Chapter 2

Why Should Suicide Bombers Buy Life Insurance?


The worst month to have a baby . . . The natal roulette affects horses too . . . Why Albert Aab will outshine Albert Zyzmor . . . The birthdate bulge . . . Where does talent come from? . . . Some families produce baseball players; others produce terrorists . . . Why terrorism is so cheap and easy . . . The trickle-down effects of September 11 . . . The man who fixes hospitals . . . Why the newest ERs are already obsolete . . . How can you tell a good doctor from a bad one? . . . “Bitten by a client at work” . . . Why you want your ER doc to be a woman . . . A variety of ways to postpone death . . . Why is chemotherapy so widely used when it so rarely works? . . . “We’re still getting our butts kicked by cancer” . . . War: not as dangerous as you think? . . . How to catch a terrorist.

Terrorism is effective because it imposes costs on everyone, not just its direct victims. The most substantial of these indirect costs is fear of a future attack, even though such fear is grossly misplaced. The probability that an average American will die in a given year from a terrorist attack is roughly 1 in 5 million; he is 575 times more likely to commit suicide.

Consider the less obvious costs, too, like the loss of time and liberty. Think about the last time you went through an airport security line and were forced to remove your shoes, shuffle through the metal detector in stocking feet, and then hobble about while gathering up your belongings.

The beauty of terrorism — if you’re a terrorist — is that you can succeed even by failing. We perform this shoe routine thanks to a bumbling British national named Richard Reid, who, even though he couldn’t ignite his shoe bomb, exacted a huge price. Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.

The direct costs of the September 11 attacks were massive — nearly three thousand lives and economic losses as high as $300 billion — as were the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the United States launched in response. But consider the collateral costs as well. In just the three months following the attacks, there were one thousand extra traffic deaths in the United States. Why?

One contributing factor is that people stopped flying and drove instead. Per mile, driving is much more dangerous than flying. Interestingly, however, the data show that most of these extra traffic deaths occurred not on interstates but on local roads, and they were concentrated in the Northeast, close to the terrorist attacks. Furthermore, these fatalities were more likely than usual to involve drunken and reckless driving. These facts, along with myriad psychological studies of terrorism’s aftereffects, suggest that the September 11 attacks led to a spike in alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress that translated into, among other things, extra driving deaths.

Such trickle down effects are nearly endless. Thousands of foreign-born university students and professors were kept out of the United States because of new visa restrictions after the September 11 attacks. At least 140 U.S. corporations exploited the ensuing stock market decline by illegally backdating stock options. In New York City, so many police resources were shifted to terrorism that other areas — the Cold Case Squad, for one, as well as anti-Mafia units — were neglected. A similar pattern was repeated on the national level. Money and manpower that otherwise would have been spent chasing financial scoundrels were instead diverted to chasing terrorists — perhaps contributing to, or at least exacerbating, the recent financial meltdown.

Not all of the September 11 aftereffects were harmful. Thanks to decreased airline traffic, influenza — which travels well on planes — was slower to spread and less dangerous. In Washington, D.C., crime fell whenever the federal terror-alert level went up (thanks to extra police flooding the city). And an increase in border security was a boon to some California farmers — who, as Mexican and Canadian imports declined, grew and sold so much marijuana that it became one of the state’s most valuable crops.