Rationalizing Today's Threats
Brian Gongol

There's a great deal of anxiety in the United States over the threat of terrorism, and that concern is occasionally brought to a boil over news like the mid-air bombing plot broken up by British authorities in August 2006.

Terrorism is scary because it seems to be outside the victim's control -- even though thousands of Americans are killed in traffic accidents each year, more people probably worry about terrorism than about getting in their cars.

But as a public-policy issue, we have to be careful not to let the specter of terrorism overshadow much more common threats. Here, for instance, are some common diseases and causes of death that daily affect vastly more American lives than terrorism:

Cause US deaths annually Developments US patients
Cancer 564,830 Half of cancer deaths could be prevented
Diabetes 224,000 14,600,000
Alzheimer's 63,457
Parkinson's 17,997
AIDS/HIV 8,867 450,151
SIDS 2,500 Putting babies on their backs has cut death rates in half
Hepatitis B 1,250,000
Multiple sclerosis 400,000
Cystic fibrosis 30,000

The problem we face is that it's too easy to get caught up in hysteria over terrorism -- and that hysteria is fed over and over by news media and politicians alike, all of whom should know better. Certainly we don't want to ignore the threat of terrorism, and we shouldn't overlook reasonable measures that can be taken to deter and prevent terrorist attacks.

But we know for a fact that the number of Americans killed by cancer each year could fill 1,250 Boeing 747s. The number killed by Parkinson's could fill 40 jumbo jets. These are vastly larger threats than even the plot to take down ten passenger planes. In obsessing too much over terorrism, we risk defeating ourselves if we ignore much larger threats. No one wants to die in a terrorist attack on an airplane or a subway, but neither should we want to die of diabetes or Alzheimer's disease. We don't help ourselves by confusing the urgency of terrorism with the seriousness of those other things we are much more likely to face (and about which we could surely be doing more).