Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Baghdad Tech vs. Virginia Tech

In the wake of sensational reports of violence, I wasted an hour or two yesterday playing around with casualty numbers and populations. A lot of fear has been used to sell this war, fear that terrorists might infiltrate U.S. institutions and wreak havoc. Not that it takes Al Qaida to do that, as residents of Blacksburg are recently quite aware. The spectacular murders there have put a lot of focus onto safety measures there as well.

Here at Slate Jake Weisberg latched onto the "regularity" of school homicides, which despite his alarm, are quite rare, amounting to about 20 per between 1992 and 2005 There were about 60 million Americans between 5 and 19 (according the 2000 Census), making the rate of school shooting about 3e-7, on the order of a hundred-thousandth of a percent. A school homicide is nearly a hundred times less likely to occur than a murder in the American workplace, according to these data, which isn't too surprising, especially for the under 10 set. I've got a thousandth of a percent chance of being gunned down by a disgruntled someone at work in any given year. (Although maybe it's a little better than that here. Obviously I'm taking no effort to break down risk groups. It's a fucking Fray post.)

By similar rough-order-of-magnitude reasoning, my annual odds of getting killed in a traffic accident are about a hundredth of a percent, or one in ten thousand. That rate is enough that in a moderately-sized community, it'll make for an impressive headline every couple of months when it happens to (hopefully) someone else. I take this as a good point of reference for risk assessment, call it the I-95 test. Driving on the highway represents a sufficiently low level of risk to my life that I consider it basically beneath notice. How does a homicide at school shooting to driving on the highway? My kids are a thousand times safer there than in the car with me.

It's harder to generate a yearly stat on terrorism, of course, but unless the mushroom cloud is really looming, it's not high. Even considering only the year 2001, you had a better chance of having a skyscraper fall on you than having your office-mate go postal, but you were still 200 times more likely to die in a flaming car wreck.

Over in Iraq, the odds of a civilian dying in combat are about 65 thousand/20 million/4 years, or about a tenth of a percent--a hundred times more likely to get shot by a soldier than I am to rack up my Subaru. The annual odds of dying there as a result of the war is over ten times higher than that, better than one in a hundred, and that's to say nothing of the kidnappings, threats, desperation, poverty, and general lawlessness. You are probably acquainted with a hundred people. That's like taking half a dozen kids from every school in the U.S. and putting a bullet into them.

Recently, General Petraeus told the Washington Post that "Iraq is going to have to learn – as did, say, Northern Ireland – to live with some degree of sensational attacks." That comment is hard to swallow, considering the United States' overwrought concern about any sensational attacks is, approximately, how this excursion slipped through the congress.

Yesterday's news also had an item about a bombing at the Technical University of Baghdad. The radio mentioned some 200 casualties there so far (trying to grab that one from memory, OK), and reports have, unsurprisingly, the Iraqi University system in shambles. The casualty rate may be exceeding 1% among what's left of the Iraqi intelligentsia, but people are still going to the University. (Of course, it's not clear their odds of survival are much different outside of school, and there can't be many other constructive ways to spend time, but still.) Would an annual 1 chance in a hundred of getting killed be enough to keep an American student from an American university, where the casualty rate is a more like 0.00001%? Is 1% annual chance of violent death something people can live with? A blogger (who knows who he is) got me wondering last week why the ants don't more often rise up. Maybe the answer is that a lot of people can bear those odds for a few years.


Archaeopteryx said...

Once again, this is something I would have written if I were somewhat smarter.

august said...

Politics, it seems to me, is about telling stories. This is true at both the micro and macro level. Think of the narrative an immigrant fashions to get (or be rejected for) a visa. Or my own resistance to telling people to turn down a radio (I'm still -- the story I tell myself -- young and hip). Sensation comes when a story resonates in the imagination of political elites. If Cho had been a drug lord, he barely would have been noticed. But put him in a major university, and you have, well, narrative.

Keifus said...

Well....I did use a calculator to divide teh bigger numbers.

