I’ve been doing thought experiments like these for a while. It starts with the premise, which I don’t necessarily accept, that the US government has a limited amount of financial resources. It can’t simply spend as much as it wants in every possible sector (though it often seems the military has enough money to buy and do anything).
A lot of financial resources go into what is called “National Security.” This can cover a variety of things, ranging from domestic surveillance and intelligence gathering to wars and drones. After the horrific events of 9/11, a lot of these resources went into two official wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and several other covert wars/operations in countries where Islamic extremists are found like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. These measures were taken ostensibly to increase security and prevent other similar terrorist attacks – or more simply, to save human beings, and Americans specifically, from death and suffering.
September 11th was a one time event, though other smaller events happen frequently and most of them outside the US. But let’s imagine for a moment that 9/11 happened every year. Three thousand American citizens were killed each year because of successful terrorist plots. Let’s just assume that they had become so common that people really didn’t even worry about them. They became something like gun violence or other crimes which clearly bothers you to some degree, depending on where you live, but not a great deal because they simply don’t effect you too often. There is still a fear of terrorism, but not an irrational amount.
Now let’s compare the number of 3,000 deaths per year by terrorism (in this hypothetical situation where 9/11 happens every year) to other causes of death. Both cardiovascular diseases and cancer together over a million Americans each year. In 2009, over 36,00 Americans committed suicide, while homicide accounted for nearly 17,000 deaths. Tens of thousands of Americans die each year because they don’t have health insurance. Food-borne illnesses killed over 3,000 Americans in 2011. And by the way, over 20,000 children in the world die every day from easily preventable things like a lack of food or clean water. But let’s just stick to Americans. A 9/11 event every year would kill about the same amount of people as food-borne illnesses. (Of course, since 9/11 doesn’t happen every year, Americans have been far more likely to die due to food-borne illnesses than a terrorist plot. At least 10x more likely. Three thousand deaths vs. tens of thousands of deaths.)
One would think that if the policies of the US government were meant to decrease the amount of suffering and unwanted deaths of American citizins, these numbers would be relevant. But based on the current priorities visible in the discretionary budget (see the end of this post), it is clear that they are not. Does it seem rational to spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year on weapons and wars to prevent another 9/11 event when ten times more Americans are killed by food-borne illnesses alone?
We can make this hypothetical even more ridiculous to emphasize the point. Imagine that NO Americans died of these preventable deaths. No heart disease. No cancer. Everyone has insurance. No guns, suicide, or homicide. Only the 3,000 from 9/11. Would it then possibly be rational to spend this much money on “national security?” Would it be wise to put billions into invading to countries and the hi-tech ways of gathering intelligence and killing people?
No. Even if we still take the narrow, nearly un-held view that only American lives matter, it is not altogether clear that less Americans would suffer or die than if the money used for Iraq, Afghanistan, and covert wars was diverted to, say, education, or wasn’t spent at all. That’s because nearly 4,500 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq (more than the 9/11 death toll), and over 30,000 wounded. Over 2,000 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and more than 18,000 wounded. And this doesn’t even count the hundreds of US soldiers that have committed suicide. It seems hard to believe that more than 6,000 American civilians would have died on American soil if we did not invade Iraq or Afghanistan. Does it seem appropriate that after 3,000 Americans were tragically killed by one terrorist attack that over twice as many should die while occupying countries that were not responsible for those attacks? Even if you assume there are no other American deaths we could possibly prevent, the budget priorities still seem very irrational.
Once you concede that you believe all people are equal and that each death, regardless of nationality, is equally tragic, then the budget is just plain ludicrous. The numbers in the above paragraph are, remember, only American deaths. In addition to the occupying forces, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed over the last ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then there are targeted attacks in other countries, often carried out by drones. Drones are unmanned aircraft which have been collecting information and, increasingly since Obama took office, targeting suspected terrorists and militants in hot-spots from Pakistan to Yemen. Can it be rational to spend billions of dollars on the drone program alone, and then with them implement a policy responsible for at least several hundred civilian deaths (though no one really knows how high that number goes) and terrorizing and entire population? In Pakistan, for every 50 people killed, 1 is a terrorist, according to this study. This is the same program that targeted a couple American citizens without trial and targets people whose names are unknown, chosen for death simply by a certain pattern of behavior. We can’t even find out why the Obama administration thinks this is legal, because they claim it’s a state secret. Yet despite the secrecy, the targeting of American citizens, the huge number of civilian deaths, respected national security reporters seem to support it. Aside from the moral and legal questions of whether or not we should be engaging in this type of military activity, there is another important question that needs to be an affirmative “yes” before support should be voiced for it: Does it actually make Americans safer? The moral and legal considerations are superfluous if these actions are actually counterproductive. They increase anti-American sentiment, no doubt. It’s a good recruitment tool for Al Qaeda, which in Yemen alone has grown from a few hundred members to a few thousand in recent years, to cite one example. Islamic extremism simply won’t go away if we continue to bomb and invade Muslim countries in the name of our own “national security.” If that’s true, how can it be rational to spend so much on wars and weapons with so many non-terrorism related deaths in the US each year?
Through the thought experiment about having a 9/11 event every year, we can see that the way we are currently allocating financial resources in the US is highly irrational if we are trying to limit suffering and save American lives. The amount of time, money, and energy spent on wars, weapons, and anything related to “national security” is beyond excessive. These resources should be spent on things like health care and education, both here in America and abroad. The richest country in the world can more than afford to do this, and it would much safer for it.