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January 19, 2005

Measuring Risk: Al Qaeda v. Disease and Global Warming

In the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I made the heretical statement that "there are many other threats -- yes MORE IMPORTANT than the threat from terrorism -- that we are neglecting in favor of the 'war on terror.'" The point is that disease and environmental catastrophes kill far more people than ever die from wars of any kind. As an example, I noted ten times more Americans died in the 1918 influenza epidemic than during WWI.

None of the warbloggers caught the post at the time, but American Future has now belatedly weighed in with these comments which I think are worth responding to

It's simply impossible to know whether the threats to health and the environment are more serious than the threat of additional terrorism.
While the past never determines the future, the fact that such health and environmental threats have always been more devastating than war in the past is a significant argument. Yet in the past, governments still loved hyping the threat of war to fund armies over dealing with health and environmental threats. Bush is following older patterns -- hyping war to strengthen the government's popularity through fear -- because dealing with long-term problems like the environment and disease inherently don't deliver the same partisan gains.

And of course my point is that if we take the possibility of terrorism seriously enough to spend hundreds of billions, our comparative lack of spending on other serious threats of more certain danger reflects the fact that it is not risk assessment but the ideological gains for the government from hyping the terrorist threat that leads to this disparity.

But terrorism is different, argues American Future:

While there is uncertainty as to its current and prospective capabilities, we know that Al Queda considers it to be a religious duty to acquire nuclear weapons. Only if we succeed in preventing the realization of its intentions will it be true that the health and environmental threats will turn out to be the most serious threats with which we are faced.
So we have a quadruple speculation:
  • that Al Qaeda can acquire nuclear grade material
  • that it can create a usable bomb
  • that it can deliver that bomb to the United States undetected
  • that the explosion will do more harm than environmental and disease threats

    Let's start with the last. The Tsunami we just witnessed killed 115,000 people in Indonesia alone, with up to 75% fatality rates in area of the Aceh province. And disease annually kills more people than a military-grade nuclear weapon likely would in any place other than Manhattan. So a smaller suitcase bomb just doesn't have the death potential that natural threats hold for us. So even when you raise the nuclear scare, Al Qaeda doesn't overpower other threats.

    And of course, that ignores the challenges of Al Qaeda in not having nuclear weapons identified on entry to the US or the even greater challenge of acquiring a nuclear bomb that small. The fact that Saddam Hussein, with all the resources of an oil state, could not acquire nuclear weapons indicates that getting nuclear bombs is not the simple task painted by those hyping the terrorist threat.

    Ironically, the greater threat from terrorism is probably bioterrorism, but the best way to deal with that threat is to seriously ramp up the medical research that would address the whole range of diseases throughout the world. And such research doesn't involve the military hype so useful to politicians. Saluting scientists in white labs is pleasant but it just doesn't have the same evocative political kick, unfortunately.

    Posted by Nathan at January 19, 2005 07:09 AM