In 2001 2,416,425 Americans died. However, only 2985 of them really, really mattered. Those 2985 people were the victims of the 9/11 massacre orchestrated by Osama bin Laden. Immediately military action was called for, coalitions created and America was at war. National policy was fuelled by an emotional spasm. In an instant an outraged government, a horrified population coupled with hysterical media coverage demanded war. This post will consider the consequences of avoiding statistics when formulating policy.
Osama’s carefully calibrated attack on the heartland of American capitalism produced the exact outcome sought. No building could withstand the impact of a fully laden aeroplane. Both the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were successfully targeted; heroic, patriotic, passengers on the fourth plane prevented another massacre. These attacks were interpreted as, ‘an act of war’ but by whom? Osama’s al-Qaeda terrorist groups are a terrorist franchise. They don’t have soldiers. They are not geographically located. And their motivation is an idealistic theory of ‘the good life’. It is very difficult to bomb an idea.
America’s response to the 9/11 massacre was a triumph of emotion over strategic reasoning. Political capital was used to create a coalition for Operation Enduring Freedom. This classic, bombastic soundbite has led to an unfinished campaign in Afghanistan at a cost of 3431 coalition deaths* plus thousands of injuries many of which are mutilations. It has also cost three trillion dollars in additional military expenditure. It hasn’t been a military success; it hasn’t been a political success and it definitely hasn’t halted Islamic extremism: especially not in Afghanistan.
The 9/11 massacre killed 2985 people, cost approximately $19 billion directly and huge national humiliation. What price can be put on national humiliation? National humiliation apparently costs, in this instance, three trillion dollars and 2317 US military deaths**. Historians will ask, “Was the national pride of the USA restored by Operation Enduring Freedom?” Economists will ask whether the resources could have been better employed in the restoration of national pride? Statisticians will ask, “Just how important was 9/11?” This last question is my area for this post.
2,416,425 Americans died in 2001. Only 0.12% of them died as a result of 9/11. That figure is within statistical tolerances for getting the ‘facts’ wrong. Statistically 9/11 is meaningless in terms of impact on the mortality rate of the USA. Road deaths amounted to 42,000+ and smoking deaths came to nearly half a million. Firearms killed about 33,000- mostly suicides. The actuality of 9/11 is statistically trivial but these deaths had a unique context and of course nothing can be separated from context. Context is everything. Blind, stupendous rage trumped reason and the USA plus its coalition partners began a war with an amphorous enemy. The USA suffered an ultra low- tech attack, by terrorists who got lucky. Incredibly this was interpreted as a declaration of war: by Afghanistan on the USA. Worse: America acted accordingly.
The 9/11 massacre was a massacre and to compare and contrast it with other lethal experiences is not to trivialise it. That being said the fact remains that it was an act of terrorism not war. Attacking Afghanistan because Osama was based there was not an act of statemanship it was an act of folly. Assessing geo- political actualities demands enormous moral and political courage because it is always easier to ‘get out there and kick ass’ isn’t it?
* As of 18th April 2014
** There have also been 1114 coalition deaths e.g. UK 448 deaths (March 2014)