A Philosopher's Blog

Death & Terror

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2010
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While Obama’s has tempered down the rhetoric regarding the war on terror, the United States continues to dump vast sums of money into this war. A large chunk of the cash goes to contractors who profit rather nicely from this ongoing “war.”

While I do agree that we should be on our guard against danger, the amount spent on protecting us from something should be relative to the actual extent of the threat. While politicians and pundits love to scare us about terrorists, the rational way to assess the relative threat is to look at the numbers. Here are some figures from 2006 showing the breakdown of what kills Americans:


All causes  ………………………..   2,426,264
1  Diseases of heart ………..     631,636
2  Malignant neoplasms ……………..   559,888
3  Cerebrovascular diseases  …………… 137,119
4  Chronic  lower  respiratory diseases ………   124,583
5  Accidents  (unintentional  injuries)  ….    121,599
6  Diabetes mellitus  ……………….   72,449
Alzheimer’s disease…………………    72,432
8  Influenza and pneumonia …………..     56,326
9  Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis .  .  .  45,344
10  Septicemia  ………………….    34,234
11  Intentional self-harm  (suicide) …..     33,300
12  Chronic  liver disease and cirrhosis ……    27,555
13  Essential hypertension and hypertensive  renal  disease  …………………..23,855
14  Parkinson’s disease………………19,566
15  Assault  (homicide)……..   18,573
All other causes  (residual) ………………..   447,805

As the list shows, terrorism doesn’t make it into the top 15. In fact, when it comes to violent death, the top killers of Americans are Americans (suicide or homicide).

So, what do these numbers entail?

First, it makes more sense to be worried that someone you know will commit suicide or be murdered by another American than it does to worry about him/her being killed by terrorists. Also, if you want to worry about death, you should be most worried about health related issues rather than terrorists.

Second, if the state is supposed to protect citizens from harm (and death is a harm), then the state should be focused more on health care, suicide prevention and crime prevention than on terrorism.  By the numbers, all of the above are much more serious threats to Americans.

One obvious reply is that the terrorists might be planning some massive attack that will kill thousands or even millions of Americans. Therefore, the spending and concern about terrorism is justified.

Of course, the obvious reply to this is that there might be some health disaster (some new plague, for example) just around the corner. As such, that should be a top priority for our spending and concern. After all, we know for a fact that plagues and pandemics have occurred and that they can devastate the human population far more than a war. So, if we are going to trot out nightmare scenarios, the horseman of disease should be taken as leading the others.

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23 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on June 23, 2010 at 10:39 am

    While I agree with your position, I think it is important to point out that all manners of death are not equal — that is, two deaths to heart disease are not equivalent to two deaths to explosion.

    This hasn’t to do with the ‘quality’ of the death to the deceased — dead is dead, after all — but rather with its impact, direct and indirect, on those still alive.

    Just as force is more or less damaging depending on how concentrated or dispersed it is — the difference is between vigorously applying the flat of a blade and vigorously applying its edge — individual deaths are more damaging the more concentrated they are in space and time.

    Hence, causes of death that result in diffuse casualties are less harmful to the whole.

    • Kernunos said, on June 23, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      I suppose the impact would depend on what you were used to. In Isreal explosions are more common than in the US. Automobile deaths are an example of how we have gotten so used to violent deaths of a sort. I’m not sure what the current number is but the last I remember was 44,000 people die due to automobile accidents on US highways every year. It does not seem to get much press either.

      • Asur said, on June 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm

        Remember also the impact on infrastructure.

        Calling in to work sick is an example; if a few employees do so every day for a month, the sum impact will be less than if the same total number of absences are condensed into a few days’ time.

        In the latter, the business is more likely to be significantly impaired and to experience collateral negative effects — such as dissatisfied shoppers changing loyalty to competitors.

    • freddiek said, on June 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm

      The deaths of those 631k had serious impact on those still alive. Is that less harmful to “the whole”? I assume yes, but only insofar as we refuse to view each man as a “piece of the continent, a part of the main.” If we’re all “islands”, which a certain element thinks we should be–isolated, individual, self-serving, having no responsibility for others, me, me, me– then 631k is a mere figure. And two people fragmented by a car bomb are more harmful to the whole.

      Donne wrote “Each man’s death diminishes me.” If the death is the measure, then 631k deaths diminish us 315.5 times more than two deaths.

      But there’s the issue of the nature of the death. Is it by natural causes? Or does it result from some insanely evil attempt to follow the dictates of some ideological fool, some gang leader, or . . .?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

      Good point. Terror deaths, by definition, scare people more than the “natural causes” death. Reading that folks have heart attacks or die of some disease at an old age is not as vivid as seeing media clips of explosions and hearing pundits and politicians scream in terror & rage. Of course, this reaction is what makes terror effective.

  2. magus71 said, on June 24, 2010 at 9:14 am

    “Second, if the state is supposed to protect citizens from harm (and death is a harm), then the state should be focused more on health care, suicide prevention and crime prevention than on terrorism. By the numbers, all of the above are much more serious threats to Americans.”

    Far, far more is spent on these than the war on Terror.

    Don’t forget Mike, that under Eisenhower we spent 60% of our federal budget on the military. And that was after he fought to lower the spending. We spend much less now.

    Money is not the problemn with the health care system. Take away money from the military and there is an immediate, negative affect.

    Sometimes, you just don’t need to spend so much on the military….

    How do we know what would happen if we stopped fighting?

    It’s easy–just look no further than Rwanda and Somalia. Check out how many people die from malaria. How many die from it in the US?

    we’re doing fine.

