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Learning the Right Lessons from Airline Terrorism

I sent a tweet about this topic earlier, but it deserves more than 140 characters.

There are plenty of ongoing investigations about last week’s terrorist attack on the plane from Amsterdam to Detroit.  It seems safe to say that all the facts are not in.  Still, I think this post is on safe ground – there are some parts of the story that seem pretty solid.

One of the biggest mistakes that Bush made after 9/11 was to take the threat of future terrorist action too seriously.  He shut down domestic air travel for days.  That decision had a bigger psychological and economic impact than the actual physical damage of the attack.  Bush ended up inducing more terror in America than bin Laden ever did.

Are we going to learn from that?

The first reaction of the Homeland Security department to the latest attack appears to be incredibly restrictive.  Gawker has a compelling recording of a JetBlue flight’s enforcement of the new rules.  In order to prevent future terrorist attacks, the government is requiring no pillows, blankets, reading materials, TV, or bathroom breaks for the hour before landing.  (It sounds like some of those restrictions are being relaxed, but its not clear how much.)

Let’s review exactly what we’re protecting against.  Nate Silver at did an analysis.  Here’s a summary:

Over the past decade, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States.  There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which terrorist incidents occurred. There have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

When there’s a lighting storm, the average person finds it prudent to seek shelter.  What if I told you that you were 20 times more safe if you sat quietly with your hands in your lap for the duration of the storm.  Would you do it?  Or would you just read a book and not worry about it?

The early evidence is that the current terrorist protection system has holes big enough for an explosive-laden truck to drive through.  It appears that the terrorist was on a watch list and had been denied a visa by Britain.  Its going to be interesting to see what parts of the system designed to catch this guy failed – I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in the future.

Still, all of the early questions are whether or not the government is doing enough.  Millimeter ray inspection of all passengers? Purchasing more explosives detection? Increasing passenger pat downs?  I just don’t understand this reaction.  We have a fundamentally safe system – safer than our highways, even safer than our national lightning protection system.  Why are pundits bemoaning our lack of protections in a system that isn’t failing?

As we learn from this event, I just hope that we learn the right lessons.  Most of us are smart enough to get inside during a thunderstorm.  I worry that our government – and the media – doesn’t know that.


Comment from nora
Time: December 29, 2009, 10:03 am

You leave me scratching my head. I agree, yet, a lightning strike is viewed as an act of god over which we have no control (other than to take shelter – based upon some farily well-recognized warning signals). An act of human being such as trying to blow up an airplane is something over which we will always insist we have control.

Talking about odds whether in terms of a terrorist attack or the likelihood of a mammogram picking up a cancer in a woman under age 50 is irrelevant to the realities of our human nature.

So while I agree, I wish we lived in such a logical world as you. I may be willing to take those risks, but I’m not so bold as to assume the same for anyone else.

Comment from Sean
Time: December 29, 2009, 11:37 am

If we’re busy shaking sticks at windmills and looking out for the bogeyman, we’ll be too distracted to see and act on what’s going on around us politically and economically. It is no accident that Americans have been kept terrified. Being able to broadcast this latest attempt of terrorism is an opportunity to justify the orwellian tactics that have been put in place while reigniting the threat to keep people focused on that as opposed to the raping of our economic stability and civil liberties. We seem to think it’s possible to live in a threatless world where all harm can be avoided, and we don’t. There are bad people in the world who do bad things and we either have to accept it, do our best to avoid harm and go about our lives or stop living. We are, by far, a relatively safe society and are capable of making smart decisions to avoid a majority of harm and evil, but the fact is, psychos, terrorists and lightning can strike anyone, anywhere at any time and will, eventually, no matter how many of us run for cover or how patted down we get. It’s the inherent risks of living in this world….

Comment from dunster
Time: December 29, 2009, 12:58 pm

I agree that lightning strikes and terrorist attacks are different. But, the comparing them is still useful. It’s about looking at risk and reward and understanding the tradeoffs we make between them every day.

Nora, I think the mammogram debate is right on point. I was thinking about it last night as I wrote, but my post was long enough without dragging that topic in – thanks for giving me the excuse to talk about it!

