On Sunday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) ominously warned that ISIS is “one plane ticket away from U.S. shores.”

Equally ominous, your furniture is already inside your house. (More)

Judging Risk, Part II: “One Plane Ticket Away from U.S. Shores”

This week Morning Feature will look at how well we judge risk. Yesterday we began with claims about the risks of police work, often cited to reject citizen oversight. Today we consider the risks of terrorism, often cited to justify intrusions on civil liberties. Saturday we’ll conclude with the risks of climate change, and how focusing on those risks affects support for effective change.

“It’s a very real threat”

House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) is leaving the House in January, but last Sunday he went on Meet the Pressagainto ensure that Americans stay very afraid:

It’s a very real threat. One of the problems is [ISIS has] gone unabated for nearly two years, and that draws people from Britain, to across Europe, even the United States to go and join the fight.

They are one plane ticket away from U.S. shores, and that’s why we’re so concerned about it.

He’ll fit in nicely on talk radio, which has no shortage of fear mongers. But he didn’t warn viewers about their furniture.

“To put that in perspective”

Your furniture is out to get you. Each year, an estimated 43,400 Americans are treated in emergency rooms for injuries from falling furniture, according to a 2011 report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And many of them die:


o Reported fatalities:
— 245 (84%) involved children, victim ages 1 month to 8 years;
— 13 (4%) involved adults, victim ages 31 years to 59 years; and
— 35 (12%) involved seniors, victim ages 61 years to 96 years.

What fell?

o Reported fatalities:
— 176 (60%) involved televisions falling (36% only TV, 24% TV + furniture);
— 92 (31%) involved only furniture falling.
— 25 (9%) involved appliances falling.


o Reported fatalities:
— 74% in residential settings, 5% in public settings, and 20% in locations not specified.
— 40% in bedrooms and 18% in living/family rooms.

Injury Characterization (main injury type and body area affected)

o Reported fatalities:
— 55% were crushed and remained under product(s); 13% were hit/struck by product(s) but not crushed under product(s); and 19% were positional asphyxia.
— Head (55% head only; 4% head and torso) and torso (27%).

Why mention the risk of being killed by your furniture? Because it’s almost exactly the same as the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack:

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.

“All hail the power of Bauer”

But don’t hold your breath waiting for a TV series about a ruggedly handsome home safety inspector who has only a single day to rearrange your furniture. That only happens for terrorism, and you should be damn grateful:

So get down on your knees. (But find a clear space away from your furniture.) Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says so:

The conservative jurist stuck up for Agent Bauer, arguing that fictional or not, federal agents require latitude in times of great crisis. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.

“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.

“So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.”

“Act as if it’s a certainty”

Yes, we absolutely ought to believe in absolutes, even if there’s only a 1% chance they’re true:

The title of Ron Suskind’s riveting new book, The One Percent Doctrine, refers to an operating principle that he says Vice President Dick Cheney articulated shortly after 9/11: in Mr. Suskind’s words, “if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction — and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time — the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.” He quotes Mr. Cheney saying that it’s not about “our analysis,” it’s about “our response,” and argues that this conviction effectively sidelines the traditional policymaking process of analysis and debate, making suspicion, not evidence, the new threshold for action.

Estimating probabilities and carefully weighing risks and unanticipated consequences is part of that pre-9/11 mindset. To stay safe, we must be willing to do whatever it takes … before it’s too late:

The intentionality of the connection between 24 and 9/11 is evidenced by creator Joel Surnow’s open admission to exploiting “the paranoia that we’re going to be attacked.” […]

All seasons of 24 are built around complex high-risk scenarios with strong time constraints. While countdowns and time-critical operations are common in the genre of thrillers as a way of generating suspense and keeping the audience hooked, 24 takes this concept to a new level. As the media watchdog group Parents Television Council points out, every season has an average of twelve such situations. Similar to a live news report, the show is constructed around the concept of “assumed liveness” and enforces a feeling of urgency. This simulated immediacy and the background of a real-world disaster compliment each other and serve to blur the lines between reality and fiction. […] Furthermore, the overwhelming feelings of fear and loss of control experienced during personal and collective trauma become valid in the scenarios of 24. In these, attacks are indeed followed up by further threats and government specialists are in charge of time-critical objectives, such as preventing a nuclear bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, while the public remains unaware of the complete picture. [Citations omitted]

“Hard decisions to cut lower priority programs”

So it’s okay if Jack Bauer tortured 89 people and killed 185 in the first six seasons. And each season presented a single 24-hour day – the show’s hook – so that worked out to Bauer killing over one person an hour, including civilians and even some of his colleagues. But we were supposed to be afraid of the terrorists.

In fact you’re eight times more likely to be killed by police than by terrorists. Time estimated the probability of dying in a terrorist attack in the U.S. as 1-in-20-million. In fact, you’re almost 200 times more likely to die of food poisoning. I want a TV show where a hero races against time to inspect restaurant kitchens. (“Where did you put that unused fish?” ZZZAP “Aaaieee! Stop! Okay! It’s in the other fridge!”)

But of course that would be Big Government Run Amok:

A new budget proposal put forth by House Republicans [in 2011] would cut the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s budget for Fiscal Year 2012 by $285 million, an 11.5 percent reduction from FY 2011, just as the agency moves to implement an ambitious new food safety law.

The draft budget legislation, unveiled by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, cuts $2.6 in discretionary spending, which is over $5 billion below the President’s FY 2012 budget request for the programs under the purview of the subcommittee.

“As is the goal of all our Appropriations bills this year, this legislation reflects hard decisions to cut lower priority programs, reduce spending in programs that can be scaled back, and target funds where they are needed most so that our nation continues on the path to fiscal recovery,” said House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers in a statement.

Food safety, you see, is one of those “lower priority programs.” Gotta save the money for fighting terrorism, even if food poisoning is 200 times more dangerous. It’s enough to make me want to roll over and go back to sleep. But the bedroom TV is up on the bureau and it’s looking at me funny….


Happy Friday!