The Wall Street Journal's Innumeracy
By David Henderson
“Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents and falls in bathtubs do,” reports Jeffrey Goldberg in a lengthy profile of the President’s national-security thinking in the Atlantic magazine. Islamic State, Mr. Obama is quoted as telling adviser Valerie Jarrett, is “not coming here to chop our heads off.”
This is a quote from an unsigned editorial by the Wall Street Journal‘s editors, “An Inordinate Fear of Terrorism?”, WSJ, March 22, 2016 (print edition is March 23.) Hat tip to Richard Reinsch of our sister site Library of Law and Liberty. Somehow I had missed it at the time.
In making this point, Obama is being numerate, making the same point that Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller made in his modern classic, “A False Sense of Insecurity,” Regulation, Fall 2004. Here’s the key passage from Mueller that’s similar to Obama’s point:
Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.
The Journal‘s editors didn’t challenge these numbers. They pointed out, citing the Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, that the number of terrorist deaths worldwide in 2015 was a whopping 32,685. What they didn’t point out, from the same study they cited, was this:
Over the last 15 years there have been a number of large and devastating terrorist attacks in Western countries. This includes the September 11 attacks which killed 2,996 people, the Madrid train bombings which killed 191, the Norwegian massacre which killed 77 and the London bombings which killed 56. However, it is important to compare these significant events with the more persistent and severe impacts of terrorism occurring in the rest of the world.
Attacks in Western countries accounted for a small percentage incidents, representing 4.4 per cent of terrorist incidents and 2.6 per cent of deaths over the last 15 years. The four large attacks listed above make up 91 percent of deaths from terrorism in the West during this period.
In other words, Obama’s sense of the numbers is basically correct.
I am not defending Obama’s actions. He often talks a way better game than he plays. I am defending his numeracy.
But the Journal‘s editors seem to think they have administered the coup de grace with these two sentences:
The economic cost, the IEP adds, is somewhere north of $52 billion, plus another $114 billion that various countries budget for counterterrorism efforts. Last we checked, nobody was spending that kind of money on bathtub safety.
Exactly. But that doesn’t cause the Journal‘s editors to reconsider their views on counterterrorism. Should be look forward to a future WSJ editorial entitled “An Inordinate Fear of Bathtubs?”