The Threat of Terrorism

10 Things More Likely to Kill You Than Terrorism

The US government has spent over two trillion dollars fighting terrorism since 2001, and the UK, EU and many other countries have spent tens of billions more. On this evidence, you would think that terrorism poses a serious threat to human life and each one of us runs a real risk of dying in a terrorist attack on a daily basis. You would be completely wrong. The chances of you dying in a terrorist attack are in the range of 1 in 80,000, or about the same chance of being killed by a meteor. If you take into account the few thousand people killed every year in terrorist incidents, the location of those attacks in a few countries, the world’s population, and other causes of death, you will find that the following list of things are statistically much more dangerous to your continued existence than terrorism:

  1. Bathtubs and toilets – more than 300 people drown in their bathtubs and toilets every year in the US alone, presumably after bouts of alcohol. In the US at least, more people have died from drowning in the bath since 9/11 than in terrorist attacks.
  2. Vending machines – although the total number of people killed by vending machines (presumably when they are shaking it to get their money back and it falls on them) is not greater than the average number of people killed by terrorism year on year, there are many years and many places in the world where they kill more people than terrorism. In the 1980s, for example, more people died from vending machines than died from terrorism in the US and Canada.
  3. Animals such as deer, kangaroos, reindeer, crocodiles, hippos, snakes and other wild animals – admittedly, most of these deaths are not caused directly by the animal, but due to the road accidents they cause. In Australia, a kangaroo killed a man in 1936, which is one more person than terrorists have killed on Australian soil. The same applies to reindeer accidents in Scandinavia. In the UK, people are killed by cows on a fairly regular basis. Of course, we are not including the deaths caused by domestic pets, especially dangerous dog breeds.
  4. Insects such as bees, spiders, scorpions and especially mosquitoes – while dozens of people die from allergic reactions to bees or from poisonous spiders and scorpions every year, it is mosquitoes that kill around three million people per year through the transmission of malaria. Next time you’re swatting a mosquito, you can be assured that you are engaged in a war against an enemy that is far more deadly than terrorists!
  5. DIY – thousands are killed every year, and tens of thousands injured, in DIY accidents. If you’re ever tempted to fix up your own house, try to remember that you’ve just become a greater danger to yourself and those around you than terrorists.
  6. Alcohol – more than 15,000 people per year die from alcohol poisoning and disease in the UK alone, which is far more than those killed in terrorist attacks across the whole world. Think about that next time you raise a glass.
  7. Lightning – around 24,000 people per year are killed in lightning strikes, and many more injured. This number is a great deal higher than terrorism.
  8. Hospitals – around 100,000 people a year die from preventable medical errors in the US (that is more in a single month than died on 9/11), while another 100,000 die from hospital infections. In other words, if you have to go to the hospital for any reason, you are far more likely to be killed by a doctor or a nurse than by a terrorist!
  9. Car – around two million people per year die in automobile accidents, and dying in an accident while out driving is one of the most likely causes of death today at odds of 1 in 5,000.
  10. Yourself – tens of thousands of people commit suicide every year in the US alone, which means that you are more at risk of getting depressed and killing yourself than you are of getting caught up in a deadly terrorist incident. Of course, this does not include those people that kill themselves while undertaking a terrorist attack.

You will note that this list does not include the more obvious tens of millions killed every year by poverty, global warming, cancer and heart disease, smoking, HIV-AIDS, guns and small arms, domestic violence, government repression, natural disasters like earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes, pandemics, war and genocide. The point is that on the list of things which can kill you, and which are a real risk to human life and well-being, terrorism comes somewhere close to the very bottom.

Although it seems humorous to mention deaths caused by vending machines and lightning, there are serious questions to be asked. How is it that something which is statistically insignificant as a real cause of death can lead to such widespread fear and hysteria that our governments are willing to invest truly vast amounts of scarce resources, and change our entire way of life, to try and protect us from it? Why is the world willing to engage in a ‘war on terrorism’, but not a ‘war on bees’, a ‘war on lightning’ or a ‘war on suicide’? What are the forces at work which keep this costly exercise in terrorism-death prevention going? Who benefits from the billions spent on counter-terrorism? More importantly, what does it say about our society’s values and priorities that preventing a single death from terrorism commands vastly greater investment and attention than preventing thousands of deaths from domestic violence, and millions of deaths from poverty, guns, hospital infections, and the like? I guess some causes of death are more important than others – although probably not to the dead.

(Actually, I try to answer these questions in chapter six of my latest book.)

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently the Deputy Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
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27 Responses to The Threat of Terrorism

  1. Edward Sheard says:

    Is it 1 in 800,000 because a meteorite is 1 in 700’000 according to Astronomer Alan Harris

  2. Pingback: The Analytics of Terrorism | Business Analytics

  3. Andrew Rice says:

    Great post, Richard. I’m always marveling at the difficulty human beings have paying attention to the things that really MIGHT kill them as opposed to the things that make them most afraid. I don’t think many of us have nightmares about getting crushed by vending machines or even hit by lightening, but we do have lots of nightmares about being harmed by other human beings and losing control over our own lives.

  4. Marc Doucet says:

    Where does the 1 in 80,000 number come from?

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  7. Stephen Frug says:

    “Insects such as bees, spiders, scorpions and especially mosquitoes”

    Neither spiders nor scorpions are insects. Insects have six legs; they have eight.

  8. This quote below is from a long, tedious polemic by Glenn Greenwald on Salon (Aug. 15) entitled “The sham ‘terrorism expert’ industry” which drones and drools on and on about jingoistic cliques promoting the notion (nonexistent to Greenwald) that there is such a thing as Islamist terrorism and that we should worry our little heads about it.

