Friday, September 30, 2011

Is terrorism a real threat to the US?

Update: As one individual has pointed out (and this is an important distinction), "homicide" and "murder" are not defined the same. Further, the study suggests that the majority of this is likely to be justifiable homicide. Thus, my "murder" comment was going too far.

After reading the latest comical terrorism plot (the intent may have been real, but the plan was silly), I've decided to take a bit of a side track from my usual posting because terrorism is a subject of special study on my part. I became fascinated with it years ago and have read voraciously on it and am quite dismayed to find out that very few people have any knowledge of the subject, but they have strong opinions about what should be done.

Of course, my background is also economics. Economics is about the best (whatever that means) allocation of scarce resources. So if you think it will be equally easy to prevent two diseases and one kills 1,000 a year and the other kills 10, if all other things are equal, which do you cure? The answer should be obvious.

Moving along, I couldn't help but be fascinated by this 2007 article a study which details deaths in police custody. The report on the study by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (I didn't find the source material) contains a very disturbing bit of information.
The review found 55 percent of the 2,002 arrest-related deaths from 2003 through 2005 were due to homicide by state and local law enforcement officers.
Note that they make this distinct from "killed while fleeing", "committing suicide",  and so on.

So if you do the match, that's an average of about 367 homicides a year committed by the police, or one every day. A homicide every single day. This isn't some radical liberal group making this accusation, it was the Justice Department under President Bush. If terrorists were killing a person a day on US soil, we'd be up in arms over it. Fox News would certainly have a thing or two to say (and for once they might be right).

Now contrast this to the US State Department which reports that there were only 56 deaths of US citizens worldwide from terrorism in 2005.

So even limiting police behavior to the US compared to terrorism behavior everywhere, in 2005 you were still around seven times more likely to be murdered by police than by terrorists. But why did I compare US activity to worldwide activity? Because if you only consider US deaths from terrorism, the comparison becomes a joke.

According to this FBI report on 2002-2005 terrorism activity on US soil, we had:
  • Two deaths from terrorism related activity in 2002.
  • No deaths from terrorism related activity in 2003.
  • No deaths from terrorism related activity in 2004.
  • No deaths from terrorism related activity in 2005.
While some of this is undoubtedly due to the excellent work our law enforcement officials are engaged in, those same law enforcement officials are murdering Americans at the rate of one a day.

Or they're macing non-violent protestors in New York City right now.

Part of the issue lies in the breakdown of the US judicial system. So many Americans are gung ho about punishment (without thinking about the consequences) and support zero tolerance policies that an extraordinary amount of power has been given to the police without question. And then we punish people with mandatory sentences, not considering the circumstances, such as the homeless man sentenced to life in prison for stealing food. Contrast this to Oregon's Measure 94 which allows someone convicted of attempted murder to spend as little as 2 years and 10 months in prison. Life in prison for a attempted theft of a sandwich versus 34 months for attempted murder.

And how has our harsh crackdown on crime helped? Well, we still have gobs of crime, but the US also has far and away the highest per capita prison population in the world, easily worse than Iran, China, Russia or many other countries we might think have worse crime or more oppressive governments.

But to really nail the point home, we can read well-known security expert Bruce Schneir's article about why there aren't more terrorist attacks on US soil. Part of this is law enforcement, but part of it should be painfully obvious: there just aren't that many terrorists on US soil.

But maybe we think the threat of Muslim extremists is so prevalent that we simply cannot take chances. Except that the FBI report on US terrorism from 1980 to 2005 shows that 94% of terrorist attacks on US soil weren't inspired by Islam. In fact, Jewish extremists committed more terrorist attacks against Americans in this timeframe.

Naturally, the thousands of deaths on 9/11 will be used as a rebuttal and it's a hard one to deal with at that. Take that event away and terrorism in the US is insignificant compared to the threat from our own police. Add that in and rational thought on the subject goes away. That's why we had a 9/11 Commission Report with thirteen sections, fifty-five subsections, three appendices, 567 pages, written after reviewing 2.5 million pages of documents, interviewing 1,200 individuals in ten countries and interviewing most senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations — and summing up the motivations for the attack in a single vague paragraph.

And what's the reason for the attack? Ultimately, the vast majority of anti-US terror stems from one simple premise: leave us alone. It's an appallingly simple solution to a problem that's not going to go away otherwise. However, the world dependence on oil means that the world is going to heavily focus on maintaining influence and directing events in those countries with plenty of oil (nobody would give a damn about Hugo Chavez were it not for Venezuela's oil).

So while the US is so incredibly focused on a relatively minor threat from abroad, we continue to ignore a very real problem at home. Remember how Rodney King only received justice because the police attack on him was filmed? Now the police are arresting people who film them, even though such activity is generally not illegal.

I believe the vast majority of police in the US are decent, hard-working individuals who have one of the most difficult (and dangerous) jobs in the country, but this doesn't mean that oversight should not be allowed. Nor does it mean that we should forgive their excesses. We do enough of that already and we see the result: a murder a day.
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