John Mueller and Mark Stewart on the Risks of Terrorism

Another excellent paper by the Mueller/Stewart team: “Terrorism and Bathtubs: Comparing and Assessing the Risks“:

Abstract: The likelihood that anyone outside a war zone will be killed by an Islamist extremist terrorist is extremely small. In the United States, for example, some six people have perished each year since 9/11 at the hands of such terrorists—vastly smaller than the number of people who die in bathtub drownings. Some argue, however, that the incidence of terrorist destruction is low because counterterrorism measures are so effective. They also contend that terrorism may well become more frequent and destructive in the future as terrorists plot and plan and learn from experience, and that terrorism, unlike bathtubs, provides no benefit and exacts costs far beyond those in the event itself by damagingly sowing fear and anxiety and by requiring policy makers to adopt countermeasures that are costly and excessive. This paper finds these arguments to be wanting. In the process, it concludes that terrorism is rare outside war zones because, to a substantial degree, terrorists don’t exist there. In general, as with rare diseases that kill few, it makes more policy sense to expend limited funds on hazards that inflict far more damage. It also discusses the issue of risk communication for this hazard.

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:54 AM53 Comments


Sed Contra August 23, 2018 6:39 AM

I have always checked for terrorists under the bed, but it had never occured to me to look in the bathtub.

wiredog August 23, 2018 9:17 AM

Since I don’t have a bathtub, I’m at infinitely greater risk of terrorism than of drowning in the bathtub. Clearly I must support all the counter-terrorist methodologies.

albert August 23, 2018 10:00 AM

“…it makes more policy sense to expend limited funds on hazards that inflict far more damage….”

Like financial terrorism, for example.

. .. . .. — ….

QnJ1Y2U August 23, 2018 10:33 AM

From the paper’s intro:
… comments, suggestions, and expressions of outrage are especially welcome.

Sounds like the authors are keenly aware that this is a topic driven more often by emotion than by fact.

Babak August 23, 2018 11:05 AM

I am an Iranian and I was a geographical-father-dependent-compulsory-Muslim.
Do not fool yourself with terms like “Moderate Muslim” and “Radical Muslim”. [remainder snipped by moderator]

echo August 23, 2018 11:18 AM

I wouldn’t be surprised if the avoidable deaths in the UK each year are equivalent to the total number of people killed during Iraq II. This conflict and greed of the City have a lot to answer for. Between the huge expense of war and contraction economics it’s no surprise people feel squeezed. At some point this tips over into riots and civil war. When the courts and government fails where is the safety valve? Terrorism or suicide?

Wael August 23, 2018 2:03 PM


… certainly does not speak for all of Islam, sorry if he thinks so.

He knows nothing about Islam. Clear from his comments. He’s obviously Persian, though. I was going to reply to everything he said on his ‘laundry-list’, but I think it’s a waste of time and effort. And I also suspect not many people wasted time reading his rant, or will spend time reading my reply, which would have been exceptionally long. It would take a page or two as minimum to debunk each of his ‘erroneous’ claims / assertions.

David Rudling August 23, 2018 2:41 PM

There seem to be plenty of fatal/injurious human activities, whether intentional or unintentional, which give equivalent statistical comparisons to the results of terrorism and which can be used to make the argument. Am I alone in thinking that comparing terrorism to bathtub accidents is more than faintly ridiculous in a serious consideration of a non-trivial issue? I suppose like the paper’s authors I should prepare for expressions of outrage that I have dared to question their approach – or does my own response qualify as such in relation to their paper? Slightly bemused rather than outraged might be a closer description.

David Rudling August 23, 2018 2:53 PM

I should add that, my gripe about bathtubs aside, I agree that it is otherwise an excellent paper.

Fruit of the Loom August 23, 2018 3:57 PM

“it makes more policy sense to expend limited funds on hazards that inflict far more damage.”

It may indeed make more policy sense but our policies don’t make any sense and terrorism is no exception. The example I like to use is pedophiles and cars. The number of children killed by pedophiles each year is less than 50. The number killed by cars in America each year is about 2500. Yet which of these has been the chief American export? Pedophiles. We have started a pedo panic around the globe dramatically out of proportion to the actual threat that children face. Meanwhile, auto safety has gone no where.

If you had a choice between never letting your child talk to a strange adult or never letting your child ride in a car the only rational choice is to never let your child ride in a car. But that’s not how we do policy.

So is terrorism policy stupid? Of course it is. But–and this is my key point–terrorism is no way anomalous among American public policy choices in that regard.

echo August 23, 2018 4:43 PM

@Fruit of the Loom

How we manage things matters. I don’t believe it is helpful to argue and blame because of different political priorities. Policies can be nonsense but you have to be careful not to be caught up and create more nonsense. This I appreciate isn’t always easy.

