Competing risks and realities
American leaders have stressed the importance of leading normal lives in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Travel, shop, eat out, and take in that movie.
But what if your normal life includes regular trips to Israel? The US State Department has issued a warning urging Americans, for their own safety, not to go there.
One cannot deny that, with help from the media, Israel is perceived as a dangerous place due to the threat of terrorism. Indeed, while recently in Israel giving talks and attending a conference, I received numerous e-mails from colleagues and friends worrying for my safety, admonishing me to avoid public places, or otherwise urging me to watch out. I truly appreciate such genuine expressions of concern, but they stem from the aforementioned perception that Israel is much more dangerous than America. A simple review of available data, however, suggests the opposite.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, during the 442 days from the beginning of the current Palestinian intifada until the end of December, 2001, 120 Israelis were killed by terrorist suicide bombings, shootings, hit-and-runs, stabbings, or other means within “Israel proper,” that is, not including terror victims in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
All of these murders are tragic, and I do not intend in any way to make light of them here. However, given that 6.3 million people reside within Israel proper, these deaths work out to an annual personal risk of death from terrorism of 16 in one million, within the boundaries of Israel proper, which would be the destination of most visitors.
Is this a big risk or a little risk? Let’s compare first with the risk of death from motor vehicle accidents in Israel, since one thing tourists do is travel around. Again, excluding the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reports 461 traffic fatalities during the 2000 calendar year. This adds up to an annual personal risk of 73 per one million, which is nearly four times higher than the risk of death from terrorism.
So what, you say - this makes Israel look worse! Look again. The 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that about 41,500 traffic fatalities have occurred in each of the past several years in the US. With a population of 286 million people, the annual personal risk of death from a motor vehicle accident in the United States is 145 per one million.
That’s right - the personal risk of road death is nearly twice as high in the United States as in Israel. And the risk of road death in the United States is nearly eight times higher than the risk of death from terrorism in Israel! Since we Americans readily accept the 145 per million risk of road death without worry, why has the US State Department warned us not to travel to Israel?
Let’s put this into an even more direct perspective. My recent visit to Israel was one week in duration. Since I did not enter the West Bank or Gaza, my combined probability of dying from either terrorism or a car crash on this visit equaled 1.7 in one million.
Had I followed the State Department’s guidance and canceled my visit to Israel, I would have instead enjoyed a 2.8 in one million chance of being killed in a motor vehicle accident at home. In other words, for those keeping score, my death risk would have been 65 percent higher in the US than in Israel.
And I have neglected to note my 23 combined hours flying El Al, one of the safest activities available within the limits of Earth’s atmosphere. It seems that the most dangerous thing I did on this trip was drive from New Haven to JFK Airport!
Perceived risks govern human behavior more than actual risks, and the elevated perceived risk of terror in Israel relative to the actual danger is no exception. I know of at least two canceled academic meetings and a third that is in jeopardy due to the perceived danger of holding such events in Israel. To the extent that terrorism relies on this psychology of fear, such cancellations are victories for the terrorists. And, while the fate of academic events is important to me, this is nothing compared to the economic losses Israel faces from the drop in tourism and other business revenues.
When the US State Department issues travel warnings, many people listen. If citizen safety is the goal, perhaps the State Department should urge all of us Americans to stop driving. But then, wouldn’t that conflict with the goal of leading a normal life?