Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Say it ain't so: Taranto wimps out?

Unfortunately, OpinionJournal's Taranto seemingly acquiesces to Dennis C. Jett's illogical response to his original Best of the Web post How Many Lynchings?

Taranto had originally critiqued the logic of an op-ed that former ambassador Jett wrote for the Gainesville Sun, in which Jett minimized the risk of terrorism by equating it with the risk of accidental death from several common voluntary activities. Taranto made his point with an excerpt from the article and simply asked Jett hypothetically if a series of politically incorrect "hate crimes" should also be treated as the equivalents of accidental deaths.

Taranto printed Jett's response, which insisted that he's not an "ivory tower" academic but tells us we should subtract morality from the argument and confine ourselves to statistics. Hum. And Taranto left it at that, which was surprising. Because even if we grant Jett his major league "academic" concession, nevertheless Taranto had been quite right from a purely actuarial standpoint to criticize Jett for equating accidental deaths to intentional killings.

Terrorist attacks, like all intentional acts, are not probabilistic events similar to accidents. The dichotomy between the two should be evident. One example: insurance companies refuse to write coverage against terrorism risks (or for intentional acts), but will write coverage for every other exposure that Jett mentions. (Indeed, if Jett is so certain about the risk of terrorism, he should start issuing cheap terrorism insurance policies and make a bundle of money.)

Likewise, on the prevention side, the source of risk from accidental death can be as diffuse as the occasional carelessness of a voluntary participant acting against his own interest of safety. Meanwhile, terrorism and hate crimes are usually the product of operational conspiracies against the interest of others. Morality aside, why shouldn't a greater onus be placed on government authorities to act to prevent criminal conspiracies rather than mere accidents? After all, people are more likely to repeat murder than their own accidental death.

As for statistics, Jett manipulates the numbers to minimize the exposure to the risk of terrorism. He divides the nearly 3,000 souls lost during the 9-11 attack by the number of years since then without an attack. Jett juxtaposes this quotient with the number of annual deaths within the entire US population due to certain accidental causes, and presents them as comparable measures of annual exposure to risk.

Balderdash! Left to their own devices, intentional actors such as terrorists would act repeatedly and be successful 100% of the time. When the potential cause is an intentional act, accidents prevent casualties, not cause them. Detection and countermeasures are the only remaining impediments. Who knows what the underlying risk exposure to mass murder would be if terrorist were given a clear shot, but it certainly is much greater than the 9-11 death toll and its aftermath. Indeed, had the planes hit the towers at lower floors or at different times, the death toll might have been much higher. Would the different casualty numbers from that attack necessarily change the general risk exposure to terrorism?

Worst of all, Jett constructs his fallacious risk exposure comparison in order to minimize the urgency of efforts to prevent the next attack! Talk about confusing cause and effect.

I've got an idea. Maybe Mr. Jett should debate those other critics of the Bush administration who say the government's response has increased the risk of terrorism since 9-11.


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