I have only read the abstract and pretty much “get it”. The paper isn’t saying anything new. I have in my research database (somewhere…) a paper covering essentially the exact some problem only this time discussing gambling versus gambling addiction and the associated costs. There are also plenty of official studies and reports covering organisational failures and abuse and discrimination and wasted money and opportunity loss and so on. These are pretty much all “known knowns” and done to death. So why does disaster keep happening?…

Counter-terrorism measures are mostly bullshit. They only catch the braggards or mentally ill.

Here’s a joke: In the UK curriculums and funding have been cut year on year and schools have had to sell off their machine shops often for very little. At least one unofficial gun factory has been caught now and only because one idiot was firing off a gun. Kalashnikov? They are now possibly trying to get out of the arms business and trying their hand at selling t-shirts and electric cars.

They only catch the POOR braggard and POOR mentally ill not the RICH who often have power and influence to create problems and SOLVE problems. Which they don’t.

The UK has done little but enable wars and destablise the EU. If any country deserves UN sanctions it’s the UK.

(required) August 23, 2018 4:55 PM

@Fruit Loom

“We have started a pedo panic around the globe dramatically out of proportion to the actual threat that children face.”


Um, pedos are still a problem. They don’t “kill” children generally but they do cause real damage.
Serious, lasting damage that yes you can hang a big $ sign on to make it worth your interest.
Not everything has to be taken to “kill” or “ultimate” crime to be worthy of attention and resources.

It’s a logical false dichotomy to insist because something worse exists, bad isn’t so bad,
and that we shouldn’t also worry about that because it’s not the omega concern.
We actually can focus on more than one thing at a time, both are still very real.

We can fight terrorism and still have seatbelt laws, yes we can.

There have been quite a few late improvements in automobile safety regardless of your impression.
That cost countless millions/billions to achieve, plus regulations to require it all.
If we collectively wanted to regulate the roads to make them safer, we could do so.
We’ve instead decided that the number of deaths is acceptable, tacitly.

Lowering the speed limit is unpopular. Raising the bar on driver training is unpopular.
Mandating alcohol-breath interlocks on all cars is very, very unpopular. We could…
but these things are decided by what the voting public wants, eventually, one way or another.

With terrorism there’s a never ending threat of serious consequences for the public, for the nation, for the group, however you want to divide it up there is a threat and it’s the government’s job 1 to protect the public. The raised concern here arises when the theatrical rendition of the threat becomes a tool to achieve unrelated political action/will irrespective of actually countering the danger. For example, putting backdoors in all encrypted traffic to snoop on EVERYONE as opposed to targeting specific parties for specific surveillance. The government(s) contend(s) the threat requires total panopticon, that they can’t do the job without this reaching power.

That’s a tough thing to measure from civilian userland. We don’t have access to the data to determine if the threat is legitimate or completely a farce, we’re kind of beholden to our minders on that. We don’t know if not checking your shoes at the airport is likely to result in a plane going down, which could then bankrupt (an) airline(s) and have an outsized effect on major corporate commerce. It’s kind of an ongoing system trying to achieve an equilibrium, spiked every now and again by notable events when entirely new reagents are dumped in, resetting the balance and changing the solution. So long as terrorism exists I don’t believe this will change, it’s a reactionary result. Event -> crackdown -> period of lower risk -> new event -> new crackdown…

But what we’ve focused on with our mitigations and alerts and security regimes has missed a fundamental geometric reality – if we wanted to begin to attempt to stop the root causes of terrorism, poverty, social inequality, nationalist hegemony, economic pillaging, supremacist dogma, international lawlessness… I believe that would have a multiplied result far in advance of what we can achieve trying only mitigations and setting up curbside bomb barriers and such.

To ignore how our policies and economics directly and unambiguously CAUSE the terrorism we’re trying to stop ultimately results in a losing war of attrition and unending expenses and tragedies. Similarly I think if we put our heads towards preventing the causes of pedo-molestations, (often abusers were abused themselves as children, right?) there could be progress made there also. An ounce of prevention, or a ton of mitigation?

(Obviously this is a pretty basic argument I feel a little pedantic making it at length.)

echo August 23, 2018 5:41 PM


Thank you. I felt my rant was a bit out of place. I could have (should have) written it much better. Your contribution was much more cogent.

Ismar August 23, 2018 5:57 PM

Thanks for pointing out to us again about the “real” dangers of terrorism.
It reminds me of the popular fear of sharks and the exploitation of it in the popular culture (on average 10 people are killed by sharks annually while we kill 100 mil of them each year).
Also, for the record I am not an owner of a bathtub as we only have a shower where I live 🙂 (this might be even more dangerous then owning a bathtub but it came with the place we bought years ago and we never bothered to change it 🙂 ).

@Babak – the article is not about Muslims but dangers of terrorism – why make the connection so quickly and why to Iran – weren’t the 911 terrorist mostly from Saudi Arabia?

I think they should deduct your pay by at least 30% or so this month for being so old fashioned in your attempts to elicit some sort of reaction that may allow you to “prove” once and for all that all Muslims are terrorists.

Also, (although being a couple of days late) Eid Mubarak to all Muslims celebrating it worldwide.

Jon (fD) August 23, 2018 6:06 PM

There is another public policy issue that in the paper (yes, I read the whole thing) and the comments I feel is inadequately expressed.

Suffice it to say that billions of dollars are being spent being ineffectual.

However, it’s not like that money is being fired into the sun. It’s being spent on people who win government contracts (and lobby heavily for them). It’s about the best contract one can get – heaps of money for doing effectively nothing at all. Throw in a little theater, and head for the Caymans with your retirement bonus.

Cui bono? When you see policy activity this colossally stupid, it does behoove one to ask where the money’s going, and what they are doing to keep the spigot flowing.

As an aside, those who donate the most money against efforts to legalize possession of small amounts of drugs are the private prison industry and their lobbyists. Interesting, no? Who’s advocating to jail all the immigrants? Hmm…

There’s a lot of money in flimflamming the government, and they’re often very willing participants (in the hope of re-election or cushy after-government “jobs”, &c.).

Have fun, all you Citizens United.

Jon (fD)

Jon (fD) August 23, 2018 6:12 PM


PS – Sharks kill about what, ten people a year, worldwide? Hippopotamuses kill about three thousand. To make a really terrifying movie, make “Hipponado!!” 😉

Jon (fD)

Fruit of the Loom August 23, 2018 9:19 PM


“We can fight terrorism and still have seatbelt laws, yes we can.”

Of course we can and neither I nor the paper @bruce discusses argues otherwise.

“They don’t “kill” children generally but they do cause real damage.”

But this compares apples to oranges. If one is going argue that death is the metric then one has to be consistent and measure every activity by the deaths they cause. It is no argument to say that pedophiles don’t cause many deaths but they do cause lots of injuries. Well then lets look at auto injuries. In the USA there were more than six MILLION car accidents in 2015. There were 6,500 people convicted of child pornography. So which injures society more? It isn’t even a close contest.

Gerard van Vooren August 23, 2018 9:29 PM

Thank you, GWB!

Also thank all the voters who voted GWB, because they made all this possible.

mrfox August 23, 2018 10:17 PM

Some argue, however, that the incidence of terrorist destruction is low because counterterrorism measures are so effective.

Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

Luzugas Fenyev-Baixar August 24, 2018 12:07 AM

vastly smaller than the number of people who die in bathtub drownings.

The authors’ argument fails because it does not seem to consider the number of bathtub manufacturing companies owned by terrorist groups.

Clive Robinson August 24, 2018 6:43 AM

@ All,

We need to consider the implications of,

    In the process, it concludes that terrorism is rare outside war zones because, to a substantial degree, terrorists don’t exist there.

I have argued long in the past and still do that the number of home grown “suicide terrorists” is very small for the good reason that it actually achives very little for those people who can think at an ordinary educational level, and it requires an altered mind state that takes quite a while to develope.

Further that those of a higher educational level especially in technical subjects would want to be “bomb makers and placers” not “self immolators” and would thus have a quite significant desire to stay alive to “keep the cause alive”.

It’s why in European Terrorism in the 20th century the majority of bombings did not kill the bomb makers / placers and in a lot of cases they took considerable care to avoid leaving evidence of who they were. That is they had every intention of leading otherwise normal lives and living into old age. That is whilst their bombs were crude to look at, they were in effect built with minimalist efficiency to be both functional and reliable[1] with very common thus near untracable components, all of which requires considerable skill.

But how do you get the skill to become a bomb maker. Well like any other skill you learn from others, practice and if good enough inovate to become a teacher of the next generation. This has actually been known for hundreds of years[3] if not over a millennium ago[4].

However as we know from history one of the greatest drivers for technical inovation is warfare. That is a bomb makers classroom is the field of conflict[3] where the lessons are fast and brutal. This is especially true for civil warefare, which most of those “conflict zones” mentioned in the abstract actualy are.

But the question I was asking years ago has finally got through to politicians, what happens to irregular soldiers when war ends, especially those who have in effect lost?

We’ve had over a decade to discuss this but few haw, now it’s happening we are not just unprepared, we are doing stuoid things that will only reignite conflict potentialy as terrorism in our own back yards.

Some myself included have been asking are these apparent “stupid things” actually due to leaving things to late, or are they actually somebodies chosen agenda?

It’s something people realy need to not just think about but actually discuss openly. Otherwise we are likely to be heamoraging tax monies in exactly the same way as we currently are for the next twenty to fifty years. Whilst certain vested interests will use it as an opportunity to be more invasive in our privacy and place further restrictions on our freedoms. Thus moving ever forward to the tipping point where we become Orwelian Police States / Feudal Dictatorships in practice.

Which as history shows will over time in most cases give rise to further tipping points into further warfare and terrorism. Thus become an almost endless cycle till something happens to stop it.

But the question is “What?”… The fear of atomic warfare appears to have been insufficient to stop it this time around. Maybe there is nothing in the way of existential threats that will stop it for more than a few decades.