    • Asur said, on June 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm

      The object isn’t to be better than terrible, but as best as possible.

      • Kernunos said, on June 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm

        Well, that is very subjective isn’t it?

        • Asur said, on June 24, 2010 at 5:59 pm

          In the same way that F=ma is subjective.

          • Kernunos said, on June 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm

            Are you implying that you can measure Impact=psychological effects X number of people affected as if it were a scientific equation? No wonder there are people believe global warming(is debatable) is man made(which is impossible to quantify).

            • Asur said, on June 25, 2010 at 4:51 pm

              Heh, no, there’s nothing special about F=ma aside from that I chose it as an example.

              The parallel is that while F=ma contains contextually dependent variables, both they and the relation between them are measurable, i.e. objective.

              Likewise, the variable to which ‘to be as best as possible’ is contextually dependent on is the endeavor at hand, and, just as mass and acceleration are relationally defined, so too is the ‘best’ in each given context, and so too is it measurable in relation to other outcomes.

              Hence, the statements are equally subjective…which is to say, not at all.

              Perhaps, though, you intended that the criteria by which ‘best’ is judged is itself arbitrary.

              If so, I would be happy to engage you on that; based on your subsequent concessions, we would find either that 1) everything is arbitrary and hence that ‘arbitrary’ is meaningless as a distinction, or 2) we would arrive at an objective standard by which to determine ‘best’ in any context.

              It sounds like fun, perhaps we should.

          • Kernunos said, on June 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm

            I apologize. I guess you can measure F=Impact X Number

            “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
            — Obi-Wan Kenobi

            • Asur said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:01 pm

              Ahh, I see, I see…we’ve been replying back and forth in response to different contexts.

              I intended the F=ma example strictly in response to the question of subjectivity in a ‘best’ response.

              If, however, I were to measure impact in relation to the original discussion, I would do so in terms of productivity (personal, interpersonal, systemic, etc.).

      • magus71 said, on June 25, 2010 at 4:42 am

        Really? You think we’re “terrible”.

        Use words carefully.

        How about this than:

        All of the money that went into the stimulus package go toward fighting disease.

        Surely we’d get more than zero back in return.

        • freddiek said, on June 25, 2010 at 7:51 am

          “The object isn’t to be better [that would be US now] than terrible [that would be Rwanda--'them' etc. etc.], but as best as possible [that would be what we should always be striving to be]“. That’s what I think he intended. . .not that we’re “terrible”.

          Plenty of arguments could be made that over the last 10-20 years or so we’ve not been “striving to be” the best that we could be.

          • Asur said, on June 25, 2010 at 11:38 am

            Just so, my response was directed at the complacent ‘we’re doing fine in relation to Somalia and Rwanda.’

            • Kernunos said, on June 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

              Infinitely better to be pseudo scientific about it by my calculations.

        • Kernunos said, on June 25, 2010 at 3:45 pm

          Negative in return by my reckoning.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2010 at 11:18 am

      My point is not that we need to spend more money, but focus more on health care. We already spend a great deal, but get less from it that other nations (per dollar). Focus is not just about the money.

      I never claimed that we should stop fighting. Rather, my view is that the effort should match the threat.

  3. magus71 said, on June 25, 2010 at 4:52 am

    And…almost all people die of a disease. How many of the people you list Mike, died under the age of 40?

    I’d also like to know how many of those diseases are self-inflicted.

    You haven’t proven the impact of spending on disease proliferation, Mike.

    Suicide? The Army is pouring millions into stemming suicide and it’s gotten worse every year. The more they talk about it, the more it happens. Japan is like 5th in the world in suicide rate.

  4. Kernunos said, on June 25, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    “And…almost all people die of a disease. How many of the people you list Mike, died under the age of 40?”

    I was going to make just this point but ran out of time the other night. My wife as a nurse takes care of many people on her floor that die of diseases at 70+. People can use statistics to push whatever they want either for politics or ideology. Just give out the numbers and give or not give related information as needed.

    example and take it for what you will: http://www.gallup.com/poll/141032/2010-Conservatives-Outnumber-Moderates-Liberals.aspx

  5. Kernunos said, on June 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Here is an example on impact that will put this all in perspective.

    “G’Gugvuntts and Vl’hurgs
    Two species which existed in the distant past, a very great distance from the Milky Way galaxy. The G’Gugvuntt were enemies of the Vl’hurgs, and these strange and warlike beings are on the brink of an interstellar war, because of an insult uttered by the G’Gunvuntt leader to the mother of the Vl’hurg leader. They were meeting for the last time, and a dreadful silence filled the air as the Vl’hurg leader was challenging the G’Gunvuntt leader to retract the insult. At the precise moment, the phrase “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle” (muttered by Arthur Dent to himself, which for some strange reason was carried by a freak wormhole in space back in time to the farthest regions of the universe where the G’Gunvuntts and the Vl’hurgs lived) filled the air, which in the Vl’hurg tongue was the most dreadful insult imaginable. It left them no choice but to declare war on the G’Gunvuntts, which went on for a few thousand years and decimated their entire galaxy.

    After millennia of battle the surviving G’Gugvuntt and Vl’hurg realised what had actually happened, and joined forces to attack the Milky Way in retaliation. They crossed vast reaches of space in a journey lasting thousands of years before reaching their target where they attacked the first planet they encountered, Earth. Due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was swallowed by a small dog. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that this sort of thing happens all the time.”- from Wikipedia on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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