Category Archives: risk

Thoughts on the Terrorist Attacks in Norway

Is it possible to prevent terrorist attacks such as the ones that happened in Norway on Friday?

I’m not going to explore the answer to that question in well-researched detail; rather, I’ll list some thoughts.  Preventing such an attack would require intervening at some point or another.  There are a few possibilities:

  1. In the perpetrator’s youth, to ensure that whatever experiences that caused him to become a sociopath and to lose respect for human life don’t happen
  2. Preventing the perpetrator from obtaining the weapons to be used in the attack
  3. Being there on the scene to stop him just before committing the crime

I don’t think any of these three will work.  #1 seems impractical.  Psychology isn’t an exact science and it isn’t known exactly what turns Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik.  I don’t think #2 will work either.  First off, it’s hard to identify these people (if it weren’t, wouldn’t people have tried to help them before?) so you’d need to take the weapons away from everyone, which isn’t always practical.  Second, I suspect that, if they didn’t have one weapon, they’d use another.  As technology advances, it becomes easier for people to obtain or create things that could be used as destructive weapons, and banning every single possibility would be a major infringement on civil rights.  As for #3, how would anyone know where to be (unless you were in a police state where the police were everywhere anyway)? One possibility is that a lot of these folks that commit these sort of acts leave some sort of message on the Internet explaining themselves; possibly there might be the ability to look for this sort of material, but I suspect that, if this were in place, these folks’ MO would change so that this wouldn’t work anyway.

So, I think the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is “No”.  The risk of these sort of terrorist attacks is unfortunately inevitable in a world that contains 7 billion people.  This huge population makes it more likely that the right (or, more accurately, wrong) combination of circumstances will cause people like Anders Behring Breivik to go down the path that they do, and it makes it more likely that there will be a lot of innocent bystanders in the way when they do unleash their anger.

How significant a problem is this, though? Before I investigate this question further I want to apologise for the tone of the following paragraph.  I’m going to be taking a “big picture” look at these events, and that unfortunately excludes examining the individual suffering of the dead or wounded and their friends and family.  Having said that, it seems that 200 deaths is around an upper limit on the number of people that one person can kill before getting caught.  Timothy McVeigh managed to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City.  The terrorists in the September 11, 2011 attacks managed to kill nearly 3,000 people, but there were 19 of them.  I can’t think of any incident in which a single person managed to kill more than 200 people.  This is because there are so many things that could go wrong that it takes a rare combination of circumstances to ensure that they all go right.

Those with lurid imaginations could probably imagine how these people could have killed more people, but I think it’s likelier that other events would happen that result in more people being saved.  The events that we do hear about on the news were the ones that were (from the terrorist’s perspective, not the world at large) wildly successful.

Not to minimize the individual suffering of the victims and their relatives and friends, but even 200 deaths are not highly significant from a global perspective. Worldwide, around 267 people are born every minute, so the number of people killed in a hypothetical terrorist attack that takes 200 lives are equal to the number of people born worldwide every 45 seconds.  One attack doesn’t have a significant effect on the Earth’s population, and attacks of this magnitude are rare.

Unfortunately this is the way it is because there are so many people on this planet and we currently can’t choose to go somewhere else.  “Animals can be driven crazy by placing too many in too small a pen.  Homo sapiens is the only animal that voluntarily does this to himself” (Robert A. Heinlein).   I hope that, one day, technology will make it possible to go somewhere else and that we don’t have to continue to crowd each other out in the same tiny pen that is the Earth.

Jared Loughner and the Quest for Certainty

Like many people, I’ve read many of the news reports on the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of several other people by Jared Loughner.  Two articles in yesterday’s (Monday) USA Today caught my eye.  The first one, on the front page, asked: “Have nasty politics gotten out of hand?”  This article, among a large number that can be found at various news outlets, essentially asked whether the strong partisanship and anti-government language that have become a hallmark of modern American politics might incite nutjobs like Loughner to violence against politicians.  The majority of readers don’t agree, and with good reason.  Certainly the current political climate preceded the recent shooting, but that doesn’t mean that it was necessarily a cause of the shooting; believing otherwise would commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Of course that doesn’t rule out the possibility that, in this case, it may have happened to be a cause.  So, what should we do?

I don’t think that it makes sense to tone down the nasty political rhetoric simply to prevent violence.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons why nutjobs like Loughner scare people so badly is because of their unpredictability; we just don’t know what will set them off.  Conceivably anything at all could set them off.  However, we can’t just stop doing everything for fear of setting off this very rare breed of person; it doesn’t make sense.

The other thing that I noticed was on the editorial page, a quote from The New Yorker, written by Amy Davidson:  “Where can you take a child in this country?  If to the supermarket, to meet her congresswoman, is no longer on that list, then we are in trouble.”  This seems like a highly irrational idea to me. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, there are around 50 million children aged 11 or under in the United States.  Out of all of these people, only one of them has been killed on a visit to meet his/her congressman/woman.  Odds of 1 in 50 million are pretty good, especially compared with the thousands of children killed each year in automobile accidents.  It’s still safe to go to the mall and see your congressman/woman; this was just an isolated incident.

I think that both of these opinions stem from a single erroneous belief, the belief that a risk-free world is possible. In the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner, he writes about surveys done by Daniel Krewski that found that this incorrect belief is shared by about half of the Canadian population, and that these people expect that the government should protect them completely from all risk in their lives.  While this sounds nice, it simply isn’t possible because everything that one does involves risk.  There has never been a place where you can take a child where there is zero risk of anything bad happening.  If you take your child to see your congresswoman, there may be a tiny risk that they are shot and killed by a nutjob.  If you take them to karate instead, they may get injured performing a karate move, or they could get killed in a car accident on the way there.  If you have them stay at home, they could become obese and die early from diabetes or heart disease, or they could read extremist material on the Internet that triggers them to commit violent crime, or there could be an earthquake and the house could collapse on them.  No matter what you do, the possibility of something bad happening is always there; it’s just that the risk is usually so low that we don’t have to worry about it.  Certainly the chance of getting shot by an insane person is so incredibly low that we don’t need to worry about it.

So, to conclude, don’t change your life just because of Saturday’s shooting.  Just continue doing what you do best. Don’t worry that you’re going to set some nutjob off.  Don’t worry that you’re going to get caught in a shootout. The risk are just too low to waste your life worrying about, and life’s just too short to waste time worrying about stuff that most likely won’t happen to you.