Human Nature And The Cost Of The War
Night club attacks of innocent youth in Turkey and Paris. The mowing down of pedestrians in the festive streets of Berlin and Nice. 9/11. Terrorism has come West and it feels like it is getting out of control ever since that fateful day in September 2001.
In response to 9/11, the U.S. declared a war on Terror, and from 2002 to 2015, the U.S. government has spent a cumulative $1.9 trillion. Has this money been well spent? Is that vast amount justified?
First, let’s look at the costs.
The amounts spent in Afghanistan, Iraq, and ISIS were primarily direct costs in fighting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS as reported by the U.S. government and summarized by NationalPriorities.org.
The OCO, or Overseas Contingency Operations, is a new fund, which the Department of Defense can use at its discretion- mostly for anti-terrorist activities.
I added the TSA costs as this department was specifically created in response to 9/11.
Finally, the Snowden papers showed that in 2013, The CIA, NSA, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospace Intelligence Program and General Defense Intelligence Program spent a combined $17.2B on Anti-terrorist activities. That was a 50% increase over 2004 or a 8% CAGR. I assumed that 8% figure held constant all the way through 2015.
Add all that up and it comes to $1.899 Trillion.
Exactly whom are we fighting against? Well, in 2013 the U.S. State Department reported that there were 184,000 foreign terrorists. That did not include ISIS, which has been estimated at a maximum of 31,000. So, that equates to 215,000 terrorists.
In the 14 years since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent $1.9 trillion combating 215,000 terrorists. That comes out to $8.8M per bad guy.
Now, it true that the U.S. has mostly been spared from foreign-born terrorist actions since 9/11. In fact, all of the world outside of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia has.
Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of just Europe, the U.S., and Canada since 9/11. If you remove Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey, the numbers drop precipitously (orange area).
One could make the argument that the U.S. government’s investment in anti-terrorism is benefiting the whole world. I am sure that it has had some positive impact, but without an audited account of attacks foiled post-9/11 vs. pre-9/11, we will never know for sure.
And this raises the question: what else could we have done with the money?
Perhaps it would have been better to pay the first generation of terrorists $1M each (total $215 billion) and/or provide aid to their homelands to assuage their hatred in the first place.
Or maybe we could have spent the $1.9 trillion on domestic fossil and renewable energy projects so that we no longer have an economic interest in the region. This would allow us to exit the theatre and let other world powers draw arbitrary lines on a map and erect questionable leaders. America would no longer be in the cross hairs.
Anyway, if you look at the issue with a much wider perspective, you see that we have blown the focus and spending on terrorism way out of proportion to the death toll.
Why? Because as humans, we are really bad at understanding risk. When it comes to huge payoffs like the lottery, we think we have a decent chance of winning. If we truly understood the 175 million : 1 odds, no one would ever play.
The same is true for spectacularly graphic and tragic events. Including 9/11, one out of every 88,000 Americans has been killed by a terrorist. That’s one person per football stadium. Unfortunately, the mass media and our own human nature make it seem that threat is drastically higher.
The point here is that because of the Shock and Awe campaign of 9/11 and the several small-scale terrorist attacks that followed, we Americans have let our government spend an incredibly huge amount of money (and have given them permission to trample over our civil rights) in the name of a war that we think is a much, much, much, bigger threat than it actually is.
Human nature trumps rationality yet again.