Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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America Is a Safe Place

by Micah Zenko
February 24, 2012

A cyclist bikes along the Kinzie Protected Bike Lane in Chicago (Courtesy Reuters/Jim Young). A cyclist bikes along the Kinzie Protected Bike Lane in Chicago (Courtesy Reuters/Jim Young).


In yesterday’s post, I highlighted a piece that my colleague, Michael A. Cohen, and I have in the current print edition of Foreign Affairs: “Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure than Washington Thinks.” We challenge the prevailing rhetoric of Washington-centric threat inflation by arguing that the world today is one with fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history.

The chronic exaggeration of U.S. national security threats also extends to the security of individual Americans. Although you would never know from the evening news or tabloid newspapers, not only are Americans relatively safe in the world, but they are relatively safe at home as well—at least from foreign threats, or those outside their control.

Consider the threat of foreign terrorism, which is a legitimate concern after the tragedy of 9/11. According to the latest U.S. government data, of the 13,186 people who died in terrorist attacks around the world in 2010, only 15 were private U.S. citizens. Of the 30,665 wounded, 90 were U.S. citizens. None of the Americans killed or wounded by terrorism, moreover, suffered the attacks in the United States.

Since 9/11, a total of 238 American citizens have died from terrorist attacks, or an average of 29 per year. To put that in some perspective, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the average American is as likely to be crushed to death by televisions or furniture as they are to be killed by a terrorist.

A recent study from Duke University found that, since 9/11, eleven Muslim Americans were involved in active terrorist plots in the United States, which killed thirty-three Americans. Over that same time period, there have been nearly 150,000 murders and over 300,000 suicides. (It should also be noted that all major categories of crime have fallen across the country over the past five years.)

If you’re not convinced yet, consider another cluster of information on transportation deaths from the latest available government data:

Instead, by far the biggest threat to Americans is themselves. According to a recent World Health Organization report, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) for 87 percent of all American deaths, compared with 64 percent in the rest of the world. Prevalent NCDs include cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease, and are primarily caused by four behavioral risk factors: smoking, diet, lack of physical activity, and alcohol. The silver lining is that each of these risk factors can be managed and prevented, if we are willing to integrate healthier habits into our daily lives.

To put it simply, America is a safe place, and—for most of us—we are our own worst enemy.

For the latest U.S. mortality statistics from the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control, please see below:

For how these U.S. statistics compare to the rest of the world, please read my previous post, “How We Die.”

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thank you for the great article.

    “…according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the average American is as likely to be crushed to death by televisions or furniture as they are to be killed by a terrorist.”

    Nice. Ignorance and superstition never quits. Every American should read and reflect on that statement … then ask what’s going on?

    – kk

  • Posted by Dorn Crawford

    This is a great story, with some real quotable quotes – but it suffers at the end when the arithmetic in the table doesn’t work. The figures in the entries for I and IV fall well short of the subtotals shown, while those in II are well over. And where’s III? Unless I missed something, the credibility of the piece would improve by tidying up at the end…

  • Posted by Kir Komrik


    Just to clarify a possible objection to the data given in the article, the number of possible manners of death is essentially infinite, so I would not expect subtotals to sum to their group totals.

    – kk

  • Posted by Jorge Borges

    you forgot about Black Swans. There’s no 9/11 type of event for furniture (and I bet you in 2001 terrorism killed more than furniture). Obviously you understand fat tails. You have a strong point, but the miskeading data ruins it

  • Posted by Joe

    Not a single comment on the 8,500 people who died from gun crime in the last recorded year (2011)

  • Posted by tekHedd

    @Joe Not really the point, but it’s not even close. To see the relative percentage of deaths from “Violence” in general, see his previous article. I’m sure he’s very sorry to have written an article that didn’t specifically reference your pet peeve, though, and would apologize if he knew about the omission.

  • Posted by David Wilson

    You pick and choose to make a point, as most do. In 2011, more people died just because they went to work in or around a building in NYC than (I would guess) almost any year ever.

    I certainly agree about the low number of Muslim Americans, but how many white, conservative Americans were involved terrorist acts? I’m guessing quite a lot…yes, that sort of falls in line with Americans being their own enemies, but you can’t pick what was down in a particular year and say THERE … we’re all safer now. If – say – 2009 to present, all those things are down – I’d say yeah, that’s a great stat and means a lot. If it was only down in 2010, well, that’s just a statistic, and they always change from year to year.

  • Posted by David Wilson

    Of course I meant 2001 not 2011 (typo)

  • Posted by Andrew Bell

    Very interesting read. These self destructive behaviours seen to be endemic in the west.

  • Posted by Enid

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    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading
    and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

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