Why Lightning Hasn’t Struck Twice

At the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., President Bush triumphantly proclaimed, "There can be no debate about the results [of my decisions] in keeping America safe." According to the president, the fact that America has not been attacked again since Sept. 11, 2001, is "not a matter of luck" – rather, "it’s the result of tough decisions that we began making immediately after September the 11th."

Certainly there can be no debate that President Bush started a war against Iraq – the centerpiece of his Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT – with a price tag of $500 billion and counting. There is no debate that he ushered in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, a new bureaucratic behemoth that has so far cost taxpayers over $280 billion since its inception in 2003. And there is no debate that the Bush administration fostered an environment where constitutional rights can be ignored in the name of counter-terrorism, such as warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens and random searches of subway passengers without probable cause in New York and Washington, D.C. And while it’s true – thankfully – that the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack, whether any of these actions have anything to do with that is debatable.

First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that – even taking into account the 9/11 attacks – the odds of an American being killed by a terrorist attack are relatively low. According to Michael Rothschild, emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin’s business school:

"If a person shopped for two hours each week and terrorists were able to destroy one mall per week, the odds of being at the wrong place at the wrong time would be approximately 1.5 million to 1. If terrorists destroyed one mall each month, the odds would climb to one in 6 million. …

"Let us assume that each week one commercial aircraft were hijacked and crashed. What are the odds that a person who goes on one trip per month would be in that plane? There are currently about 18,000 commercial flights a day, and if that person’s trip has four flights associated with it, the odds against that person’s being on a crashed plane are about 135,000 to 1. If there were only one hijacked plane per month, the odds would be about 540,000 to 1."

John Mueller, the Woody Hayes chair of national security studies at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University and author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, posits that “the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000."

In other words, the Bush administration could have done nothing at all and odds would have been overwhelmingly against anyone being killed by a second terrorist attack after 9/11.

It’s also important to put the odds in perspective. According to Rothschild: "The odds of dying in an automobile accident each year are about one in 7,000, yet we continue to drive. The odds of dying from heart disease in any given year are one in 400 and of dying from cancer one in 600, yet many of us fail to exercise or maintain a healthy diet." The simple act of walking across the street carries the a one in 48,500 risk of being killed in any given year and a lifetime risk of one in 625, significantly greater than the risk of being killed by a terrorist. The odds of dying in an airplane crash are one in 400,000 in any given year and one in 5,000 over a lifetime. And what about being struck by the proverbial bolt of lightning? A one-year risk of one in 6.2 million and a lifetime risk of one in 80,000, about the same as being killed by a terrorist.

Second, we assume with absolute certainty that there would have been another terrorist attack (despite the actual odds). Therefore, we associate the lack of an attack with any and all actions we have taken. To be sure, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan has likely weakened al-Qaeda’s operational capability to carry out a second 9/11 (although the fact remains that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership are still alive and well, and as such, an inspiration to other would-be terrorists, even if they are not card-carrying members of al- Qaeda).

But a plausible – and often ignored – reason why al-Qaeda has not attacked again is that it does not need to. In other words, Osama bin Laden achieved his larger strategic goal with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: He provoked the United States to attack Iraq, a needless invasion and occupation of an Islamic country that motivates Muslims around the world to make America and its allies a target of terrorism. The 2004 Madrid and 2005 London terrorist attacks are evidence to support this thesis. Moreover, it is logistically and operationally easier to carry out attacks "over there" than to cross the ocean to the United States – with much the same effect.

Clearly, it is too late for the Bush administration to learn these important lessons. The mistake for the incoming Obama administration is to believe that what they have learned is that they know how to do a better job. The initial indications are not promising. In a classic case of Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing, but expecting different results – even as plans are being made for drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq, a surge of as many as 30,000 more soldiers is planned for Afghanistan, a policy supported by Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.