Opinion

Opinion | Graham Allison

Fear death from tree limbs, not terrorists

Work crews cleared fallen trees and branches from power lines and traffic signals in Needham after Hurricane Sandy.
Suzanne Kreiter/Staff/File 2012
Work crews cleared fallen trees and branches from power lines and traffic signals in Needham after Hurricane Sandy.

Terror-watchers in Massachusetts have a new cause for alarm: The sky really is falling — or at least, objects are falling from the skies. Earlier this month, two of Canton’s 21,000 residents, sadly, were struck dead by tree limbs in less than 24 hours. As various commentators asked: How likely is that? Could that really be a coincidence?

Polls find that 80 percent of Americans expect another major terrorist attack in the near future. Fifty-one percent fear that they or one of their family members will be the victim of such an attack. Little wonder, then, that Republican voters in South Carolina have said terrorism is the most important issue facing the country. Those of us who live in the snowbelt now discover that we must not only look out for threats from abroad. Additional dangers lurk directly above us as we attempt to keep our families safe.

Terrorism experts — and their eager amplifiers in the media — are quick to note any whiff of links to Islamist jihadists or cyberterrorists. So far, however, no one appears to have discovered any direct connection between those perpetrators and falling objects. Indeed, when the nation’s top intelligence officers presented their annual worldwide threat assessment to Congress earlier this month, the threat from falling objects was nowhere to be found. They catalogued threats from North Korea, cyberterrorists, and Al Qaeda, and predicted an ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack in the US in 2016 — but they said nothing about the threat of falling objects — despite the fact that they kill nearly 700 people in the United States every year.

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As sane adults think about risks to themselves and their families, how should they compare the threat of killer tree limbs and Islamist terrorists? How much more likely is an American to be killed in the year ahead by terrorists than by falling objects?

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Comparing causes of violent deaths in the past decade, a person living in the United States is more than over 100 times more likely to be killed by falling objects than by jihadi terrorists. To repeat: On average, 4 people in the United States have been killed by jihadi terrorist attacks each year over the past decade; 688 by falling objects.

Falling objects are hardly the only violent death Americans should fear more than jihadi terrorism. Your chance of being killed by lightning is eight times that of dying from a jihadi terrorist attack; of being murdered with a firearm, 2,931 times greater. You are even slightly more likely to be killed by far-right-wing, homegrown terrorists in the United States than by jihadis.

What are we to make of these brute facts? First, for anyone tempted to keep their family indoors to avoid getting hit by a limb, the message is: get real. The truth is that we live in a dangerous world. We can deny that truth and be shocked when violence happens. We can increase risks to ourselves by reckless actions, from driving while intoxicated to smoking to lingering below snow-laden limbs of old trees. And we can decrease risks like these by taking prudent precautions.

Second, hysteria about the threat of jihadi terrorism is just that: hysterical. Media that scream terror distorts reality. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other mutants of Islamist jihadism are real threats that must be addressed and defeated. But terror-mongering that elevates foreign jihadists to levels where a majority of Americans fear for their families’ lives is no more reasonable than fears of witches that led our ancestors in 17th-century Salem to acts we now find insane.

Graham Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.