Is America safer today than it was a decade ago?
That question has been raised repeatedly in the discussions surrounding the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But authors John Mueller and Mark S. Stewart feel it's the wrong question. They pose a different one: are the vast increases in security spending justified by the threat of future attacks?
U.S. spending on homeland security and domestic intelligence has consumed nearly a half-trillion dollars over the past decade. It was just over $20 billion in 2001, this year it will top $72 billion.
The authors note that the United States and other Western countries have spent huge sums to combat a threat that is much less likely to result in injury or death than automobile accidents and other ordinary risks.
The book by Mueller and Stewart, timed to the Sept. 11 anniversary, is Terror, Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security.
Mueller and Stewart point out that over the past decade, the number of deaths worldwide at the hands of Islamic extremists outside war zones comes to some 200 to 300 per year.
"That, of course, is 200 to 300 too many," they write, "but it hardly suggests that the destructive capabilities of the terrorists are monumental. For comparison, during the same period more people — 320 per year — drowned in bathtubs in the United States alone."
Mueller is a professor of national security studies and political science at Ohio State University, while Stewart is an expert on risk analysis at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
NPR's Alan Greenblatt spoke with Mueller about their book.
Greenblatt: Do you think Americans are prepared to think about the threat terrorists pose in terms of a cost-benefit analysis?
Mueller: It's certainly been difficult, but a couple of things have happened. The death of (al-Qaida leader Osama) bin Laden seems to have lessened the concern about al-Qaida.
When you ask people what is the most important problem facing the country, terrorism is way down since 2001. And with the budget crunch, people are starting to ask whether it's worth it.
Greenblatt: You point out in your book that people are more afraid of terrorist attacks than other, much more common risks. Why do you think that is?
Mueller: People don't necessarily understand what the risk is. People are afraid of flying and you can regale them with statistics about how safe it is and they'll still be afraid.
Obviously, terrorism has a special horror and causes people to misassess the risk because of the drama and the unpredictability of it. But your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are one in 3.5 million a year.
One of the biggest bones that we pick in the book is with people in the administration and elsewhere, who never tell you what the risk is. If you're in charge of public safety, you should inform people what the risk is.
Greenblatt: Given the damage that can be done by small groups of people and even individuals, America will never be completely invulnerable to attack. But shouldn't the government attempt to make it harder to strike domestic targets?
Mueller: You have to take it case by case. The analogy I've been using lately is homicide.
My chances – or any American's chances – of being a victim of homicide are one in 22,000, which is pretty high. I can lower my risk by hiring a bodyguard, but most people don't want to pay the cost.
How much do you want to spend to make a terrorist attack even less likely? If you're going to spend $1 billion on body scanners, how much does that lower the risk? If the odds went down to one in 3 million, would you feel pretty confident?
Greenblatt: Now that we have set up and expanded government agencies to combat the terrorist threat, they're not likely to be dismantled, but do you think they'll ever be reduced in terms of scope or dollars spent?
Mueller: The National Research Council found that there's no risk assessment by the Department of Homeland Security, after spending tens of billions of dollars per year. Misspending money is misspending money, but it may take this kind of financial crisis to get people to think about it.
But it hasn't bubbled up much in the political campaign, on either side. What I really hoped for is when (Barack) Obama came in, or even (John) McCain, that they'd clear the decks and take a hard look at it.
That certainly hasn't happened so far. In Mitt Romney's plan about what he's going to cut, which he released the other day, he said he would not cut defense and he would not cut homeland security.
Maybe the fear is still powerful enough to keep people from seriously thinking about this.