Thus we should perhaps look at what the actual causes of this cycle of wars is. Nearly all recorded early conflicts were about the control of resources such as water, agricultural land and access to easy transportation. In essence the economics of raw resources, production, trade, and the opportunities that go with them, the same appears true for most ancient cultures. And the reason we know this is because when the economics fails as the resources run out either conflict or migration or both happens and ruins are left behind to be covered up by the sands of time to be millennia later dug up and investigated. When we look at European history in the past few centuries we see the same cycle with the odd variance for natural disasters such as the Black Death. Eventially Europeans to emigrated to sources of new resources. The US for instance became a major power simply because it had sufficient resources to grow rapidly and learn a new lesson of the force multiplier advantage of industrialisation. But as we should all by now know resources are getting scarce and there are not that many places left to find raw resources still in the ground in sufficient quantities to avoid significant knock on effects that have in the past ended in oppression, terrorism and open warfare between citizens or nations…

Thus unless we change our behaviours, warfare and terrorism are definate fixtures in our futures…

Oh and if you care to look the next major series of conflicts will be about the control and utilization of the one resource we need above even water, which is energy. It’s clear to some that certainly US Policy is about gaining and controling energy sources, not just chemical but nuclear as well. The Chinese are likewise looking to gain similar control but in addition they are after the control of certain so called “Rare Earth Minerals” that are an absolut must for not just efficient technology but that of solar energy as well. They are also using them to get the intellectual property that makes the efficient utilisation of these minerals…

Guess what the US and China are starting in on what for the US is a self distructive trade war, whilst both the Chinese and Russians are rapidly develiping new weapons technology atleast or in some cases better than that of the US and West such as the NATO countries. Anyone care to wager where this is going to go?

[1] Whilst you can find instructions on how to make a small bomb in old books and pamphlets, and on the internet using readily available components they probably won’t work even with very small changes. For various reasons some quite technical[2,3] they don’t scale easily and thus quickly become “damp squibs” if those without a fair amount of technical knowledge try to make them. Thus “big bomb making” is a quite thoughtful process requiring experiance as well as knowledge.

[2] To see why look up how bomb disposal personnel can disarm bombs with what are in effect quite small bombs. That is using a small charge to disrupt and disperse the main charge, the explosive train from the detonator, or the timer/initiator and it’s power source. If you want the indepth technical side try looking up hydro-codes and similar.

[3] In England King James 1st of England and 6th of Scotland was not a popular man with provincial English Catholics. So much so in 1605 “The Gunpowder Plot” to assassinate him was formulated and led by Robert Catesby. Whilst the players and the politics are well known the technical side of the plot is rarely talked about. One thing the ploters knew was that although they could get sufficient gunpowder they also knew they did not possess the expertise to make the bomb and that unless they had an expert it would fail to work. The reason they knew this is “War is a teacher of hard lessons” that have to be learned if you are to have a chance to win. Especially with civil war.

[4] Gunpowder or black powder is believed to have been discovered around A.D.850 by Chinese philosopher-alchemists looking for the essence thus secret of life using crystals found growing on middens, honey which was known to have considerable preserving properties and compounds of sulfur that had other desirable properties to do with health. By A.D.1000 there is archeological evidence it had been weaponised.

Nadav August 24, 2018 8:13 AM

It’s more complex than a simple cost/benefit problem though, isn’t it?

For one thing, we don’t have an alternative reality — one where we spend far fewer resources fighting terrorism, as the authors recommend — that we could look at to see how much terrorism there was in that universe compared to our own.

Meanwhile, on the ground level an individual has a strong interest in being defended from terrorism even if that defense is unlikely to be put to use; the stakes are just too damn high. For instance, in the summer of 2006, flying out of Gatwick airport, I was on one of the planes that was targeted by terrorists using liquid explosives. If not for a lot of (no doubt costly, possibly anxiety-inducing) anti-terrorism work by various government agencies who managed to foil the plot and take those terrorists off their flights before they could detonate their bombs, I would be dead.

So even if it’s true that it would make more sense at a macro level to spend far fewer resources fighting terrorism, my family and I are glad in this instance that as many resources were spent as they were.

How can we predict when the expenditure will pay off and when it won’t? I have conservative instincts and sympathize with the arguments for reducing government bloat, and I am under no illusions that anti-terrorism isn’t a prime example of that. But at the same time, it’s almost a cliche that we invest in security measures (locks, alarms, guns, self-defense classes, etc.) while hoping we never have to use them.

I don’t know the answers, and I’m skeptical of people who claim they do.

Skizzo August 24, 2018 9:10 AM

Modern cars have all the technology needed to FORCE the vehicles to ‘obey’ speed limits and traffic lights already. All it would take is some reprogramming. How many lives would that save? Quite a few, I imagine. Of course, one of the biggest opponents to this idea would be those enforcing these laws, because many law enforcement agencies depend heavily on the fines they collect from said enforcement.

Clive Robinson August 24, 2018 9:43 AM

@ Nadav,

For one thing, we don’t have an alternative reality — one where we spend far fewer resources fighting terrorism, as the authors recommend — that we could look at to see how much terrorism there was in that universe compared to our own.

