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A Skeptical Look at September 11th


Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 26.5, September / October 2002

At the one-year anniversary, we examine reactions to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the context of other causes of premature deaths. An objective of terrorism is to multiply damage by inducing irrational fears in the broad population. One defense is to learn to evaluate such situations more objectively.

Human beings might be expected to value each life, and each death, equally. We each face numerous hazards-war, disease, homicide, accidents, natural disasters-before succumbing to “natural” death. Some premature deaths shock us far more than others. Contrasting with the 2,800 fatalities in the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 (9/11), we barely remember the 20,000 Indian earthquake victims earlier in 2001. Here, we argue that the disproportionate reaction to 9/11 was as damaging as the direct destruction of lives and property. Americans can mitigate future terrorism by learning to respond more objectively to future malicious acts. We do not question the visceral fears and responsible precautions taken during the hours and days following 9/11, when there might have been even worse attacks. But, as the first anniversary of 9/11 approaches, our nation’s priorities remain radically torqued toward homeland defense and fighting terrorism at the expense of objectively greater societal needs. As we obsessively and excessively beef up internal security and try to dismantle terrorist groups worldwide, Americans actually feed the terrorists’ purposes.

Every month, including September 2001, the U.S. highway death toll exceeds fatalities in the WTC, Pentagon, and four downed airliners combined. Just like the New York City firefighters and restaurant workers, last September’s auto crash victims each had families, friends, critical job responsibilities, and valued positions in their churches and communities. Their surviving children, also, were left without one parent, with shattered lives, and much poorer than the 9/11 victims’ families, who were showered with 1.5 million dollars, per fatality, from the federal government alone. The 9/11 victims died from malicious terrorism, arguably compounded by poor intelligence, sloppy airport security, and other failed procedures we imagined were protecting us. While few of September’s auto deaths resulted from malice, neither were they “natural” deaths: most also resulted from individual, corporate, and societal choices about road safety engineering, enforcement of driving-while-drunk laws, safe car design, and so on.

A Lack of Balance

Why does 9/11 remain our focus rather than the equally vast carnage on the nation’s highways or Indian earthquake victims? Some say, “Oh, it was a natural disaster and nothing could be done, while 9/11 was a malicious attack.” Yet better housing in India could have saved thousands. As for malice, where is our concern for the 15,000 Americans who die annually by homicide? Apparently, the death toll doesn't matter, not if people die all at once, not even if they die by malicious intent. We focus on 9/11, of course, because these attacks were terroristic and were indelibly imprinted on our consciousness by round-the-clock news coverage. Our apprehension was then amplified when just a half dozen people died by anthrax. Citizens apparently support the nation’s sudden, massive shift in priorities since 9/11. Here, we ask “Why?”

Suppose we had reacted to 9/11 as we did to last September’s auto deaths. That wouldn't have lessened the destroyed property, lost lives and livelihoods, and personal bereavement of family and associates of the WTC victims. But no billions would have been needed to prop up airlines. Local charities wouldn't have suffered as donations were redirected to New York City. Congress might have enacted prescription drug benefits, as it was poised to do before 9/11. Battalions of National Guardsmen needn't have left their jobs to provide a visible “presence” in airports. The nation might not have slipped into recession, with resulting losses to businesses, workers, and consumers alike. And the FBI might still be focusing on rampant white-collar crime (think Enron) rather than on terrorism. While some modest measures (e.g., strengthening cockpit doors) were easy to implement, may have inhibited some “copycat” crimes, and may even lessen future terrorism, we believe that much of the expensive effort is ineffective, too costly to sustain, or wholly irrelevant.

