With his ban on immigration mired in the courts and public opinion of the executive order slipping according to at least one pollster, President Trump’s team this week tried to bolster the case for the ban by highlighting a number of recent terrorist attacks.
After Trump claimed that the press was intentionally hiding terrorist attacks by not reporting on them, his press secretary tried to modify the claim to suggest that some attacks weren’t covered enough. The White House produced a list of 78 attacks it said had been undercovered, a list that included such well-publicized attacks over the past few years as the mass shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016 and in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015.
In fact, over the three-year span included in the White House document, the total number of fatalities in the United States was 63, thanks entirely to the two events just mentioned. Nine other domestic attacks in were listed, including one that injured 31 people when an improvised bomb exploded on 23rd Street in Manhattan.
Terrorism plays a big role in the public’s consciousness, thanks in part to the political debate over how to address it. It’s impossible to dismiss concern about terrorist attacks as overblown; I’m writing this about three miles from where the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, an act that killed nearly 3,000 people but had an effect on a far larger population than that.
But it is important to put the threat posed by terrorism into broader context. The White House hoped to do that by reinforcing the idea that attacks in the United States have been part of a global trend. That works in the other direction, too: Deaths from terrorist attacks are far less common than a lot of very uncommon causes of death.
Critics of the administration’s focus on terrorism often point to gun death data as an example. Tallies from the Gun Violence Archive put the number of people killed and wounded by guns, excluding suicides, at about 40,000 and 80,000 respectively over the last three years. That’s 652 times as many deaths and 568 times as many injuries.
“Excluding suicides” is a big caveat there. There are about twice as many suicides each year as other gun deaths.
But that’s not even the right scale. The deaths from terrorism are better compared to some of the least frequent causes of death, not the most.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiles data on causes of death each year, and has data for 2014 and 2015 publicly available. We went through the list and pulled out some examples of causes of death in those two years alone that exceeded the number of deaths in the terrorist attacks — which, again, covered three years.
Americans were 5.7 times more likely to die from constipation in 2014 and 2015 than from the terrorist attacks highlighted by the president.
Notice that deaths by lightning were less common in 2014 and 2015 than those terrorist attacks. But if you add deaths from 2016, the total is 89 — meaning that Americans were 1.4 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning from 2014 through 2016 than in the terrorist attacks highlighted by the White House.
There is one cause of death that those attacks eclipse by a wide margin. From 2014 through the end of last year, you were 63 times as likely to have died in one of the White House’s terrorist attacks than you were to have died from the Ebola virus.
A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2014