That is just a variant of “The Defence Spending Fallacy” that has resulted in overly large sums of the tax money going to defence companies and getting squireld away via all sorts of fraud into a few peoples offshore undeclared untaxed bank accounts. Some being what we would regard as tyranical dictators or despots.

The ruse has always been to “project near misses” and “questionable intelligence” into a “desense gap” or “existential threat”.

The simplest example seen over and over again during the cold war was to “hype up the enemy capabilities whilst devaluing our own capabilits”. Thus a cook in their army was a frontline first class soldier, but a fat lazy slob who could not pick up a gun in our army. Their aircraft could do mach two on a cup of fuel whilst ours could only get off the ground by burning half an oil field.

The real problem which alows them to get away with FUD arguments is that with defence you do not know what your enemy sees as their tipping point. Thus you only know when you have spent to little on defence not a little too much or twenty, thirty or a million times too much.

Thus the best place to spend money os in areas that improve society in general as well such as first responders and health care which needs spending in good education thus higher education and schools to make it happen. Further such spending unlike on futuristic weapons tends not to have huge “Lost Opportunity Costs”.

It’s not a question of spending money, any fool can do that, but smart spending which is actually an investment in societies future. It appears to be something most politicians either can not do or are payed in various ways not to do… And guess who pays them? What has been described as “The biggest wealfare mothers of them all” defence contractors and their supporting off shore slush fund corporates out of Silicon Valley and Seattle.

PeaceHead August 24, 2018 5:41 PM

Thanks for an interesting read.
The PDF file was decent.

Some of the wording was odd, but that’s not of much consequence, of course. I was somewhat relieved that there was some statistics to back up the claims although some clinically relevant and traditional statistical info might have been missing. I’m not entirely sure if there was enough info about the sample sizes, and other more clerical types of side stats. But with the ample footnotes, maybe it was there still.

It seems that the definition used of “terrorism” by the authors was a very narrow and specific one.
To me, there are several varieties of terrorism at hand in our times, none of which require an abstract nor esoteric spin on words.

But the article was still of some use and it’s kind of nice to read something about terrorism which isn’t all “gloom and doom” or “head for the hills!”. 🙂

All That We Are Asking Is Give Peace A Chance

“In truth, we, or rather our predecessors, gave cause for this. Why? Because after World War II, we tried to impose our own development model on many Eastern European countries, and we did so by force. This has to be admitted. There is nothing good about this and we are feeling the consequences now. Incidentally, this is more or less what the Americans are doing today, as they try to impose their model on practically the entire world, and they will fail as well.”,+United+States+(3).jpg

–quote attributed to Mr. Vladimir Putin (2015) from opinion piece entitled
“Putin Wants Peaceful Coexistence With the West” on
There is much in that article worth reading aside from my brief excerpt.

{Mutually-Assured Peaceful Coexistence Is Prefered}

Wesley Parish August 25, 2018 6:12 AM

But even this has been exaggerated by conflating terrorism with war: civil war violence that would previously have been seen to be acts of insurgency are now often labeled terrorism.

There is a working definition of terrorism on the FBI website, or it was when I last looked: I’ll take another look, won’t be a moment …

Ah, yes, as I 5thought, the FBI website offers little more than pablum:
If it was Vitamin C tablets, it would be sued out of business for having nothing but flavouring agents; if it was beer, the drinkers would revolt and burn the brewery down. has much more substance.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Definition of Terrorism

The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.3

What is amusing in a definitely Gothickesque kind of way, is the CIA definition, because I can think of a number of activities that the CIA is responsible for, that fall under that definition; Mossadeq, anyone? Salvador Allende? The gratuitous murder of democracy in Guatemala c 1954 because the Banana Republic owners aka United Fruit et alii didn’t like democracy and preferred dictatorship instead?

If you widen the definition of terrorism to everything that falls under that definition, instead of everything that is forced under that definition and minus everything that is so defined except by the current definers, you find that terrorism is indeed a major killer of people today – consider the crushing of employees’ rights organizations aka workers’ unions, in the US and the UK and worldwide, and the resulting increase in preventable worker deaths.

I’m sure you could analyze the impact of the Chicago School of Economics following The Gipper and The Iron Lady, now The Heavily Rusted Lady Mostly Patched With Cheap Bog, from the viewpoint of the definitions of terrorism so provided; you see, it says the “unlawful use of force” against “persons or property”. It does not define “property” as that owned by the richest 10% or even owned by the wealthier 20%. It says “property” full stop. So we can quite rightly argue that the enactment of laws that leave the poorest 40% in insecure possession of their property – ditto their lives – is a substantial, material violation of the US (and international) criminal code.

And the sale of unsafe bathtubs, needless to say, provided that no safer bathtubs at a reasonable price are available, is an unlawful use of financial force against the persons so obliged by adverse financial and economic force, to purchase said bathtubs.

