Sep 11, 2005

effectiveness of terrorists

It's that time of the year again. The two beams are turned on once a year. If it didn't have ominous connotations you could only describe them as beautiful. I wasn't living in New York on 9/11/01 and if I hadn't seen it on the news, I'd never really know anything happened in this city except for these lights. The scar probably exist in people's minds but there are no obvious external signs that something happened unless you wander over to Ground Zero and notice a huge open area, heavily concreted over. Developers usually like to get their hands on something like that in this city so something must be amiss with that spot.

And now we have another catastrophe down in New Orleans and many other areas. These types of events always make me wonder about two things.

First, why do our behaviors change so much during these events. For example, why do we as a nation feel it is necessary to have our leaders parade through areas where this damage occurs? Don't we think their time would be better spent on a phone or in a meeting trying to get things done? If a factory shuts down because of a problem does the CEO make his way through the CEO doing photo ops? Why do we feel any president has to be onsite? And how many people also thought, "Maybe I'm not so against gun control now" or "Holy shit I need to get an emergency kit together."

Second, why do we collectively overreact during these events with regard to the fear and apprehension we feel? Why are we so doomy and gloomy? We can blame it on the media but they are simply serving up what we collectively want. Will Katrina ruin the economy? Will the city and other areas ever get rebuilt? Will anyone go back?' Similar questions were asked after the 9/11 regarding NYC. I've never seen any impact of that day on the people of NYC except for the annual lighting of the 2 spotlights that beam 'towers' up into the sky. Even rents and condo prices dropped precipitously for only 6 months before resuming their prior prices.

Of course New Orleans will get rebuilt and people will come back and it won't ruin the economy forever. It's a moot question. It will be rebuilt. While the cleanup will take significant time, the fixing of damaged flood walls and the pumping of water out doesn't require too much effort. The pumps are there (and you'd be amazed at how much water they pump out) and building flood walls is as difficult as dumping earth. It will get done. I guarantee one year from now we won't think much about New Orleans or the other cities devasted by Katrina, and we won't see obvious signs these cities were in trouble.

But we focus on singular pieces of data and blow the logical conclusions too far. Two particular facts point this out more than any other. Ask someone what they thought of what happened on 9/11 and they'll tell you something. Rarely will that something have anything to do with the hit taken by the Pentagon. It's almost forgotten in relation to the WTC buildings. And even less, the plane that went down that didn't affect any buildings. The other data point is Katrina. Forever Katrina will mean New Orleans. And while they took the brunt of the damage, many people died and lost homes in other areas of Louisiana and other states. These secondary events are largely irrelevant with regard to our fears of 9/11 or hurricanes or other catastrophic events. Take away the World Trade Center and I'm sure the Pentagon would take it's place. If none of the planes hit any buildings we'd substitute the plane that was brought down in that empty field. Our collective fear wouldn't be any less. But we don't overreact to Biloxi or the Pentagon. We over react to the most significant point of damage. The point is why don't we feel the fear associated with these other events. I think it's because our responses are not rational.

The terrorists must be keenly aware of both of these human effects. It's what makes them 'effective' in our eyes. The ability for them to radically alter how we operate (presidents touring damage sites or families building fallout shelters in the 80s) and to create these moments of heightened overblown irrational fears within us. It's a level of control over us.

Likewise we underreact when nothing is happening. How many New Yorkers have more emergency potable water on hand versus emergency wine in case they are going over to someone's house. I'm sure it's everyone. Myself included.

But when you get right down to it the terrorists are on the whole, extremely ineffective. While 9/11 was traumatic, not much has happened since. In the last 4 years we've had something like 3,000 civilian deaths and 1,500 military deaths either directly or indirectly related to the terrorist movement. So a little over 1,000 deaths per year on average at most. I was curious how this compared against leading causes of death. This is from the NCHS. It's 2002 data. Leading causes of death for that year:

Heart Disease: 697,000
Cancer: 557,000
Stroke: 163,000
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 125,000
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 107,000
Diabetes: 70,000
Influenza/Pneumonia: 66,000
Alzheimer's disease: 59,000
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 41,000
Septicemia: 34,000

How many of you know what nephritis or septicemia is? Nephritis is an inflammation of the kidneys so presumably all of those are kidney related diseases. Septicemia is is bacterial poisoning of the blood. Isn't it strange that we know the name Bin Laden but don't know what one of the more likely causes of our death is? 9/11 is much more impactful than septicemia on our lives yet it should be 1/34th as impactful.

The second point is how dumb and unresourceful are these terrorists? Think about this. Assume you were politically motivated to create terror in the U.S. Don't you think after 1 hour of thinking about it you could come up with a whole list of horrible events you could cause with very little money, very little network, and very few people. Look at the terror those 2 snipers in Washington created over the course of a month. While 9/11 was big, we've had nothing since. It's appalling how incompetent they are. It's why I don't worry that I'm going to get taken out by a terrorist event in New York.

The only thing that scares me is that in general the terrorists couldn't be any less effective. If they ever recruit someone slightly resourceful a lot of damage could be done.

1 comment:

rpm said...

the thing that struck me through the entire katrina-porn frenzy was how myopic we are when it comes to disaster and death.

ask people what they think about darfur and the janjaweed, and you'll probably get a blank stare. where? who? we tend to focus on suffering that we think we can understand; everything else just falls by the wayside. somebody else's problem.

it's not that i'm unsympathetic to what has been happening in new orleans, but if we're going to be human, let's not forget about the rest of the world. suffering is far more chronic elsewhere; we just tend to focus on the acute, as you say...