A critique of the terrorism/bathtub analogy

I’m feeling a bit like playing the role of Devil’s advocate today, my apologies for ranting on about this PRISM thing by the by. In a recent blog article on The Economist (Foiled plots and bathtub falls) a case is made that the loss of life in the USA due to terrorist attacks (around 3,000 in 2001) is so small compared to other causes—such as 29,573 gun related deaths—that the measures taken by the government to prevent terrorism are currently to extreme and ought to be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. In the end the main question put forward is this: If the same number of people died in slippery bathtub incidents, would we want to give the NSA this much snooping power to prevent those deaths? I’m going to argue that this point is non-sensical.

An important source for the arguments in The Economist were taken from another article in The Atlantic (The irrationality of giving up this much liberty to fight terror). In this article the author gives an idiosyncratic and consequently rather introspective account of why the threat of terrorism hasn’t affected the lives of Americans in general. But his account stands in stark contrast with the facts of the repercussions of the September 11 attacks. The stockmarkets dropped sharply all over the world and trading was even halted for a time, tourism in New York plummeted, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, the New York economy suffered losses in the order of magnitude of tens of billions of dollars and the attacks started two wars that in total have cost five trillion dollars to date. That’s a five followed by twelve zeroes, or roughly twenty times the number of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. Psychologists also noted an increase in fear of flying and feelings of distress immediately after the attacks. And then to think that the death-toll from the attacks on the World Trade Center could have been far higher—some 50,000 people used to work in the twin towers on an average weekday, not including the visitors who numbered 200,000 per day.

Let’s also not forget terrorist are unfortunately not all stupid and sometimes have quite ambitious plans. There have been signals that terrorist have tried and are still trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons, such as from Russia for example. Maybe I’m just a bit suspicous by nature, but in this context I think it’s interesting that Obama is suddenly urging Poetin to cut back on the nuclear arsenal, in particular since the PRISM system has now been exposed and come under scrutiny. If a terrorist group ever get their hands on a loose nuke, an attack might cost the lives of 500,000 citizens in a major US city. Slippery bathtub, my foot!

And then there is the fact that the PRISM program is there to thwart plots. So I cannot help but ask what degree of plotting is involved in the thousands of diabetics who die each year. Or what about the thousands of drunk driving accidents? Where are the inebriated drivers gathering to plot the next fatal freeway pile-up? What deadly bathtub conspiracies are currently being scemed? And are they twittering about it? The point is of course that the NSA only works with communications, thus making all these analogies ridiculous. The slippery bathtub analogy—which I am almost certain was selected for half-humorous reasons—back-fires on itself. Another, better example should have been used such as the 12,664 murders commited in the USA during 2011. But suppose we could use a PRISM system to help uncover plots of US citizens to commit murder. Does that analogy still fall short of convincing people that the PRISM project might be an acceptable compromize after all? I wonder…

 

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