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Friday, April 09, 2010

But What If Al Qaeda Crashes An Asteroid Into NYC?

3 years ago I wrote:

Let's see...spend $1B between now and 2020 to locate objects that could wipe out a state, a coast or even the entire world, and has perhaps a 45,000 to 1 chance of doing so.  Compare to the $93.3B we allocated to the so-called Global War on Terrorism just in FY2006 to combat something that at best (or worst, I guess) has a 540,000 to 1 chance of occurring and will be nowhere as devastating.  Has anybody calculated the ROI on all of this?

Foreign Affairs goes into a bit more detail today (though inexplicably omits discussion of The ELE Asteroid Threat):

An unacceptable risk is often called de manifestis, meaning of obvious or evident concern -- a risk so high that no "reasonable person" would deem it acceptable. A widely cited de manifestis risk assessment comes from a 1980 United States Supreme Court decision regarding workers' risk from inhaling gasoline vapors. It concluded that an annual fatality risk -- the chance per year that a worker would die of inhalation -- of 1 in 40,000 is unacceptable. This is in line with standard practice in the regulatory world. Typically, risks considered unacceptable are those found likely to kill more than 1 in 10,000 or 1 in 100,000 per year.

At the other end of the spectrum are risks that are considered acceptable, and there is a fair degree of agreement about that area of risk as well. For example, after extensive research and public consultation, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided in 1986 that the fatality risk posed by accidents at nuclear power plants should not exceed 1 in 2 million per year and 1 in 500,000 per year from nuclear power plant operations. The governments of Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom have come up with similar numbers for assessing hazards. So did a review of 132 U.S. federal government regulatory decisions dealing with public exposure to environmental carcinogens, which found that regulatory action always occurred if the individual annual fatality risk exceeded 1 in 700,000. Impressively, the study found a great deal of consistency among a wide range of federal agencies about what is considered an acceptable level of risk.

There is a general agreement about risk, then, in the established regulatory practices of several developed countries: risks are deemed unacceptable if the annual fatality risk is higher than 1 in 10,000 or perhaps higher than 1 in 100,000 and acceptable if the figure is lower than 1 in 1 million or 1 in 2 million. Between these two ranges is an area in which risk might be considered "tolerable." 


Because they are so blatantly intentional, deaths resulting from terrorism do, of course, arouse special emotions. And they often have wide political ramifications, as citizens demand that politicians "do something." Many people therefore consider them more significant and more painful to endure than deaths by other causes. But quite a few dangers, particularly ones concerning pollution and nuclear power plants, also stir considerable political and emotional feelings, and these have been taken into account by regulators when devising their assessments of risk acceptability. Moreover, the table also includes another kind of hazard that arouses strong emotions and is intentional -- homicide -- and its frequency generally registers, unlike terrorism, in the unacceptable category.

In order to deal with the emotional and political aspects of terrorism, a study recently conducted for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggested that lives lost to terrorism should be considered twice as valued as those lost to other hazards. That is, $1 billion spent on saving one hundred deaths from terrorism might be considered equivalent to $1 billion spent on saving two hundred deaths from other dangers. But even with that generous (and perhaps morally questionable) bias, or even with still more generous ones, counterterrorism expenditures fail a standard cost-benefit assessment.

We were just discussing responses to risk in my infosec class yesterday: you can address, transfer, accept or reject it.  We also talked about the human emotional issues that make rationally dealing with risk difficult.  This article is quite timely.

I personally would put terrorism in the 'acceptable' category.  That's not to say that I wouldn't try to address the root causes, where there are other moral imperatives at play.  But spending trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan to murder innocent civilians and maybe the #3 guy in Al Qaeda?  That makes no security sense.

Sadly, the political climate is such that one must flex one's muscle on the terrorist bogeyman, lest you look like you're asking a kid to punch you in the face at the playground.  Such is our immature, irrational, very childish state of discourse today.

We should be spending that money on jungle gyms, universal healthcare, jobs programs, alternative energy and even "frivolous" things like going back to the Moon.  Oh, and maybe better screening to prevent smokers from disrupting air travel.


April 9, 2010 in Why We Fight | Permalink


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