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Probability for Dummies

Published by marco on

The first terrorist attempt in eight years means that everyone at the Department of Homeland Security has gotten their knickers in a twist…again. However, they should instead be delighted with the extraordinarily good numbers favoring the good guys. The good guys being those people who don’t want to blow up metal canisters full of innocent people just to prove a point.

The post, The Odds of Airborne Terror by Nate Silver (538.com), crunches the flight statistics for the last decade and comes up with “one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures”, which is “one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown” or “one terrorist incident per 27,221,877 hours airborne”.

27 million hours is about 3100 years.

With 674 passengers directly threatened by the six hijackings since (and including) 9-11, that means “the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade”.

Those are pretty damned good odds for getting where you’re headed unhijacked and unharmed. The odds that you’ll be struck by lightning in the same time are 20 times higher. Don’t even think about the odds of having a traffic accident.

But, instead of trumpeting their success rate, the security agencies have to twist the draconian screws even tighter, with even more passenger-unfriendly measures that are unlikely to have any effect at all—except maybe to further ruin the American tourist industry.[1] But, they kind of have to make a lot of noise because they really screwed up with this last guy: The sirens were all screaming on red-alert with him and he still got through. He was on watch-lists, his own father had turned him in, his passport was fishy, and so on and so forth. He still got on the flight.

You don’t have to pat down everyone’s legs now just to make sure this particular type of attempt (stupidly executed and doomed-to-fail as it was) isn’t made again. Instead, you have to let the rest of us go about our normal daily business and just watch out for the big, red shining alarm signal when it goes off. That’s it.

Because what the safety record of airlines proves is either (A) the worldwide airline security system is working like clockwork to prevent thousands of attempts per month or (B) nobody’s really trying to blow up airplanes anymore. The last two attempts (Richard Reid and this Nigerian guy) were solo attempts who claimed that they were associated with Al Qaeda. But even the guy’s Dad said he was unstable and tried to turn him in. That doesn’t call for more draconian rules about moving about the cabin, it calls for not being a bunch of bumbling morons when someone waves a suspect in your face.

So, I’m going to eliminate choice (A) because it’s clear that taking off your shoes at the airport isn’t going to prevent you from smuggling in anything in your underwear. Because even the TSA is forced to stop at patting down groins and asking passengers to drop trou’ in the airport. Their new measure is to pat down upper legs and calves, but no touchie the booty or the goodies. Not that I’m suggesting they should do a body cavity search, but unless you’re going to, the security measure is worse than useless. It annoys legitimate passengers (99.9999% of all passengers, according to the statistics above) and won’t catch a determined attacker.

That leaves us with choice (B), that no one’s really trying to hijack or blow planes out of the sky. And, again, we know this because if the stumblebums in security can’t catch the guy from Nigeria, then anyone with more than a quarter of a brain could have gotten through whenever they wanted. Since they have not, it means they’re not trying.[2] Which is hugely reassuring, but still leaves us with the problem that the TSA—and other security agencies around the world—can’t just stop checking because it’s their raison d’etre and they’d not only lose all of their funding, but the sheep would lose their reassurance that at least someone’s doing something to stop the terrorists.

The ones that seem not to exist. Or who, at least, seem not to be very interested in terrorizing.

A final point about the Nigerian would-be-terrorist[3]: He was at least partially raised in London, his father just retired from a fat ministry job in Nigeria and they lived in flats in London worth millions of dollars. He’s a rich, spoiled-brat kid who’s had everything he ever wanted and he went all jihad-y and tried to blow up a plane. What an asshole.

It’s not enough that the rich are reaming us for all we’re worth on the top end, but now their kids are trying to blow us up? We can’t even blame the poor for this one, as we so love to do. This was straight up silver-spoon material who went off the deep end.

Just remember, though, the takeaway is that hijackings are rare. And that they’re rare not because of airtight security but because, statistically, nobody’s trying to hijack anything. So untwist your panties and go about your day in the comfort of a first-world society where you have plenty of clean water, food to waste, lots of electricity and no war.

And statistically zero chance of dying in a terrorist attack.

[1] Though the dwindling value of the dollar is doing more than its fair share in propping up the tourist industry.
[2] And the argument that they thwart hundreds of attempts that no one ever hears about doesn’t hold any water. They trumpet about having foiled stupid, nonexistent plots every once in a while, so why wouldn’t they brag when they’d actually stopped something legitimate?
[3] The lazy author finally looked up his name: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, not that you’re going to remember that.


2 Replies

#1 − agree 100%


What if 9-11 was set up by homeland security to generally increase controlling and enabling this new Business? … just an evil tought from me …

#3 − Nice!


Finally read this and it made me bust up several times, loudly, at the office. Thanks for the entertainment and well written piece!