The problem may not in fact be the laws, it may be that the so-called Law Enforcement Agencies don’t actually enforce the laws: they only enforce their privileges. That was the reality that ended the European Empires.

Tiresias August 25, 2018 8:41 AM

“probability of dying in a terrorist attack”…

Classic Black Swan logical fallacy. I thought we were past this by now folks.

You cannot assign a “probability” to a risk such as a terrorist attack because a terrorist attack is not a natural phenomena emerging out of the random interactions of indepedent variables, like height or Brownian motion or the results of physics which emerge out of random quantum events.

THOSE events all have normal distributions because the underlying phenomena which cause their values are 1) independent variables which themselves are 2) assuming values at random (not to say sans causality).

No a terorist attack is not subject to Bell curve analysis. It is not guaranteed to produce a normal distribution either in terms of frequency or severity. It is an intentional act by one or more persons and because of that can happen whenever someone has the will and finds the means.

Nassim Taleb uses the analogy of the chicken and the farmer. Statisitically, the farmer is the chicken’s best friend and the chicken has every reason to trust the farmer. Then one day….

Retrospectively you can make truthful claims that start with “your odds of dying in a terrorist attack”, but that is only retrospectively, not prospectively. You cannot make any truthful probablistic statement about terrorist attacks, their scope, effectiveness or number of casualities, except, perhaps, that they will continue into the future.

You need to read the Black Swan.

A terrorist attack, especially a sophsiticated biological one commited by scientists directed at the food or water supply would fundamentally rework this nation’s freedoms in a way that makes the Patriot Act which followed 9/11 look like the Bill of Rights itself.

I will never understand why people who are genuinely concerned with liberty work to favor an environment for events which will foreseably result in the reversal of our most basic freedoms.

Bruce is very very very liberal and the “terrorism is a small problem” is a liberal shibboleth.

This is therefore a good teaching moment for readers of this column to reflect that we are all of us subject to basic distortions in our reasoning when oour reasoning would lead us to conclusions we are against for non-rational reasons.

None of us is immune to this and there is no lower limit to how basic a reasoning fallacy we can fall prey to no matter how educated or engaged or sophisiticated we are.

I am sure this post will test Bruce to him najtural limits in terms of free speech on his own site.

justinacolmena August 25, 2018 11:43 AM

I read the argument at first glance that “terrorism” is by definition an act of war subject to military rather than civil[ian] criminal jurisdiction.

Now this is an academic-style paper, and I’m sure the argument does not go this far, but you need to allow the people to have their rightful freedoms, including guns, if you wish to be able to trust them.

We are peons, slaves, serfs deprived of our rights under current law as it is enforced in the U.S. Of course the government cannot trust us.

You cannot rob and steal our property, lives, and freedoms under color of law and then “trust” us not to take back that which is rightfully ours.

justinacolmena August 25, 2018 2:19 PM

@ Wesley Parish

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Definition of Terrorism
The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Not even a U.S. Code to cite. Just a naked law enforcement power grab.

That definition is so broad that its hips are swaying on high heels in the hallways at the Pentagon.

echo August 25, 2018 3:37 PM

@justinacolmena, @Wesley Parish

“Unlawful” may of course be “legally arguable” much like the UK government openly admitting it is trading off huan rights for trade i.e. cash, or forcibly removing lawfully settled immigrants to hit nebulous targets and cover up their own adminstrative errors and destroyed evidence. It’s funny isn’t it how the definitions are controlled by people with power to edit the narrative?

It’s partly this reason why the European Convention upholds the issue of fair courts and “effective remedy” and “access to justice”. No wonder therearesome who want to ditch the European Convention adn replace it but replaceit with what exactly? No answer…

justinacolmena August 25, 2018 5:09 PM

@@ echo, Wesley Parish

“Unlawful” may of course be “legally arguable”

Moot unless you have you have the warrant and due process in order, and an actual bona fide hope of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

Humdee August 25, 2018 5:13 PM

Retrospectively you can make truthful claims that start with “your odds of dying in a terrorist attack”, but that is only retrospectively, not prospectively.

You present this as a foregone conclusion which no one can disagree but there are people who can and do disagree with it. In fact the father of what we now consider social statistics, Emile Durkhiem, believed that there was a “national rate of suicide” that was inevitable. These people do in fact think that societies behave in random ways and that people’s behavior is a product of random circumstances.

Now you can disagree with them. I do too, though not for the reasons you list, but one can’t simply toss them aside and call them crazy and illogical.

No a terorist attack is not subject to Bell curve analysis. It is not guaranteed to produce a normal distribution either in terms of frequency or severity. It is an intentional act by one or more persons and because of that can happen whenever someone has the will and finds the means.

Prove that scientifically because it looks nothing like nothing more than an ipse dixit to me.

echo August 25, 2018 8:22 PM



blockquote>Moot unless you have you have the warrant and due process in order, and an actual bona fide hope of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

Of course. The funny thing is how abuses in civil law courts can lead to constitutional abuses which without which otherwise criminal actions by the state and those who benefit from this wouldn’t exist or would be prosecuted. Slavery and its consqeuences is one such graphic example.

