It’s not about our safety…
The cover of the September Atlantic magazine blared a question “Are We Safer?” When I saw the title, I thought I might find out whether Americans are safer from the dangers to life and limb we face every day—safer from what, I thought? And then—who is “we?”
The article by Steve Brill didn’t answer those questions. It focused on dollars spent to deal with terrorism—an “on-going threat” undefined except that it originates with enemies who hate us and will terminate in catastrophic destruction somewhere in our midst. 1 The article quotes President Obama saying that on 9/11 Americans felt truly vulnerable for the first time because “nearly 3000 people were killed in the places where we live our daily lives.” A poll taken last December found that Americans are today more afraid of another terrorist attack than at any time since 9/11. This September, the FBI issued a bulletin warning that “ISIS extremists” would target sports and other public venues. Fox news cautioned listeners not to underestimate the “imminent threat” that terror poses. We get constant reminders that the US is a target; that each of us is threatened by “radical Islamists;” that 9/11 ushered in a war on our way of life. Home-made bombs planted by marginalized young men with foreign names provide evidence of that war.
If we look at the places where we in fact “live our daily lives” we aren’t faced with imminent threats, but fatal certainties—we die in huge numbers on the highway and from medical mistakes; at our workplaces; from exploding pipelines, chemical discharges, historic flooding, and unprecedented wildfires; from domestic violence and homicide become routine – to name only some of the risks realized. It may be that the “War on Terror” has a function other than to reduce the likelihood of Americans dying a violent death.
The warnings about terrorism can’t be about actual risk: various studies show that the annual risk of being killed by terrorists is one in 3 million. Attacks officially designated as “terrorist”” have killed fewer than 100 people in the US “homeland” since 9/11 (this includes the mass shooting in Orlando). We could compare the one-in-3-million risk of being killed by one of those “radical Islamists” to, say, the much greater—but still damn small—risk being killed in an accident involving a deer (one in 2 million) or drowning in the bath (one in 650,000). These risks provoke laughter not fear. They’re like the other statistic cited sometimes to highlight the irrationality of fear of terrorism: the risk of being struck by lightning far exceeds the risk of being killed by a terrorist.
We dismiss these comparisons because the level of risk is not the point. The point is that there is an “imminent threat” and the government says its measures will prevent that threat from touching us.
So, warnings about terror aren’t about risk; they’re more like part of a protection racket. Their purpose is to name and demonize an enemy. The fear these warnings generate is a tactic for marketing protection: for increasing government spending on surveillance and weaponry; for curtailing public activities; for enhanced policing; for gaining an audience; for amassing votes. Fear breeds suspicion and along with a willingness to give more and more power to the state to protect us from our enemies. On the government spending front, Homeland Security’s budget is unknowable, but some estimates put it at about $800 billion to date. Brill, ostensibly scrutinizing the usefulness of those expenditures concludes that $650-$700 billion of that amount made “us” “safer.” But consider how much safer we would be from actual dangers if even part of that $800 billion were directed to reducing preventable dangers.
Safer from what?
Safer from dying on the road? Homeland Security spent millions of our dollars on a first responder network that was foreseen to be superseded by technology. Another $400 million went for ID cards to protect us from potential jihadi drivers hauling hazardous materials. (The card readers never worked.)
Yet we are not safer from violent death in road accidents. In the 11 years since 9/11, more than 400,000 people have been killed in motor-vehicle accidents. The death rate for car miles driven is 1000 times higher than for miles traveled on municipal buses.2 Yet we routinely reject bonds to expand transit. Cell phones are a factor in over 21% of car crashes—yet their use has increased annually for the past 3 years.3 Poorly maintained roads contribute to a third of highway fatalities. Twenty percent of US roads are in need of resurfacing or reconstruction. Twenty-five percent of bridges are functionally obsolete. In 2007, a bridge rated as structurally deficient collapsed in Minneapolis, leaving 13 people dead and 145 badly injured. Approved road safety projects across the US go unfunded due to opposition to increased gas taxes. 4
Dying in a flood? Homeland Security gave New York hundreds of millions of dollars to reinforce the roofs of tunnels under the Hudson River. Someone sold the idea that a terrorist could place a bomb there and if that happened, it could breach a tunnel and drown thousands of people.
But we’re not safer from drowning and devastation due to actual floods. Every year about 200 people drown in floods5—with floods in recent years deemed to be historic 100- and even 1000-year events; climate change denial, anyone? Don’t even think about Katrina’s levees breached in 2005 leaving bloated bodies and widespread destruction behind, other than Superstorm Sandy in 2012 with 285 deaths; do we remember Colorado in Sept 2013, 9 dead, many dams topped; Arkansas-Tennessee tornado complex at least 34 dead, many more injured, homes destroyed leaving behind bare slabs and piles of debris, cell towers down. Texas-Oklahoma 2015, 19 drowned, entire blocks swept away in a year that saw 30% more extreme precipitation days. In Midwest storms of March 2016, 5 people dead, 3500 displaced; Bridgeport, West Virginia storms and hurricane winds in July of this year, more than 24 people dead. These are just a few examples. The list leaves out most of the—now forgotten—record-breaking flooding since 2001.