And no doubt about narrative. It'd be nice if people could make the narrative compelling without embellishments, but you go with your strengths, I guess.


twiffer said...

considering the connection between the low odds of violent death and the desire for safety. seems the safer one is, the more one wants to be protected by "someone". living in a dangerous place, one is forced to look to one's own safety. whereas when violence intrudes into a peaceful place, people wonder why no one prevented it.

i think it's the recent run of volvo commericals that triggered this thought. they're harping on safety features that, basically, are designed to prevent your own lapses in judgement from killing you. a proximity detector, for when you aren't paying attention to the road. a blind-spot sensor for those people incapable of turning their heads for the half-second it takes to check your blindspots. and so on. all these attempts to insulate us from danger obscure the fact that complete safety is impossible. there have been enough sf stories written about how the only way to completely protect people is to either eliminate them or render them comatose, that it's become a hack story line.

Dawn Coyote said...

twiff: your first paragraph can be applied to the WTC distaster, as much as to the recent tragedy.

My ex, US-born, called America "the Excited States." Seems apt to me.

Terra! Terra! (as IOZ would say)

sydbristow said...

where was i .. too much fearing, and not enough loathing.

yes, we agree on the fear.

if you loathed the spree murderers, instead of marveling and wincing and filing them away in the earth-orbit asteroid file, you might get around to doing something about guns. i mean, do you know how idiotic americans look to the rest of the world when you can't even get the question right? (uh, gee, biff, is it more guns or less guns we want, i can't remember)

if you loathed the death and mayhem and mendacity and uselessness of iraq, instead of blaming neocons and counting the days to the next election you might just might find a way to sack Bush. I mean, we'll always be Ben Johnson to your Carl Lewis, but here we are on the front page of our (somewhat conservative) "national" newspaper daring to utter the "war criminals" words. and we're the fucking good guys!


my killed post had a different take on things. the traffic death thing may be "sufficiently low" but i think there's also a "cost of doing business" factor involved with it. we never question it, nobody ever questions it, it's just there. it's cancer and heart disease and the murder rate.

33 in one shot (or 3000 for that matter) isn't cost of doing business. it's outside that envelope, and in a different one. one that we don't know a lot about. and when we're forced to look into it, it's a bit scary, and we're kind of thankful when we can look away again. (like now, a week is good enough.)

sydbristow said...

p.s. the "you" isn't you, but you know that ...

august said...

I am a fairly paranoid person, and one of my fantasies is living in a place that is free from worry. At least, relatively. And if I were a parent, one of my fantasies would be sending my kids to a place that allowed me to worry a little less about them (I think children, when I get them, will be the death of me). Anyhoo, I can imagine that parents are feeling they were finally allowing themselves a sigh of relief about their kids, and then this.

That's not very coherent. It's similar to my earlier response to Keifus -- I think a lot of the shock has to do with stories we tell ourselves.

syd -- Can I keep it, can I? I will love it and pet it and hug it and squeeze it. And I will call it Smith and Wesson.

Keifus said...

I dunno, after the first skipped meal or two into Armageddon, I might be happy to have a firearm. (I don't actually have one, but fantasy Keifus, the one who's on top of things and gets things done, has got one stashed in a plastic bag under his attic insulation.)

I don't have a clear position on gun laws, really. It would be a good case for the federalism that the Republicans used to believe in, but I'm not crazy about the idea of repealing constitutional amendments. Certainly regulation on the types of arms, how they're carried, and so on makes sense.

Get you on the loathing.

Also agree, in general, on the "outside the envelope" business. There are risks that we take to get through our (accustomed) life. Adding extra risks is a pretty rotten business. But I still think it worthwhile to keep a general sort of perspective.

War supporters have poo-pooed the "excess deaths" measure of Iraqi casualties, but I think it's a reasonable way to assess what we've done there. What were the costs (in life, if not in quality of life) of wrecking their economy and infrastructure.

August, I liked your line about the shock being relative to the story we tell ourselves.


twiffer said...

i'm not a big fan of banning things that people obviously believe they should be able to own. mostly because it's highly ineffective. think "war on drugs".

banning, say, handguns, will just make them a) more expensive, since they're only on the black market; b) unregulated and c) people more likely to just use a shotgun if they feel like killing a bunch of folk.

myself, i don't own a gun. don't want to own a gun. haven't ever even held a handgun. i've fired my uncle's rifle at cans in his backyard a few times. fun, but i prefer archery.

still, i'm not about to make my opinions on the things rule other people's lives. for all the damage they can do, the majority of gun owners don't go on killing sprees, keep them locked away from the kiddies, and so on.

the answer is, actually, loathing. things like this are horrific, but also abberations. we should not give them any more due than that.