Some leaders got it right when they implored Americans after 9/11 to return to their daily routines, for otherwise “the terrorists will win.” Unfortunately, such exhortations seemed aimed at rescuing the travel industry rather than articulating a broad vision of how to respond to terrorism. We advocate that most of us more fully “return to normal life.” We suggest that the economic and emotional damage unleashed by 9/11, which touched the lives of all Americans, resulted mostly from our own reactions to 9/11 and the anthrax scare, rather than from the objective damage. We recognize that our assertion may seem inappropriate to some readers, and we are under no illusion that natural human reactions to the televised terrorism could have been wholly averted and redirected. We, too, gaped in horror at images of crashing airplanes and we contributed to WTC victims. But from within the skeptical community there could emerge a more objective, rational alternative to post-9/11. Citizens could learn to react more constructively to future terrorism and to balance the terrorist threat against other national priorities. It could be as important to combat our emotional vulnerability to terrorism as to attack Al Qaeda.

Terrorism, by design, evokes disproportionate responses to antisocial acts by a malicious few. By minimizing our negative reactions, we might contribute to undermining terrorists’ goals as effectively as by waging war on them or by mounting homeland defenses. We do not “blame the victims” for the terrorists’ actions. Rather, we seek that we citizens, the future targets of terrorism, be empowered. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We can help ensure that terrorists don't win if we can minimize our fears and react more constructively to future terrorism. We don't suggest that this option is easy or will suffice alone. It may not even be possible. But human beings often best succeed by being rational when their emotions, however tenacious and innate, have let them down.

Death and Statistics

It is a maxim that one needless or untimely death is one too many. So 20,000 victims should be 20,000 times worse. But our minds don't work that way. Given the national outpouring of grief triggered by the estimated 6,500 WTC deaths, one might have expected celebration in late October when it was realized that fewer than half that many had died. But there were no headlines like “3,000 WTC Victims Are Alive After All!” The good news was virtually ignored. Weeks later, many - including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - continued to speak of “over 5,000 deaths” on 9/11.

To researchers in risk perception, this is natural human behavior. We are evolved from primitive nomads and cave dwellers who never knew, personally, more than the few hundred people in their locales. Until just a few generations ago, news from other lands arrived sporadically via sailors; most people lived and died within a few miles of where they were born. Tragedies invariably concerned a known, nearby person. With the globalization of communication, the world-not just our local valley-has entered our consciousness. But our brains haven't evolved to relate, personally, to each of 6 billion people. Only when the media singles out someone-perhaps an “average layperson” or maybe a tragic exception like JonBenet Ramsey-do our hearts and minds connect.

When an airliner crashes, and reporters focus on a despairing victims’ spouse or on the last cellular phone words of a doomed traveler, our brains don't think statistically. We imagine ourselves in that airplane seat, or driving to the airport counseling center when our loved one’s plane is reported missing. Actually, 30,000 U.S. commercial flights occur each day. In 2001, except for September 11th and November 12th (when an airliner crashed in Queens, New York, killing more passengers and crew than in the four 9/11 crashes combined), no scheduled, U.S. commercial air trips resulted in a single passenger fatality. Indeed, worldwide airline accidents in 2001-including 9/11-killed fewer passengers than during an average year. But statistics can't compete with images of emergency workers combing a crash site for body parts with red lights flashing. We are gripped by fear as though the tragedy happened in our own neighborhood, and another might soon happen again.

Some responses to 9/11 were rational. Soon after jumbo jets were used as flying bombs, workers in landmark skyscrapers might reasonably have feared that their building could be next. With radical Muslims preaching that Americans must be killed, it might behoove us to avoid conspicuous or symbolic gatherings like Times Square on New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl. Surely disaster managers must plug security loopholes that could permit thousands or millions more to be killed. But when police chiefs of countless middle American communities beef up security for their anonymous buildings, and search fans entering hundreds of sports fields to watch games of little note, official reactions to terrorism have run amok. To imagine that Al Qaeda’s next target might be the stadium in, say, Ames, Iowa, is far-fetched indeed.

Finite Resources, Infinite Alarm

Americans’ WTC fears only grew when six people died from mailed anthrax. Postal officials patiently explained that public risks were minimal. But millions donned gloves to open their mail or gingerly threw out unopened mail; post offices rejected letters lacking return addresses; urgent mail was embargoed; and for weeks the national dialog centered on one of the least hazards we face. An NPR radio host asked the Postmaster General if the whole U.S. Postal System might be shut down, despite expert opinion that-in a world faced with diabetes, salmonella poisoning, and AIDS-anthrax will remain (even as a biological weapon) a bit player as a cause of death. Its sole potency is in the context of terrorism: if, by mailing lethal powder to someone, the news media choose to broadcast hysteria into every home so that the very future of our postal system is questioned, then the terrorist has deployed a powerful weapon indeed. But his power would be negated if we were to react to the anthrax in proportion to its modest potential for harm.

