My first thought upon hearing about the foiled plot to blow up airplanes was: good! My second thought: why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars, massive manpower, and valuable intelligence resources in Iraq when we should be rooting out this crap instead? My third thought was: “mass murder on an unimaginable scale”? Bullshit.
Auschwitz is mass murder on an unimaginable scale. A dozen jam-packed airliners adds up to a few thousand people. As horrifying as that is, I'm afraid I can imagine it. Andrew Samwick has the same thought, and, better yet, the numbers.
Despite the gigantic quagmire of a distraction in Iraq, we're clearly winning the war on terror. Of course, it is not in the interests of the political class, or of glory-hungry security officials to provide us with a realistic sense of the risk. Steven Johnson has it right, and quotes this bit of John Mueller's great essay in Regulation:
…it would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, in an article last year in American Scientist, wrote that they determined there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate that an American’s chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America’s safest roads — rural interstate highways — one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.
Take away all the TSA foolishness, and I'm still safer in a plane than driving to Alexandria. Sure, murder is different from accidental deaths, and we've got to take active measures to try to stop these kinds of plots. But the response has to be rationally proportionate to the objective risk. I'm afraid we're unecessarily allowing ourselves to be freaked out of our liberties.