Given the terrorist attacks in France over the past year, should I feel safe living in New York City or Washington, DC? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
This question reflects understandable anxiety following a major terrorist attack, not just in New York and Washington. Americans are apprehensive, so it's worth examining this detail. The short answer is that New York and Washington are more likely to be attacked by terrorists than other American cities. But before you head for the hills, let's try to calibrate the actual risk. First the history:
Terrorist attacks have occurred across the country. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, six metropolitan areas accounted for about two-thirds of the incidents reflecting the areas of operation of various extremist groups: Miami (due to the bombing campaign of anti-Castro extremists), New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles.
New York historically took first place, owing to its large, diverse population and the abundance of foreign diplomatic targets connected with the United Nations. Whatever quarrel motivated the terrorists, a suitable target could be found. New York is also the center of global capitalism while Washington is the nation's capital and symbolizes American policies.
Terrorists love to mention New York in their threats. New York was the scene of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and later the 9/11 attacks. Many of the al Qaeda-inspired terrorist plots uncovered since 9/11 were based in New York -- more than any other urban area. However, while terrorists inspired by radical Islamist ideologies killed people in Fort Hood, Texas, Little Rock, Arkansas, Boston, Massachusetts, and (depending on definition) Chattanooga, Tennessee, since 9/11, they have not killed anybody in New York.
In 2010, Faisal Shazad tried to set off a large infernal device in an SUV he parked in Times Square--it didn't work and he was subsequently apprehended.
Domestic intelligence efforts have achieved a remarkable record since 9/11. (The New York Police Department has the largest and probably the best counterterrorist unit in the country.) Of more that fifty jihadist plots nationwide, the FBI and local police have uncovered and thwarted all but a handful--they are batting 900.
So yes, New York and Washington are more likely terrorist targets than other U.S. cities, especially for terrorists inspired by the same ideology as those who carried out the recent attacks in Paris. But how much does this increase the danger to persons living there?
To do that, you have to look at not just the risk of death at the hands of terrorists, but at the broader risk of being deliberately killed by another. According to FBI statistics, 14,249 people were victims of homicide in the United States in 2014, making the average murder rate for the entire country about 4.5 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Of course, that rate varies greatly from city. In Oakland, California, the murder rate is 22 per 100,000, in St. Louis, Missouri, it is almost 38, and in Detroit, Michigan, it is 48. In New York, the rate is 4 per 100,000 (333 murders in 2014 for 8.3 million people) making it safer than most cities in the country. Of course, it makes a difference whether you live in the Bronx or on Staten Island.
There is more good news. The homicide rater in the United States has been steadily falling since the early 1990s when the annual number of homicides ranged around 23,000. The rate has also fallen sharply in New York City, from 27 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 1992 to last year's four.
That means that the average American today has about a one in 22,000 chance of being a victim of homicide -- the average New Yorker, about one in 25,000.
In the last decade, terrorists of all persuasions have killed 71 persons in the United States (again, none in New York or Washington), making the average American's chances of dying at the hands of a political fanatic like the ones in Paris about one in 4.5 million.
These calculations do not include the death toll from 9/11. Nearly 3,000 people were killed on 9/11, including 2,753 at the World Trade Center (including those aboard the two aircraft) and 164 at the Pentagon (including those on the plane). An attack of this scale was unprecedented in the annals of terrorism and it still casts a long shadow over our psyche and statistics. Let's deal with the numbers first.
Adding the 2,606 who died on the ground on September 11, 2001 (excluding those on the two airplanes) to the 649 New Yorkers murdered that year, we get a total of 3,255 victims of violent crime--clearly a statistical outlier. If we add all of the 9/11 deaths to the 16,037 victims of homicide nationwide, we get 18,790, deaths, which is roughly equivalent to the annual murder rate in 1997.
Over time, the declining murder rate -- in terms of numbers only, not the scale of the tragedy -- offsets the risk posed by 9/11-scale terrorist events. Put another way, the number of homicides today is ten thousand persons fewer a year than it was in 1993, when the U.S. population was 19 percent smaller. Total risk from death at the hands of another is going down.
Since 9/11 was an extraordinary event, it might make more sense to look at the total fatalities it caused over a longer period, say the 15 years from 2000 to 2014. This would add 174 deaths to the annual number of homicides each year. That would give New York a total of 507 homicides in 2014, pushing its annual rate to 6 per 100,000. That still makes New York safer than a lot of other big cities.
Some no doubt will object, pointing out that the current world situation makes another 9/11-scale event--or worse--a matter of "not if, but when," to use the famous phrase. Certainly, the rhetoric that comes out of Washington and the talking heads on television is positively alarming. Numerous doomsday scenarios are on offer. Their authors love to superimpose the effects of a terrorist nuclear explosion or dirty bomb on One World Trade Center or Midtown Manhattan. (In retaliation, my New York friends wonder how I can live in California where everyone knows it's only a matter of time before the inevitable big earthquake pitches us into the Pacific.)
No one should dismiss the seriousness of the terrorist threat, but at the same time, we should try to be realistic about risk. What happened in Paris is horrific, and we cannot say that such an attack could not happen here. Although our intelligence and security have improved significantly since 9/11, terrorists theoretically can strike anywhere--including Oklahoma City where the country's second worst terrorist attack occurred. But, even accepting that New York and Washington may be more likely terrorist targets, the added risk to those living or visiting there is extremely low.
Terrorism is intended to create at atmosphere of fear, which will cause people to exaggerate the danger--it often works. But fear operates in a different dimension from actual risk. We run risks every day--as the statistics show, greater than those posed by terrorists.
A friend of mine recently asked me, "I have to fly to New York. You're supposed to know something about terrorism and security. What should I do to have a safe trip." My answer was, "Drive carefully on the way to the airport."
- Terrorism: Why haven't there been more terrorist attacks in the United States?
- War on Terror: How do terrorists in Europe, where gun controls are stricter than in the United States, so easily get automatic weapons?
- Attacks in Central Paris (November 2015): How are the attacks related to the Charlie Hebdo attacks?