Safety in Numbers

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Yesterday, a bloodthirsty man drove a truck down a sidewalk in Manhattan, killing eight people. Are your friends in New York City okay? I can virtually guarantee it. Yes.

What happened yesterday was awful. This is not a post about whether or not terrorism is bad. This is a post about how we react to terrorism. The purpose of terrorism is to make you terrified. Usually, in the wake of terrorist attacks, our public officials brashly pay lip service to our refusal to be terrified—we had the Halloween parade anyhow! Take that, ISIS!—while they act very terrified indeed, launching endless global wars and implementing bureaucratic surveillance states and generally overreacting to the detriment of us all.


Allow me to simply point out that we do not need to just act like we are not scared of terrorism; we do not need to be scared of terrorism. Yesterday, the death of eight people in Manhattan caused those of us who live and work here to receive countless “You okay?” texts, and Facebook to encourage people to “check in” and publicly verify their safety. There are about 1.6 million people in Manhattan. (More, including commuters and tourists, but we’ll keep this conservative.) That means there is a 99.9995% chance that a randomly selected person in Manhattan was not killed by yesterday’s terrorist attack. That type of percentage is why the term “virtual certainty” was invented.

In other words: Yes, we’re okay.

About three people have been shot each day in New York City in recent years. Were you shot? No. No need to text or call. There is a 99.99% chance that you, a New York City resident, were not one of the thousand or so people shot last year. (And you definitely were not shot by a terrorist last year.) On September 11, 2001, the greatest terrorist attack in the history of America killed 2,753 people in Manhattan. Those people lived all over the New York City metropolitan area, a region with a population of around 20 million. Even on our darkest day, 99.99% of the people in the region most directly affected were not killed by terrorists.

Terrorism is just not something to be afraid of. Heart disease? Cancer? Chronic lower respiratory disease? Yes. Those things will kill you. But terrorism? The odds are so small that it is not a serious possibility. It is primarily a psychological challenge, and our public policy response should focus primarily on educating people on the fact that they do not need to fear death by terrorists. If you are the nervous sort of person who wants to check up on your friends when you hear they might have been in danger, give them a call to make sure alive every time they finish driving.

On the other hand, more than 260,000 people have died violent deaths as the direct result of the Iraq War, which we launched in retaliation for 9/11.


Terrorism isn’t the dangerous thing. Our overreaction to terrorism is. That’s why terrorism works.