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A New Unit of Measure for Terrorist Killings
Introducing "The Nine-Eleven" and checking Biden's math
HWFO opines often on number visualization and the inability of the human mind to grasp large numbers, small numbers, or ratios. We have at one time or another advocated measuring government outlays in units of “Border Walls,” measuring civil penalties in units of “OJs,” measuring overall civil unrest in units of “Mostly Peaceful Summers of 2020,” as well as compared the impacts nuclear power in units of CO2 filled hot air balloons averted or herds of dead deer killed by solar development.
When President Biden gave his speech to Israel yesterday and compared the 10-7-2023 Hamas attack to “Fifteen 9-11s,” I figured I’d check his math. Turns out whatever intern did the calculation for him got it wrong, but not egregiously so, and I applaud the effort and intent. Herein, HWFO establishes a new unit of measure for terrorist or state killings of civilians, “The Nine-Eleven,” and compares different events in history by measuring them in Nine-Elevens. The results will surprise you.
2997 people died in the combined 9-11 attacks, which is obviously more than 1,400 dying in the 10-7-2023 Hamas offensive. But Israel is a smaller country, and the US has more people to absorb the 9-11 damage. Very few of us know someone who died on 9-11 (my uncle was in the Pentagon at the time and thankfully had the good fortune to be one polygon side over from the impact) but quite a bit more people in Israel probably know someone who died in the 10-7-2023 attack. The honest way to gauge this is by ratio.
In 2001 at the time of the attack, the US population was 285 million, meaning the 9-11 attack killed 1.05 civilians per 100,000 population. Israel currently has 9.364 million population, so 14.22 people died per 100k. To put that in perspective, that’s over double the current annual United States homicide rate, and around triple the regular homicide rate for this century, all committed in one act. It is not a small number.
By this measure, the 10-7 Hamas offensive is equivalent to 14.2 Nine-Elevens. So Biden gets partial credit for attempting to properly compare national tragedies in an appropriate format, but marks off for not being able to do the simple arithmetic. Or perhaps we credit Biden and mark his speech writer.
I back checked to see whether the speech writer forgot to use the US population of 2001 instead of the current population, and that doesn’t appear to be the source of the error. Doing that would overshoot the comparison and get 16.5 Nine-Elevens, so I have no idea from where they/them pulled the numbers.
The January 6th riots had four people die, if we use Glenn Greenwald’s numbers, which would count as 0.00121 Nine Elevens, or one 825th of a Nine-Eleven.
The 1972 Munich Olympics was approximately 0.012 Nine-Elevens, a little more than one one-hundredth.
The Hezbollah attack on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 counts as 9.45 Nine-Elevens if we compare the deaths against the population of Lebanon at the time, but I’m not sure that’s fair since it was US and French foreign soldiers who were killed.
Israel’s operation against Hamas in 2004 in the Gaza Strip only had 50 civilian casualties, but on a per Gaza population basis that operation calculates to have been equivalent to 3.66 Nine-Elevens.
The Oklahoma City Bombing calculates to 0.06 Nine-Elevens, while the Waco Siege that provoked it clocks in at 0.03 Nine-Elevens.
And if we consider Waco to be a qualifying event, we can start including state actors for some fun. Civilian casualties in the ongoing Ukraine war are 20.8 Nine-Elevens. The civilian death count of the two decade occupation of Afghanistan is 110 Nine-Elevens, but they were spread out over two decades, so more like five and a half Nine-Elevens per year. The Iraq war had something like 195,000 civilian casualties, clocking in at an eye bleeding 645 Nine-Elevens, or an amortized 80 Nine-Elevens per year.
We could do World War Two if we wanted, but we’d have to compare against the entire human population. That clocks in at 1571 Nine-Elevens, or 261 Nine-Elevens per year, counting only civilian casualties and not military losses.
Here’s a graph.
Some people will probably say that looking at civilian death count per capita is not honest when we evaluate terrorism. I staunchly disagree, especially when terror attacks are used to drag countries into wars with much higher civilian death counts. Some people will probably say that you can’t compare wars and terrorism, but in Fourth Generation Warfare terrorism is war and war is terrorism. Further, people in the current public space are comparing the 10-7-2023 Hamas offensive with both the Israel 2004 offensive and 9-11 itself, so that bird has flown the coop.
When we look at the numbers, several things stand out:
9-11 was an absurdly “successful” operation as compared to almost any domestic or foreign terrorist event, but it pales in comparison to the sorts of things state actors pull off.
Civilian death rates from state actors, including the United States, Russia, and others routinely exceed the civilian death ratios of 9-11 by a factor of dozens if not hundreds.
Hamas and Hezbollah are the only terrorist actors capable of pulling numbers that rival the civilian death ratios of state actors in modern wars, as far as I’m aware.
Rhetorically, if Biden wants to call the 10-7-2023 Hamas attack “Fifteen Nine Elevens,” then I have no problem with it as long as he gets the number right. But it would be disingenuous to not also mention that the January 6th “insurgency” was 0.00121 Nine-Elevens, the Israel 2004 offensive was three and a half Nine-Elevens, Afghanistan was five and a half Nine-Elevens per year for two decades, the Iraq war was 80 Nine-Elevens per year for over a half decade, and the last time we had a World War it was the equivalent of one Nine-Eleven every day and a half for six years straight.
If we’re going to make policy decisions based on some Nine-Eleven comparisons, we should maybe try and avoid that one-per-day-and-a-half outcome.