Dying in a burst of flame? Someone in New York raised the possibility that an exposed bit of pipeline on the Upper West Side could be subject to a terrorist attack. An explosion could have killed and injured many, and disrupted gas deliveries up the East Coast. Some of Homeland Security’s grant of more than $6 billion was used by NYC officials to encase the pipeline segment in a “protective shed.”
But we’re not safer from actual exploding pipelines. Back in New York in 2014, a gas leak in Harlem killed 8 people, injured 70 and destroyed an apartment building. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the City of New York had failed to repair a hole in a sewer line that it had known about for 8 years. Had the hole been encased or repaired, it wouldn’t have undermined the gas main and the main would not have exploded. In 2010 in San Bruno, CA another gas pipeline exploded, killing eight people and destroying a neighborhood. NTSB6 found various failures on the part of Pacific Gas & Electric caused the pipeline to rupture during a pressure increase—which would have been detected (likely preventing the explosion) if the federal government had not exempted existing pipelines from the requirement to do hydrostatic pressure testing.
Gas leaks throughout the US come in around 25-30 per month. While not all of those leaks jeopardize our lives and safety, many do. From a Wikipedia article on Kinder-Morgan, the parent company of more than 20 gas pipelines: “…since 2003 Kinder Morgan and its subsidiary pipelines have been responsible for more than 400 spills, evacuations, explosions, fires and fatalities in 24 states…” It is known that pressure testing older pipelines would make us safer, but the only beneficiaries would be the public.
Dying from breathing the air? In 2002 Homeland Security commissioned a program called BioWatch to alert us to bioterror attacks. Over the next three years, 24-hour sensors were placed in pedestrian areas in 36 cities. First, it wasn’t clear that the sensors could even detect a biohazard release. Second, the sensors had to be collected by hand and read at a lab, rendering their value as a warning virtually nonexistent. Homeland Security then gave out $200 million for “BioWatch Gen-3” a program to develop self-reading sensors: The project was cancelled as a failure in 2014.7 Nevertheless, Homeland Security people forge ahead because experts have “affirmed the viability of terrorist groups and violent extremists using bioweapons to cause death, suffering and socioeconomic disruption on a calamitous scale.” The original sensors, in place now for 11 years, have been maintained at a cost of $80 million annually for a total of $1 billion.
Yet the air we breathe is not safer. Each state east of the Mississippi accounts for the release of more than 35 million pounds of toxic chemicals annually.8 Between 1999 and 2008 (a period covered in a specific paper) 58,000 toxic releases were reported, with CO2 and ammonia releases tied to the most injuries, deaths and evacuations. In that period 13,000 people were reported injured. Preventable equipment failure was the most commonly reported contributing factor. For an example close to home, at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes in 2010, 7 deaths resulted from an explosion caused by cracks in outdated equipment.
Despite the threat to life and health, no agency collects comprehensive data on toxic emissions and fatalities. The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), charged with investigating chemical explosions, was recently reorganized after 5 years during which it succeeded in investigating only 11 of 241 incidents with fatalities. It had no reporting mechanism as required by the Clean Air Act of 1990.9 The CSB has 40 employees and a budget of about $12 million a year. They are no match for chemical industry giants spending millions annually to lobby congress in opposition to proposals that would make us safer from toxic chemicals.10
Who’s the “we” in “are we safer?”
Both the highly placed and the lowly among us may be similarly at risk for dying in an automobile accident, or a flood, or from medical errors… But in the US the likelihood of meeting a [preventable] violent death falls mostly on the men and women at the lower end of the income scale.
Women (mostly) at home are raped, assaulted, and killed by the thousands. 75% of domestic violence incidents target women, and likelihood does not vary by social status – all women are vulnerable. Between 2001 and 2012 the number of women murdered in a domestic violence incident totaled over 11,000. A collection of statistics by The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says that every 9 seconds a women in the US is assaulted or beaten. More recent data for Washington state shows 44 people killed in domestic homicides in 2014. On a representative day in that year, domestic violence programs served 1,930 people and turned away another 549 due to lack of resources.11
Men (mostly) at work die by the thousands. In 2001, 5,915 people were killed at their places of work – many more than the 2,996 killed in the World Trade Towers. Each year of the 2000s more than 5,000 people went to work and met their deaths; in the 2010s, the annual average dropped to 4,660. Men die mostly on agricultural, mining, construction, oil and gas sites. In many of the occupations listed, the deaths are preventable. For example, exposure to silica dust is fatal over time. A report by the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety in 2014 said 688 of the deaths from silica exposure each year are preventable – if only the government would adopt and enforce a known standard limiting exposure. (The report also observed that those at highest risk for silica exposure are Hispanic and immigrant workers.) If there is an enemy behind these statistics, he sits in the boardroom and maintains a status as untouchable.
