Monday, April 23, 2007

Fear, Loathing, and I-95

[Has it been a week already? I'm going to lose both of my readers at this rate. Blame the weather--I've been busy performing hard manual labor.]

Trundling around the hamster wheel, I found hotheaded denial from Michael Chertoff that the War on Terror is so totally not some bullshit made-up campaign, like certain nutty former policy-makers might have you believe. No, those airplane hijackers were part of a global movement, and we must fight it! It's difficult to say which global movement, of course (unless you're bold enough to use the I-word), but it's war, dammit. Meanwhile, John McCain, once a maverickTM and now struggling to recall an identity that seven years of capitulation to the absurd foreign policy justifications took from him, told me on the radio this morning that he's got every confidence that if we don't succeed in the Iraq war, they (Isla-- shhhh!) will follow us home.

At another of my usual stops, twiffer became the 4,097,234th blogger to opine on the Virginia Tech shootings, noting, quite reasonably, that, um, this isn't exactly common and stuff, horrible as it is, and despite what editorialists would prefer to say, maybe we should avoid overreacting.

It's not common. Although Jake Weisberg latches onto the "regularity" of school homicides, school violence is pretty rare. There are, on average, about 20 school-related homicides per year (see the graph), and out of about 60 million Americans between 5 and 19 (according the U.S. Census bureau), that makes the rate of school shooting about 3e-7, on the order of a hundred-thousandth of a percent. A school homicide is nearly a hundred times less likely to occur than a murder in the workplace, according to these data (unsurprising? I see a tradeoff between immaturity vs. availability of weapons, especially for the under 10 set). I've got a thousandth of a percent chance of being gunned down by a disgruntled someone at work in any given year (although maybe a little better than that here).

Roughly speaking, my annual odds of getting killed in a traffic accident are about a hundredth of a percent, or one in ten thousand. That rate is enough that in a moderately-sized community, it'll make for an impressive headline every couple of months when it happens to (hopefully) someone else. I take this as a good point of reference for risk assessment, call it the I-95 test. Driving on the highway represents a sufficiently low level of risk to my life that I consider it basically beneath notice. How does a homicide at school shooting to driving on the highway? My kids are a thousand times safer there than in the car with me.

It's harder to generate a yearly stat on terrorism, of course, at least of the kind that John McCain thinks is lickng its jaws in New York harbor even as I write. How ridiculous depends over how many years you wish to average a one-time event. Even so, in 2001, you had a better chance of having a skyscraper fall on you than having your office-mate go postal, but you were still 200 times more likely to die in a flaming car wreck.

Who should we really be afraid of? It's not like history's got any shortage of shit going bad, and fast. If you're a civilian in Iraq, your odds of dying in combat are about 65 thousand/20 million/4 years, or about a tenth of a percent, a hundred times more likely than I am to rack up my Subaru. The annual odds of dying there as a result of the war is over ten times higher than that, better than one in a hundred, and that's to say nothing of the kidnappings, threats, desperation, poverty, and general lawlessness. You are probably acquainted with a hundred people. That's like taking half a dozen kids from every school in the U.S. and putting a bullet into them.

Anyway, the people telling you that we're in mortal danger over here are the same ones saying everything's just fine turning a corner over there. And no, I don't trust them.

Keifus (This is depressing. I'd never make it as an actuary.)

UPDATE: I guess no one's saying it's peachy in Iraq, and I should be careful about glib reasoning. Okay, early in the war, I remember bullshit about casualties being similar to Detroit murder rates, and just recently there was General Petraeus telling the Washington Post that "Iraq is going to have to learn – as did, say, Northern Ireland – to live with some degree of sensational attacks." But still.

Petraeus' comment is, however, a little hard to stomach, considering the United States' inability to live with any measure at all of sensational attacks is at least one reason we're so busy blowing shit up over there.

Yesterday's news also had an item about a bombing at the Technical University of Baghdad. The radio mentioned some 200 casualties there so far (trying to grab this from memory, OK), and reports have, unsurprisingly, the Iraqi University system in shambles. The casualty rate may be exceeding 1% among what's left of the intelligentsia, but people are still going to the University. Would an annual 1 chance in a hundred of getting killed be enough to keep you away? (Compare it to the roughly 0.00001% shot in the U.S.)

I suppose in Iraq, the odds aren't much better outside of university, and it's not like there's a lot to do. But still.

UPDATE II: I also submitted this article to Wikifray and (especially) Slate, thinking any resident pedants might see some holes in my admittedly rough reasoning. That version of the post ended up being a whole lot more coherent.


LentenStuffe said...

How unpatriotic!

Your reaction is not alarmist enough. Where's your hysteria, man? Don't you love your country enough?

Keifus said...

Not to worry, I've been consuming like mad.

twiffer said...

4,097,234th, eh? see, that's what i get for sitting on it. and doing shit like working, instead of blogging.

i'm so disappointed in myself.

Keifus said...

Well to be fair, the first four million (or so I estimate) were dashed off within five minutes of the news reports by the wannabe newsies.

And for that matter, here I was 8,329,127th.


Keifus said...

P.S. Those rankings are 37.542381% insignificant.

rundeep said...

Well said man. The Iraq war has to go down as one of the greatest overreactions in history. If you believe that terrorism is why we are even there. M'dear, that was just the selling point. We won't find out why we are really there (oil? Oedipal complex? pure arrogance?) for years, when the books come out. Peace.

Keifus said...

Overcompensation? Projection? It depends on how bilious I care to be at the moment, I guess.

Love the icon!