My brain packs up considering this stuff. It’s far too much thinking!

Wesley Parish August 26, 2018 4:20 AM


The also mentions a US Code definition:

U.S. Code

18 U.S.C. § 2331 defines “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” for purposes of Chapter 113B of the Code, entitled “Terrorism”:

“International terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics: Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.*

And before that it quotes the paragraph from the U.S. PATRIOT ACT that amends that paragraph.

It is an interesting exercise to examine the first choice of US employers in the late 1800s-early 1900s of actions to take when faced with protesting or striking workers. Or let me quote from Woody Guthrie:

Preacher Casey was just a workin’ man,
And he said, “Unite all you working men.”
Killed him in the river some strange man.
Was that a vigilante man?

Strange how things change complexion in the light of who’s paying to hear what.

Sed Contra August 26, 2018 8:38 AM

I’ve remodeled, replacing the bathtub with a lage walk-in shower, and put a few black swans in for good measure. Should I put some books on statistics in there as well ? Also, what about a 2FA lock on the bathroom door, or maybe some kind of IoT setup ?

Tiresias August 26, 2018 12:23 PM


The suicide rate of nations changes with the real world events, such as economic downturns.

Some suicide is the result of an organic brain disorder. That brain disorder is the result of multiple indpendent variables assuming values as a result of random processes. You are born with a brain like that by what amounts to genetic (bad) luck. This is not to say it is a causal.

The Bell curve only describes a certain set of phenomena- one which are the result of variables assuming values independently of one another. The purest case is of course the values fair dice assume.

But terrorism is not such a phenomena. Terrorism is an intentional act. Someone with some means decides to perform the act. That is not something we can model with as a Bell curve.

The reason the chicken can’t use farmer MacDonald’s past exhibited behavior as a reliable prediction of future behavior is because farmer MacDonald’s behavior is intentional, and intentinally deceptive (he does not otherwise frighten his chickens or give them a reason to fear him) and the product of farmer MacDonald’s belief system.

You can say that the subset of the general population who commit terrorism all have traits – roughly, homidical rage- which in turn is the result of inheriting some disposition, that’s fine.

Unnfortunately, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether they will succeed and to what degree, and those are the two variables which matter. 20 hijackers out of 200 million people who would love to be terrorists create the statistic that matters just because of their cunning and reosurces. The other 200 million don’t matter.

One terrorist of sufficent sophistication with access to the right training and instruments could count more than every other terrorist. combined.

The larger group he’s a member of tells you exactly nothing about how to stop him. Just the opposite, it gives you misleading example after misleading example. The 200 millioin people who did nothingor were ineffective is just like farmer MacDonal’s usual behavior.

The right way to think about terrorism is – is to categorize events by the worst that could be done and what would it take to do it. The greater the damaage, the easier it is to do it successfully, the more it should be a focus of efforts to prevent it.

We need to proactively stop people from gaining the knowledge and getting access to anything which could be used as WMD.

For example, stopping terrorists from gaining access to our food chain shoudl be a top priority. Nothing could be so obvious. But illegal aliens are intimately involved in our food chain from farm to plate. This is just insanity.

Rest asured, society pay a price far higher than a single Molly Tibbets for letting our food / farm industry capture and nullify our law enforcement efforts.

Like secured cockpit doors in airplanes, which the airlines fought to save themselves a few bucks, illegal aliens have access to your food supply is nothing more than a regulatory capture which has the obvious potential for ultimate disaster.

People refuse ot allow themselves to think logically on this topic; it’s all about blue vs red globalists vs nationalists Trump vs Trup haters. You’re on one side or the other and which side your on completely determines your opinion on every single topic, what advice and consent you give to society.

If anyone recalls, this is the state the nation was in just prior to 9-11 .

The Republicans had the President convulsed and immobilized over a blue dress and Monica Lewinsky. He couldn’t wage the necessary war on Bin Laden because our sainted media would and did accuse him of “wagging the dog” and even made a movie about a President who started a war to distract from a domestic scandal.

A few months later, 9-11 happened. Then all the experts were clucking about how no one could have forseen such a dastardly plot, when in fact, many people had predicted exactly that dastardly plot- planes being run into skyscrapers by “undocument immigrants”.

It’s down all a toxic combination of political correctness – our sacred “undocument citizens” or whatever the left is calling them, and regulatory capture, along with a good dose of basic liberal death wish and national and racial self hate, which, don’t even bother, does indeed describe the left today.

We have the means and the understanding to prevent the nation-changing catastrophic act of terrorism which will shred our civil liberties like junk mail in a paper shredder. We could do it but we don’t because people prefer acting out the psychodrama that is The Resistance.

This is not a rant. This is a plain statement of statistical and sociological fact. I am as big L Liberal as you can possibly be, and have been myy entire adult life. I hav all the personal and psychological character traits which identify someone as on the left and yes, I believe it’s genetic. I was born that way.