Gun deaths (murder, accidental, suicide, police) accounted for over 300,000 fatalities since 9/11. 300,000! Half of those were murders.12 On an average day in America, 30 men are shot to death; Roughly 50% of those are black though they constitute only 6% of the population and many live in segregated neighborhoods with no political clout. More than 756 children were shot to death in 2015.
Homeland Security has provided $34 billion to state and local law enforcement13 via their “State Homeland Security Program” and the “Urban Areas Security Initiative” to buy military-grade equipment and technology and to pay for training needs related to acts of terrorism and catastrophic events. From 2012 (Sandy Hook massacre) to 2015, Congress held more than 25 moments of silence – and rejected all proposed gun safety legislation.14 As for the armored vehicles, assault weapons and combat uniforms now normal in police departments, they can make us less, not more, safe. In the demonstrable absence of terrorist armies, demonstrators become the threat and a suspect becomes the enemy. Police shot dead more than 950 men in 2015 – again a disproportionate number were Black.15 Police confront peaceful demonstrators in a militarized fashion, wearing combat gear and training automatic weapons on the crowd. A police officer’s claim to have felt threatened justifies the use of lethal force against even unarmed individuals. And that same claim that we are threatened justifies our lethal attacks on a mounting number of Middle Eastern countries.
These examples make clear that the purpose of the “war on terror” is not to make Americans safer. If that were the case, the government would be taking financial, political and social steps to address preventable fatalities related to the infrastructure that surrounds us, the air we breathe, the places we work, the supposed sanctity of our homes, the lethal consequences of segregation and income inequality, the militarization of our police forces.
The purpose of the “war on terror” is to produce an enemy sufficiently abstract, ubiquitous and menacing enough to justify the continuation and amplification of the US national security state. [See sidebar] Success in this effort depends on limiting the distribution of goods (material, educational, social) beyond the sphere of the elite, and efficiently controlling those thus disenfranchised when they resist. We can see the former in elimination of social programs, in the attack on public education, in the demise of unions. The latter includes the prison-industrial complex along with a growing private security industry and police forces equipped to treat communities as battle zones.
Our willingness to see “terrorism” as the enemy is essential to the success of this effort. Instead, we might realize that the threat to our lives and even our way of life is from the War on Terror itself. The reality is that the US has the resources to address the root causes of the violence that threatens us in our daily lives: homelessness, poverty, a shriveled mental health system, an educational system designed for competition rather than opportunity, replacement of wages by debt. To begin moving toward the first thing we have to do is to reject the phony “war on terror.” It’s a start.
1 The information about Homeland Security expenditures in this piece comes from “Are We Any Safer?” Steven Brill, The Atlantic, Sept 2016, p. 30 et seq.
2 Comparing the fatality risks in United States transportation across modes and over time Journal of Research in Transportation Economics, Vol. 43, Issue 1, July 2013
3 National Safety Council, 2015. Annual Estimate of Cell Phone Crashes, 2013 data.
4 Governing, “Gas Tax Increases a Hard Sell in States and Congress,” Alan Greenblatt, Feb. 5, 2016
5 Flood Safety Education Project
6 National Transportation Safety Board
7 Read the convoluted testimony by Homeland Security admitting this on their website: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward.
8 Industries in the remaining states also account for toxic releases but at lower annual levels
9 According to an article in the January 2014 USA Today, no one knows how often chemical accidents occur, because there’s no reliable and robust database. The National Response Center, a hotline run by the Coast Guard, takes reports of such accidents but doesn’t verify the details. So its data is wrong 90% of the time, according to an analysis of 750,000 federal records last year by the Dallas Morning News. (An amended version of the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed this summer.)
10 NRDC report, April 2013
11 Domestic Violence Fatality Review, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2015
12 Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2013; Pew Research Center, Oct. 2015 and Center for Disease Control Multiple Cause of Death Database
13 Center for Investigative Reporting
14 “15 statistics that tell the story of gun violence [in 2015],” Jennifer Mascia, Dec. 2015, posted on the website of The Trace.
15 Washington Post database on police shootings www.washingtonpost.com
Bethany Weidner lives on the Westside and likes to think for herself. Her liberal arts education taught her to reject claims that “that’s how things are” and her childhood years in Wasilla, Alaska taught her to be persistent.