Research on risk perception has shown that our reactions to hazards don't match the numerical odds. We fear events (like airliner crashes) that kill many at once much more than those that kill one at a time (car accidents). We fear being harmed unknowingly (by carcinogens) far more than by things we feel we control ourselves (driving or smoking). We fear unfamiliar technologies (nuclear power) and terrorism far more than prosaic hazards (household falls). Such disproportionate attitudes shape our actions as public citizens. Accordingly governments spend vastly more per life saved to mitigate highly feared hazards (e.g., on aircraft safety) than on “everyday” risks (e.g., food poisoning). Risk analysts commonly accept, with neutral objectivity, the disparity between lay perceptions and expert risk statistics. Sometimes it is justifiable to go beyond raw statistics. Depending on our values, we might be more concerned about unfair deaths beyond an individual’s control than self-inflicted harm. We might worry more about deaths of children than of elderly people with limited life expectancies. We might dread lingering, painful deaths more than sudden ones. We might be more troubled about “needless” deaths, with no compensating offsets, than about fatalities in the name of a larger good (e.g., of soldiers or police). Or, in all these cases, we might not.

Why should terrorism command our exceptional attention? That the 9/11 terrorists maliciously attacked the symbolic and actual seats of our economic and military power (WTC/Wall Street and the Pentagon) should concern us if we truly think that future attacks might destroy our society. But who believes that? Government responses seem directed mostly at stopping future similar attacks . . . which returns us full circle to the question: why should that have become our primary national goal, at the sacrifice of tens of billions of dollars, of some of our civil liberties, of our travelling convenience, and of many of our pre-9/11 priorities?

Instead of rationally apportioning funds to the worst or most unfair societal predicaments, homeland security budgets soar. Nearly every airport administrator, city emergency management director, mayor, legislator, school district supervisor, tourist attraction manager, and plant operations foreman felt compelled after 9/11 to “cover their asses” by visibly enhancing their facility’s security. Superfluous barricades were erected, search equipment purchased, and guards hired. Postage rates and delivery delays increase as envelopes are searched for anthrax. Even the governor of West Virginia announced a “West Virginia Watch” program; while some vigilance in that state does no harm, it is unlikely that Wheeling is high on Osama bin Laden’s target list.

Meanwhile, programs unrelated to “homeland security” suffer. Finite medical resources were diverted to comforting people that their flu symptoms weren't anthrax . . . or testing to see if they were. Charitable funds that would have nurtured the homeless flowed, instead, to wealthy families of deceased Wall Street traders. Funds for education and pollution control go instead to “securing” public buildings and events. Billions of extra tax dollars are spent on military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than on enhancing American productivity. If we truly believe in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that each life is precious, we must resist selfish forces that would take advantage of our fears and squander our energies and fiscal resources on overblown security enhancements.

Many say that spending for extra security can do no harm. But there is harm when politicians act on views, like those of a New Yorker who earlier this year disparaged complaints about airport queues, saying, “I hope that they will be inconvenienced, and will always be inconvenienced, because we should never forget the 5,000 [sic] who died.” “Inconvenience” sounds innocuous, but it means lost time, lost money, lost productivity, as well as increased frustration and cynicism. Disproportionate expenditures on marginal security efforts take attention, time, and resources away from other more productive enterprises. Moreover, our civil liberties are eroded by the involuntary nature of our “sacrifices.” When a person irrationally fears crowded elevators and takes the stairs instead, only that person suffers the inconvenience of their personal response. But when everyone, fearful or not, is forced to suffer because of the fears of others, then such measures become tyrannical: we should expect rational deliberation and justifications by our leaders before accepting them. But in the aftermath of 9/11, tens of billions of dollars were immediately reallocated with little public debate. Skeptics might well question our society’s acquiescence to popular hysteria and proactively challenge our leaders to balance the expenditures of our resources.