    What struck me, after plowing through its overwrought accusations, was its absolute resemblance to what we anti-nuclear activists were told by the government in
    the 1970s when we got all hot under the collar about nuclear accidents and radioactivity. I don’t specifically recall an article entitled “Ten Things More Likely to Kill You than Nuclear Power”, but there were certainly articles, in both popular and scientific journals, that essentially said as much. This soothing pap was eventually enhanced by the infamous and ultimately debunked WASH-1400 report (called WhiteWash of course), the Rasmussen report, which was commissioned for the government in order to “prove” that the chances of a serious nuclear accident were vanishingly small. This report predated the Brown’s Ferry near-meltdown, the news about the radwaste explosion in the Urals, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and of course Fukushima.

    This report claimed to have identified all possible causes of a serious nuclear accident, using what was called fault-tree analysis, to presumably show all possible linkages and progressions of an accident. Brown’s Ferry in Alabma put the lie to this. Technicians were sent under the reactor to detect what they thought was some minor problem in the electrical system. Because there was no electricity, the workmen used a burning candle to inspect the wiring. The wiring caught fire and destroyed all of the wiring for all the safety systems, including the Emergency Core Cooling System. The reactor began to overheat and the workmen were forced to desperate measures to keep the coolant running. In the end there was no meltdown or leakage. But the WASH-1400 report never included, among its long list of potential accident causes, the destruction of wiring by a lighted candle.

    So here we are, with quite a number of catastrophic nuclear accidents now in the history books, and here we are after two World Trade Center bombings by
    Muslims, not to mention terrorist attacks on nearly every continent of the world, killing thousands of innocent people, not to mention the plots that were discovered in time to prevent more killings, including several in the continental United States and Times Square in NYC. Perhaps Glenn Greenwald in a former life did press releases for the NRC and its predecessor the AEC, which tried to sooth citizens and soldiers who feared the nuclear testing fallout in Nevada or the radon gas
    from uranium mining and mill tailings (which were incorporated into cement and used as foundation for homes in Grand Junction, Colorado) or the malfunctioning
    of the 150 nuclear plants in the United States, one of which is located 25 miles north of NYC. Oh yes, “We Almost Lost Detroit”: another near meltdown in Chicago; that book title is from the exact quote of one of the workmen there, who said “Let’s face it, we almost lost Detroit”. Indeed. It was a fast breeder reactor utilizing plutonium, by the way.

    And here we are being told, in almost the exact same words, that our chance of being killed by a terrorist attack is “only” about 1 in 80,000. Well, I’ve got news for
    these guys. This is WORSE odds than they gave us of dying in a nuclear accident. That is, if you take this at face value. There may be a terrorist scare lobby, but
    they have nothing on the paleoliberals who might as well be on the payroll of the family of Saud in their desperate attempt to put a soft peaceful face on Islamist
    religious fanaticism and propaganda. Of course if you look at how Jackson pulled this number out of his hat, his whole argument collapses. He compares the number of terrorist deaths (that he knows about….essentially a few thousand which accounts for only 9/11, not the deaths in Bali, Madrid,
    Spain, London, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc.) to the world population (!), narrows the list to a few countries and presto, he comes up with an meaningless and mathematically indefensible number.

    This is not far fetched. Who and what is behind this extremely long, over-protesting, over-eager article? Why is so much space devoted to rebutting not just super-paranoid fears of terrorism but ordinary anxiety generated by actual terrorist acts….like 9/11? Or its predecessor of 1993? Methinks Greenwald protests too much. Who is behind him and what are his motivations for this foaming at the mouth over something that any ordinary citizen reads about every day in the paper and on the internet? Is Greenwald seriously suggesting that there is no such thing as terrorism, only individual uncoordinated acts by lunatics with no motive whatsoever? Well, that’s what this article sounds like. And THAT’S what’s scary.

    • Sorna Lazlman says:

      Sorry, how many people have died from nuclear power in the past century? And how does that compare with the death rate for coal?

      You are aware that bringing up the example of nuclear power being cited as an example of irrational fear only reinforces the point that yes, statistically neither terrorism nor nuclear energy deserve anywhere near the focus they garner?

      You’ve cited Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, which have a combined death toll possibly in the thousands (all Chernobyl – Fukushima has a grand total of two deaths thus far) and perhaps even under a hundred ( The fact you remember these as big events, just like 9/11, 7/7 etc. stick in the mind, underline precisely the point: you are a victim of the bias towards dramatic events.

  9. Pingback: TERRORISTS UNDER YOUR BED | thebigpicturereport ™

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  12. maxmorphing says:

    Reblogged this on Imbuteria's Blog and commented:

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  20. >In Australia, a kangaroo killed a man in 1936, which is one more person than terrorists have killed on Australian soil.

    Factually wrong: I think the three killed in the Hilton bombing (1978), the one dead in the Sydney Turkish consulate (1980) – and a few others might have something to say if they could speak…

    • OK. You got me on that. I can reword it to say that ‘between 1985 and the present day kangeroos have killed equal numbers of Australians on Australian soil’. The point is that the numbers are incredibly low, and I’m not sure it alters the broader thrust of the article. Do we really need to spend so much money, cause so much disruption to our lives, and alter our fundamental rights and liberties for a threat that in actual real factual terms kills so few people? Almost every week I hear stories about people being killed by bar fights, shootings and domestic violence in Australia. If the government put as much effort into saving those lives as it does to preventing terrrorism, it would actually save a lot of real lives.

  21. lyricremake says:

    “How is it that … our governments are willing to invest truly vast amounts of scarce resources, and change our entire way of life, to try and protect us from it?”

    Perhaps because those “scarce” resources are lining the pockets of corporate elites? The Red Menace had to be replaced with something. They’re not protecting us from anything, (obviously), they’re protecting their friend’s, and thus their own livelihoods, whether they know it, or not.

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