness balance of doing the things that bring pride and good feeling, while also telling us from time to time that it’s ok because the facts show this isn’t what is going to kill you. Not likely going to happen because a scared popultion is a compliant one.

Anti-politico September 20, 2010 9:50 AM

“Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago?”

No, I think it is more that there is power to be grabbed and having this debate will dilute the amount of power that can be grabbed.

Jonathan D. Abolins September 20, 2010 10:58 AM

As I was catching up on some security reading, I came across this in a 16 September 2010 sppech by Director General of the Security Service (MI5), Jonathan Evans:

It is interesting to note in this context that in the last ten years what might be called a “zero tolerance” attitude to terrorist risk in Great Britain has become more widespread. While it has always been the case that the authorities have made every effort to prevent terrorist attacks, it used to be accepted as part of everyday life that sometimes the terrorists would get lucky and there would be an attack. In recent years we appear increasingly to have imported from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100% preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure. This is a nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk and only plays into the hands of the terrorists themselves. Risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished and if we delude ourselves that it can we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment.

( Paragraph 10 from )

Well said.

Imperfect Citizen September 20, 2010 11:10 AM

In terms of the trade off for the illusion of security, don’t forget the unintended consequences that come with the counter terror security programs Bruce and others have already discussed. Fraud, abuse of power, and terrible mishandling of people’s private information by contractors. To overhear observers saying that the contractors on your job can “do whatever they want” is chilling. There is a very dark side to this we will make you safer game, as you all have noted.

I hope that the ATT Security folks operating my observation will get clear about my spirituality this week–apparently that’s a big issue in the domestic terror game funded by the FBI. After following me to mass in Catholic churches over and over, and sending men into a convent after me when it was closed to the public, I think what they aren’t clear about is letting go of federal money.

Chris S September 20, 2010 4:17 PM

This question has been around for a very long time, varying only in the degree to which it was ok to discuss it.

The comparison with auto deaths is problematic, in part because you can choose to not drive. But perhaps there is a more careful comparison, involving people who put other drivers at risk.

As a comparison, why not use the “deaths in crashes involving unlicensed drivers”. My brief reading suggests that this is roughly 20% of all fatal auto crashes. Even with the lower number of 34,000 auto deaths per year, this suggests that the U.S. loses over 6,000 people a year to drivers that were not supposed to drive but did anyway.

Is this ok? Why are these people allowed anywhere near a car? Drawing the comparison to terrorism, couldn’t a LOT more be done towards eliminating this risk?

G-man September 20, 2010 6:08 PM

@Na Yeo: They were correct; however, there has been a big decline in vehicle fatalities reported in 2009 (down to 33,808). The figure usually hovers between 40K and 50K any given year (see the chart in the pdf below).

What gets me is that a bunch of the news article about the new report say “only” 33,808 died this year. I understand what they mean by “only”, but seriously, 34K is still way too many.

tensor September 21, 2010 12:55 AM

Let’s recall that in road accidents, the victim had the illusion of control. That is, even when the death was unexpected, the victim still believed he had some control over it. That’s what sitting behind the wheel gives you: the illusion of control. Automobile manufacturers (at least in the US) thrive on selling this illusion. (How many adverts show the car sitting in traffic?)

The victims of 9/11 had no such illusion (except for the passengers who fought to regain their airplane). That’s what makes terrorism so scary. So long as we voters allow our politicians to scare us with the terrorist bogeyman, we’ll make the futile bargain Mr. Franklin so aptly derided.

George H.H. Mitchell September 21, 2010 8:19 AM

I would like to refudiate the idea that “delusory” is a word. (Perhaps meant “delusional” or “illusory.”)

RF September 21, 2010 5:30 PM

@D: “I’m becoming disappointed that, whether he’s doing this himself or has someone on-staff, he doesn’t present his own thoughts on the subjects he posts…”

I think Bruce spends most of his time doing non-blog stuff — working with BT’s security unit, writing essays and op-eds, dealing with Skein stuff now and then, having a life, etc. Given that, the format’s fine.

But, I mean, if you want to start a snazzy security group blog with a Bruce-y big-picture perspective, be my guest.

JJ September 22, 2010 11:12 AM

(I didn’t see anyone else comment on this, so…) I tell what’s… Well, not monstrous, but certainly gave me a start: reading what you assume is a recent article, only to notice the author’s been dead close to a year now… And a suicide at that. (Probably more rhetorical questions in there somewhere.)

David September 22, 2010 11:12 AM

@tensor: More pedestrians are also killed each year by automobiles – they never got behind the wheel (and there’s really no way they can opt out of that kind of risk, in modern society).

Arnonerik September 22, 2010 6:18 PM

When I get in my car it is my choice to accept the risk involved with driving. I could choose differently. It is my choice and I accept the risk. However, it is primary responsibility of the government of the Government to protect it’s citizens from foreign attack. Try as they may, some attacks might be successful. If that was case, the organization behind those attacks must be massively punished to make further attacks too costly to consider. You are trying to make two totally situations somehow equivalent. Is this an attempt to make our commitment in Afghanistan somehow out of proportion because we only lost 3000 plus of our citizens. If so You need to get your head on straight.

Davi Ottenheimer September 23, 2010 2:57 PM

That actually reminds me of the conspiracy argument made against pharmaceutical companies a few years ago. Apparently only papers that supported a drugs use were being published.

Forcing studies to be registered in a national database was “expected to give doctors and the public a window on unfavorable studies that companies routinely suppress.”

I haven’t heard if it has worked but probably worth reviewing again.

Just one of many examples why questioning isn’t what it could be…it interferes with sales.

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