But this is Liberal taken to mean open, gregarious, rational, evidence-based reasoner, tolerant, accepting of differences, inclusive and progress minded. I have no idea what has infected the left currently or who these fascists are that have commandeered that name. I left that “left” years before leaving it was a meme.

Believe me, when the forseeable disaster hits, absolutely nothing thereafter is going to be of your liking, or under your control.

Bong-Smoking Primitive Monkey-Brained Spook August 26, 2018 2:28 PM

My logical conclusion of:

In the United States, for example, some six people have perished each year since 9/11 at the hands of such terrorists — vastly smaller than the number of people who die in bathtub drownings.

I’ll get rid of my bathtub and will hire a couple of bathtub-hardened (water-boarded) goons from Gitmo that didn’t drown during ‘baptizing’ to give me a bath every other day. Statistics support my wisdom, I reason.

Clive Robinson August 26, 2018 2:40 PM

@ Sed Contra,

I’ve remodeled, replacing the bathtub with a lage walk-in shower…

I did not see the dual wall socket electrical outlet on the list. How are people supposed to plug in a hair dryer and charge their iPhone whilst still using it?

Yes people have and do play with their mobile phone or pad in the bath, women have been known to take a kindle in along with the scented candles… As for some teens they sit on the toilet for hours with their mobile phone… I guess some teenagers are so attached to their phones that they might drag an extension lead into the bathroom to plug the charger in so they can carry on tapping away at the screen. Unless of course the extension lead was already there with say a fan heater, mains powered radio or similar plugged in…

Alyer Babtu August 26, 2018 8:32 PM

@Clive Robinson

Gunpowder Plot

My 1/4 groat worth, it was essentially an entrapment operation by Cecil

Skip Tick August 26, 2018 9:44 PM

“The likelihood that anyone outside a war zone will be killed by an Islamist extremist terrorist is extremely small. In the United States, for example, some six people have perished each year since 9/11 at the hands of such terrorists”

The Pulse club shooting alone claimed 49 victims. San Bernadino was 12. Just sayin’.

(Required) August 28, 2018 2:33 PM


” So which injures society more? It isn’t even a close contest.”

Again, society can make safer more regulated cars and safer roads and has tacitly decided not to.

There’s no comparable seen benefit to letting pedos run around screwing up the lives of children.
Comparing the two is the apples to oranges you described, verbatim.

Most people die of heart disease, and much could be prevented with restrictions on diet and habits.
But we reject those strict restrictions. Heart disease continues to kill millions.
We’ve put personal freedoms above this level of diet/habit “safety” here.

Every such decision is a similar collectively-decided trade-off. Sometimes it changes.
We put seatbelts in cars because the benefit was seen to have outweighed the restriction.
We mandated crash tests because ditto. Many examples of this.

(6500 convictions is a drop in the bucket as far as % of total child abuse going on, to be certain.)

The point is we can and will maintain standards to protect children without undo-ing vehicle safety improvements. It’s not an either-or. Doing one necessary job doesn’t necessarily mean we do other things poorly as a result, they aren’t mutually exclusive. The same goes for security/counter-terror programs, we can have those without letting automobile safety slip away from our attention. We can do both. I think you’re pushing a false dichotomy in that you’re seeming to state it’s one or the other. It isn’t at all.

echo August 28, 2018 3:05 PM


Yes. Technical issues require both resources and a functioning society. Take one thing away and everything collapses.

Wesley Parish August 29, 2018 4:10 AM

I’ve finally got around to starting a book I’ve had for some time now. It’s titled The Dark World of [Terrorists] by Eric Maple, and published by Pan Books. On the back the blurb reads:

[Terrorists] who claimed to have had intercourse with the devil – and described their experience …
The macabre charms used to ward off [terrorists] …
The horror of the medieval tortures and executions – hundreds of women hanged, or set ablaze on tar barrels ….

The stories are quite gruesome. But there are some bright spots where people possessed some conscience and informed their intelligence with it:

Deserving special mention is John Gaule, the Huntingdonshire clergyman, who had attacked the [terrorist] hunter Matthew Hopkins and exposed his vile methods to the world. In his pamphlet Select Cases of Conscience concerning [Terrorists], he revealed the cruelties practised upon the victims of popular rage, of old women kept trussed up for hours in an agony of cramp while the watchers waited for their imps to enter the room. The righteous indignation of this man cut through the self-righteous bigotry of his age like a clean, sharp knife. (pg 106)


One of the rare pamphlets relating to this occasion , A Discourse on [Terrorism], published by J. read in 1736, gave unqualified support to the repeal of the [Terrorism] Act, and argued from the Scriptures and the Classics that [terrorism] was a delusion.(pg 128)

Of course he doesn’t mention the Terrorism hysteria at Salem and the infamous Salem Terrorist Trials, let alone the part the Rev Cotton Mather might have played in them, because this is not a book about Terrorism on the North American continent; but he does discuss hysteria and mob violence.

Now let’s continue this enlightening discussion of Islamist extremist terrorist[s], shall we?

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