Consider these statements:
* a bunch of mathematicians did a lot of number crunching and said that in general, you’re likely to lose money at roulette
* a bunch of mathemeticians did a lot of number crunching and said that in general, you’re likely to lose money playing the lottery
* a bunch of mathemeticians (and climatologists) did a lot of number crunching and said that the temperature of the earth is rising
* a bunch of mathemeticians (and doctors) did a lot of number crunching and said that in general, women are better off if the lower-risk segment of the population starts regular mammograms at 50 rather than at 40
* a stats geek with a calculator pointed out that you’re 20 more times more likely to be hit by lightning than be on a plane with a terrorist attack

What makes some of these believable and some of them easy to disregard?

Why is it that we’re OK with spending $40 billion to make it even less likely that we’re on a plane with a terrorist attack? Is that really the best use of our money?

Why is it that we’re OK with throwing money away on an expensive test that doesn’t actually help people in aggregate? (This isn’t a gender specific complaint, by the way – the detection and treatment of prostate cancer is poorly managed as well).

My ranting on this comment has made me think about Taleb and his Black Swan ( ). It’s a question of how humans perceive risk and reward, and that’s just not straightforward.

I keep coming back to the math. It’s not always intuitive, but that non-intuitive doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Comment from Jeff Foley
Time: December 30, 2009, 7:11 pm

Dan, the credibility of those statistical statements isn’t about the math, it’s about the culpability and prevent-ability. If you get hit by lightning, who do you blame? God? The weather? If you don’t win gambling, it’s luck and random chance. But if you have cancer at 42 and it’s not detected because someone told you “in general” you should wait until 50, then it’s something you coulda-woulda-shoulda done, because it was available. If someone blows up a plane, then our security system coulda-woulda-shoulda caught the explosives at screening or flagged the terrorists on a no-fly list. Throw in another one — parenting. The chances of your child being abducted are 1 in 1.5 million. But what if YOU’RE the one? And you could have prevented it by waiting at the bus stop with him instead of letting him walk there on his own? No one wants to be the one that didn’t do the thing that could have stopped disaster. (Great article about statistical follies in parenting and this from

I think it’s similar to the old “why you should believe in God” mathematical/gaming argument behind Pascal’s Wager. ('s_Wager) The perceived punishment for failing to insure against a disaster that actually happens? That punishment (political fallout, cancer you could have treated, child abducted) currently dwarfs the cost of insuring against that disaster, even at $40 billion. Whether health care or terrorism, it starts to come back to the same problem — who wants to put a price on human life? Certainly not any politician.

Comment from dunster
Time: December 30, 2009, 10:17 pm

C’mon, Jeff, we have to be smarter than that. Don’t we? There is a limit – literally – we can’t do EVERYTHING.

So how do we decide what we do and don’t do?

Comment from Jeff Foley
Time: December 31, 2009, 10:19 am

“How do we decide what we do and don’t do?” For healthcare, the answer is quickly becoming the Quality-Adjusted Life Year, or QALY. Assign a value to a QALY (say, $100,000), and now you can have a quantitative discussion about whether it’s worth $500,000 to put a heart pump in someone to extend their life by 2 years… a different decision than someone whose life would be extended by 10 years. Of course, like that one in a million child abduction, it means that you’re going to miss occasionally… the next Beethoven or Stephen Hawking might find health care denied because their QALY was too low. But that’s the “cold” in “cold calculation.”

How do we come up with a “quality of life” value associated with the hassle of airport screenings? Theoretically it’s possible. Calculate how much of everyone’s time is wasted and how much business airlines lose and how many jobs are lost because of the cost of screening techniques. Now calculate the cost of a bomber killing 200 people on a plane plus property damage (plane + city below). Give that a monetary value. Even with some pretty high assumptions on damage, the 1 in 10 million chance of being in a terrorist attack means that it’s unlikely to catch up with the cost of the security. You can even put in a fudge factor… 3x? 10x? 100x? To account for the politics and emotion of it all, and it will probably still not equate to the money spent.

That’s the answer to how we decide. But can it ever be implemented? The difference is that QALY can be determined by an independent panel of trusted experienced medical experts. Where can we create an independent panel of trusted experienced counter-terrorist experts? (In an environment where the mere mention of paying for palliative counseling results in charges of ‘death panels,’ imagine the political fallout for creating a committee to determine the fiscal limits of keeping your family safe. ZOMG THINK OF THE CHILDREN!)