Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

Over the past ten years, approximately* 24 million Americans have died.

6,160,000 died of heart disease. 
5,620,000 died of cancer.
1,350,000 died of stroke.
1,270,000 died of lung disease.
1,230,000 died of accidents.
740,000 died of Alzheimer's disease.
710,000 died of diabetes.
520,000 died of pneumonia.
460,000 died of kidney disease.
340,000 died from infections (septicemia, or blood poisoning).

Those are the top ten causes of death. Many of them may seem natural or inevitable, but a large number of them could have been prevented. The lowest estimate of the number of people killed by preventable medical errors is 44,000 a year, so at least 440,000 Americans have been killed by their health care providers in the last ten years.

Here are some causes of death that are more obviously preventable:

430,000 died from car crashes.
340,000 committed suicide.
183,000 were murdered by other Americans.
34,000 died from drowning
26,000 died of malnutrition. Americans, starving to death.
6,472 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And finally, 
2,977 Americans died from foreign terrorist activity on American soil.

The number of people killed by terrorists is tiny compared to other causes of death. And yet, our instincts tell us that they are more important. This is because our instincts developed in a very different world. In primitive tribes, people constantly died from natural causes, but the thing most likely to wipe your tribe out completely was enemy action. If someone attacked you in a dramatic way, then you would have to respond decisively or risk the complete destruction of your entire family. So the people with instincts to remember aggression and retaliate were the ones most likely to pass on their genes.

But these instincts are not appropriate for the modern world; they cause us to overreact foolishly. In response to the events that caused about 3,000 deaths, our government has invaded two foreign countries and spent about three trillion dollars**. Three trillion is about $10,000 for every single person in the country. If that money had been spent on other things, then we could have saved around 300,000 lives.

After the 9/11/01 airline hijackings, it was reasonable and appropriate to react and make some changes. Sealing off airplane cockpits from the passengers was a very good idea. In fact, this action, by itself, would be enough to prevent any future attacks of that nature. None of the other security measures were necessary, and many of them were not even helpful.

The idea of terrorists with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is very scary, and they could theoretically kill more than 300,000 of us. But protecting ourselves from these weapons is best done with non-proliferation efforts, which are inherently diplomatic. There will always be random terrorist groups who hate us, no matter how many terrorists we kill, but a world without weapons of mass destruction can be achieved. Our military actions over the last ten years have damaged our diplomatic standing worldwide, making it harder to control WMD's, while causing a lot of people to hate and fear us even more.

Then there is the fact that a natural pandemic is more likely and more lethal than a terrorist attack, as well as being easier and cheaper to prevent. If the CDC had been given that $3 trillion to spend on medical research and pathogen monitoring and emergency stockpiles, I would be a lot safer than I am today.

We need to start thinking of terrorism as just one more thing in a long list of potential hazards, and allocating our limited resources in a calm and well-calculated manner. Emotional appeals rarely generate good policy. The call to 'Remember 9/11' belongs in the history books, along with 'Remember the Maine'.

*These are not exact numbers, because that would take too much time to research.  I took the numbers from the death statistics in 2007 (table 10), multiplied by 10, and rounded down.

**The wars plus increased homeland security cost 2 trillion dollars, and over the past ten years the annual Pentagon budget has increased by 80%, which probably would not have happened if there was no War on Terror. Defense spending over the past ten years would probably have been 5 trillion instead of 6 trillion without the attacks.

No comments: