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Commentary: Terror, crime: what are the odds?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2011 - At this very moment, giant boulders are hurtling through outer space at thousands of miles an hour. These potentially lethal rocks are called asteroids and nobody's quite sure how many of them there are.

Astronomers have located and named the larger specimens but they estimate that there may be a million or more with a diameter of 1 kilometer or less prowling the celestial void in anonymity. Every now and then, one of these things will come barreling past the Earth at relatively close range -- an event that usually garners a cursory mention on the evening news.

Should one of these bad boys strike your house while you're sleeping tonight, you can stop worrying about the performance of the assets in your IRA, the solvency of the Social Security system or what to get Aunt Peg for Christmas. You will be toast, your petty concerns rendered moot by their cosmic insignificance.

On the other hand, if you find it difficult to sleep because of the possibility of an asteroid strike, you're suffering from moral panic -- the disproportionate fear of a remote threat. It's not that the hazard isn't real -- it most certainly is -- it's just that the odds against it happening are quite literally astronomical.

Without giving the matter much thought, we conduct our affairs like bookmakers by constantly playing the odds. Throughout the day, we make countless, half-conscious calculations about the likelihood of mishap and behave accordingly. But how accurate is our ability to assess risk?

News reports distort our perspective because they focus on the unusual, a tendency that is at once both understandable and misleading. By definition, that which is new is news. Man bites dog is always a bigger story than its reverse. This emphasis on the aberrant, however, skews our judgment of actual risk.

SARS, bird flu, anthrax poisoning and mad cow disease have all received extensive media coverage. Yet, according to the good folks at figuretheodds.org (the source of stats quoted here, unless otherwise indicated), you are far more likely to be killed by chickenpox than by any of these exotic diseases.

But a simple quotation of the odds doesn't always reveal the true picture. As an American, you have a 1 in 23 million chance of dying from a poisonous snakebite next year. During the same period, there is a 1 in 25,000 chance you'll be murdered with a firearm. You are thus 920 times more likely to be shot to death than to suffer a fatal snakebite.

That fact does not necessarily prove that guns are inherently more dangerous than poisonous snakes. For one thing, our population centers tend to feature a lot more of the former than they do of the latter. And which would you prefer to have at your bedside when you turn in at night: a revolver or a rattlesnake?

The odds are 55 million to 1 against your dying in a fireworks mishap next year. That comforting fact does not indicate that explosives are safe recreational devices. Rather, it probably means that the precautions we've put in place regarding the possession, storage and discharge of the more potent pyrotechnics are reasonably effective. Your chances of being killed in this manner are thus remote precisely because we've designed them to be so.

2,977 innocent people perished in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. That same year, the FBI reports there were 16,037 unrelated domestic murders; 5.4 times as many residents were killed by common criminals than by international terrorists.

Since that time, there have been no further terrorist attacks in the U.S. -- with the probable exception of the anthrax mailings, though that case has never been officially solved. Meanwhile, 162,230 persons were murdered in America during the first 10 years of the 21st century. That means that during the last decade, you were 54.5 times more likely to die at the hands of a criminal offender -- usually someone you know -- than fall victim to terrorism.

Of course, a prime reason that terrorist deaths are rare here is because we've gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent them. We've paid in cash, civil liberties and personal inconvenience for the measures of security we've gained. At what point that bargain becomes dysfunctional, or whether we've failed to do enough are both matters of some conjecture.

The flip-side of moral panic is moral hazard, which is the tendency for individuals to behave carelessly when they believe themselves to be shielded from the consequences of their actions. In the first instance, people exercise an excess of caution to prevent an event that is unlikely to occur. In the second, they recklessly disregard signs of impending doom because they believe themselves to be immune.

We are now in the eleventh year of the so-called war on terror. Because terror is an emotion and terrorism is a methodology, this conflict is unlikely to be concluded any time soon.

It strikes me that the time is nigh for a national dialogue on how best to plot a course between the kindred follies of moral panic and moral hazard. This process would involve somber and informed deliberations by national leaders about the allocation of finite resources to most effectively protect the general population. Given the cast of characters we've sent to D.C., the odds on that happening are not good.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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