Misperceptions of Risk

Consider some misperceptions of risk. Many news headlines just before 9/11 concerned shark attacks and the disappearance of Chandra Levy, an extreme distortion of serious societal issues (only ten people annually are killed by sharks worldwide). We can laugh at, or bemoan, the triviality of the media. But such stories reflect our own illogical concerns. If, in allocating funds among different hazards, we deliberately choose to value the lives of Manhattan skyscraper office workers, postal employees, or airline frequent flyers more than we value the lives of agricultural workers or miners, it is a conscious, informed choice. But it is rarely objectivity that informs such choices. In order to help laypeople and leaders to put our options into perspective, skeptics, teachers, and journalists alike have a responsibility to put the objective past and potential threats from terrorism into contexts that ordinary people can relate to.

Let’s compare 9/11 with other past and potential causes of mass death. Note that we generally can't compare prevention costs with lives saved; at best, we can compare expenditures with lives not saved. For example, we can compare the cost of air traffic control with midair collision fatalities, but we can only guess at the toll without any such air traffic control.

To us, these comparisons suggest that the nation’s post-9/11 expenditures have been lopsidedly large, and that a balanced approach would “give back” some funds to reduce deaths from falls, suicide, murder, highway accidents, natural disasters (including even asteroid impacts), malnutrition, and preventable or curable diseases . . . and give back our civil liberties, and just the plain pleasures of life, such as the arts and humanities, exploration, and national parks. And if truly effective means to end wars could be found, they would be especially worthy of funds, given the death toll from twentieth century wars. Before homeland security becomes dominated by vested bureaucracies and constituencies, there may yet be time to question its dominant role in our priorities.

We advocate shifting toward objective cost-benefit analyses and equitable evaluation of the relative costs of saving human lives. Of course, subjective judgements have some validity beyond strict adherence to numerical odds. But we need a national dialog to address these issues dispassionately so that future governmental decisions can eschew immediate, impulsive reactions. Individual skeptics, in our own lives, can exemplify sensible choices. Among the many dumb things we should avoid (e.g., smoking, driving without a seatbelt, or letting kids play with firearms), we must also avoid driving instead of flying, acquiescing uncomplainingly to ineffective searches at local buildings and events, and generally yielding to the new “homeland security” mania. Clear thinking about risks, rather than saying that “any improvement in security is worth it,” can reduce our societal vulnerability to terrorism.

One constructive antidote to post-9/11 trauma is to enhance the information available and to foster sound appreciation, evaluation, and use of the information. Life is inherently risky, unpredictable, and subject to things we cannot know...but there are things we do know and can understand. Rather than scaring people about sharks, serial killers, and anthrax, the mass media could help people understand the real risks in their everyday environments and activities. Educational institutions should help students develop critical skills necessary to make rational choices. While avoiding intrusions into personal liberties, government could nevertheless collect and assess statistical data in those arenas (like air travel) where potential dangers lurk, concentrating protective efforts and law enforcement where it is most efficacious.

To conclude, we suggest that most homeland security expenditures, which in the zero-sum budget game are diverted from other vital purposes, are terribly expensive and disproportionate to competing needs for preventing other causes of death and misery in our society. While prudent, focused improvements in security are called for, the sheer costs of most security initiatives greatly distort the way we address the many threats to our individual and collective well-being. Our greatest vulnerability to terrorism is the persisting, irrational fear of terrorism that has gripped our country. We must start behaving like the informed, reasoning beings we profess to be.


The authors are grateful to many friends and colleagues, especially David Morrison, for comments and criticisms that helped us to frame these issues.

Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris

Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris are research scientists at Southwest Research Institute (Boulder, Colorado) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California), respectively. They developed their perspectives on hazards from researching what is perhaps the lowest probability but highest consequence hazard of all: the potential end of human civilization due to impact of an asteroid or comet. Direct correspondence to or