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  • Julian Talbot

(The Actual) Threat Advisory Levels

It seems like we've been at war for a long time. World War II drifted into the Cold War and, more recently, War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on Poverty. Frankly, it sounds more like a 'War on Common Sense', aka a way to distract people from the real issues. Google the phrase "war on heart disease" and you'll find about 40,000 responses. The "war on cancer" brings up 400,000 hits but you'll find 11 million for "war on terror". A 'war' which continues to consume incalculable money and human lives with no clear criteria for success; unless of course you're a shareholder of stock in a Defense contractor. Arguably the 'war on terror' has become a greater catastrophe than the 9/11 attacks. The 'war on drugs' is a similar disaster. The reasons are both complex and simple at the same time but suffice to say that if you 'follow the money' you can draw your own conclusions. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) replaced the color-coded alerts of the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) with the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), designed to more effectively communicate information about terrorist threats by providing timely, detailed information to the American public. It's a definite improvement, but my contribution would be to put the issue of terrorism in context. So for the rest of us, here is my suggestion for a real world threat advisory system. Not to ignore the seriousness of terrorism of course, but it's good to keep a sense of perspective about this. Heart disease and cancer are the big killers in modern society. Even among young healthy individuals, suicide, diabetes or unintentional injury each kill more people than terrorists.

Real world threat advisory system

Figure 1: Real World Threat Advisory System (NB: If you don't live in the US this may or may not apply to you)

On average, the world is a safer place than ever before, and fewer people than ever are dying from violent conflict. Yes, yes, I know, the media and vested interests would have you believe otherwise. In February 2012, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff was unwise enough to say out loud and in public that today's world has become, "more dangerous than it has ever been." And then, quick as a flash; like many before him; utterly failed to cite any evidence. Similar beliefs are widespread throughout the media and some elements of the national security community (at least at the political level). I'm not even sure that many people believe such things, but let's face it bad news sells advertising, and dire warnings get Defense funding. I've also added one key piece of information in the graphic above; from 1990 through 2011, there were 29,213 deaths of U.S. military members while on active duty. Tragically, 1,400 brave people die fighting terrorism per year on average (not even counting police or emergency workers) which is roughly 14 times the number killed by terrorist attacks.

If you've read my background, you already know that I have some knowledge about security, risk management, and policy development, so I tend to get annoyed by this sort of thing. I'm pragmatic, but it's still annoying because, in reality, we are probably living in the safest times in human history. The number of conflicts being waged globally dropped from 37 to 32 in 2012 (the most recent reliable data). Terrorism, genocide and homicide numbers are also down. But don't just take my word for it. According to the Global Peace Index believe that in 2017 "The world has become slightly more peaceful compared to the prior year." If you would like more data, the Human Security Report is as good a place to start as any. The wiki page on armed conflicts has more data for the nerdy and curious.

But back to the real world data about what is killing us. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do an excellent job of presenting mortality data, but this table of theirs sums things up nicely.


Figure 2: CDC Mortality Data 2015

Some telling statistics there and if you click on the graphic, it will take you to more information. Unintentional injuries (slips, trips, falls, motor vehicle accidents, etc.) are the leading risk of death for most of your lifetime. It's not the biggest cause of death, however, because most of us survive through our childhood and middle age. With a current life expectancy of around 80 years, most people in the west are going to go down with heart disease or cancer.

Sadly, there are not many votes for prevention of disease, lifestyle changes or a "war on poor diet". Not much money in it either to fund lobbying and research. Politicians who understand this sort of data (as versus polling data which they clearly understand) would certainly get my vote, but they seem to be a rare gem. Then again, as Joseph de Maistre wrote in 1811 "Every nation gets the government it deserves." so the blame is largely with all of us.



Just in case you haven't gathered, one of my biases is for data over opinions (although I have plenty of both :-) so if you spot any errors or disagree, please leave a comment. At the risk of stating the obvious, I should also add that the health and longevity data above is from the US. Much of the world still doesn't have electricity or running water in their home; let alone both; so if that's you, then you'll probably die of internal parasites, malaria, starvation, etc, or the local warlord, long before you have to worry about Al Qaeda much less heart disease.

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