What price to save lives in the war on terror?

If Russia spent as much on intelligence agencies as the United States does — $52.6 billion in 2013, according to the ‘black budget’ published by the Washington Post last August — would it have been able to stop the suicide bombers who killed 31 people in two attacks in Volgograd early this week?

If Russia spent as much on intelligence agencies as the United States does — $52.6 billion in 2013, according to the ‘black budget’ published by the Washington Post last August — would it have been able to stop the suicide bombers who killed 31 people in two attacks in Volgograd early this week?

Can you solve the problem just by throwing money at it?

And how big a problem is it, anyway?

Russia doesn’t really have that kind of money to spend on “intelligence,” so let’s narrow it down to the $10.6 billion that the U.S. National Security Agency spends each year.

Of the 16 intelligence agencies working for the U.S. government, the NSA is the one that places the most emphasis on its alleged ability to stop terrorist attacks through monitoring everybody’s communications.

Would the NSA’s $10.6 billion, spent in the same way by the Russians, have stopped the Volgograd bombers?

We cannot know for sure, any more than we can know if another billion dollars spent in the United States would have stopped the Boston marathon bombers last June.

So maybe we should reformulate the question.

A total of 785 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Russia in the past 10 years, and Moscow does not pay for an operation remotely comparable to the NSA.

In the U.S., a total of 26 people were killed by terrorists in the same period. So does this mean that the NSA has saved 759 American lives in the past decade?

Probably not.

Russia has a far worse terrorism problem than the United States, because some six million citizens, living in the Muslim-majority republics of the northern Caucasus, belong to various ethnic groups who see themselves as living under Russian occupation.

The United States has no comparable domestic groups, and its ferocious border controls make it very hard for foreign-based terrorists to slip into the country.

There was one exception, 12 years ago, when foreign terrorists did manage to get into the United States and carry out an attack.

However, the 9/11 attackers were using a brand new technique.

Such innovations are very rare, and are only a surprise the first time. No subsequent terrorist attack, in the U.S. or anywhere else, has been remotely as ambitious.

The NSA has certainly not prevented 10 9/11s in the past decade; it’s very unlikely to have prevented even one. But let us accept, for the sake of the argument, that the NSA’s activities have really saved 759 American lives in the past decade. In fact, let’s round it up to 1,000 lives, to make the calculations easier.

That would mean that over the past decade the NSA has spent around $100 billion to save 1,000 American lives.

That works out at $10 million per life saved (on the heroic assumption that without the NSA the American terrorism problem would have been even worse than the Russian).

Economists talk about opportunity cost: when you spend the money on one thing, you are foregoing whatever benefits you might have got from spending it on something else.

Are there other ways of spending that $100 billion that would save more than 1,000 American lives?

Consider spending some of it on better pre- and post-natal care for poor Americans.

Just $1 billion a year — an extra $250 per baby — would enable the U.S. to get its infant mortality rate down below Cuba’s, maybe even as low as Portugal or South Korea.

Over 10 years, that would be 60,000 more American kids who lived to grow up.

Or take highways. Highway engineers can estimate how many people will die each year on a given stretch of highway fairly accurately.

It depends on the width and surface of the road, how many sharp curves and blind hills there are, whether there are guard rails, etc.

All those things depend on how much money you have to spend on that stretch of highway.

Around 34,000 Americans died on the roads in 2012.

Another $5 billion a year, spent on making highways safer, would probably reduce that toll by an extra thousand people each year. Over 10 years, it would save around another 60,000 lives.

That’s 120,000 lives saved, and there’s still $4 billion a year left to spend on other life-saving improvements.

You almost certainly end up saving at least 150,000 American lives with your $100-billion investment.

That’s at least 150 times better than your return on investing the money in the NSA — and we haven’t yet even considered the cost in alienated allies and violated civil rights of giving the NSA all that money.

Unfortunately, Americans dying in infancy or on the highways don’t make headlines, whereas victims of terrorism do.

Politically, their lives are much more important, and so that’s where the money goes.

Indeed, even making calculations of this sort about the relative value we assign to human lives is thought to be in poor taste.

Never mind. As Herman Kahn, the dean of American nuclear strategists, said when people criticized him for making cold-blooded estimates of how many millions of Americans would be killed as a result of various different U.S. strategies for fighting a nuclear war: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?”

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Erika Fetterly, owner of EFP Studios, recently launched the Let Them Have A Voice campaign. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta photographer’s campaign aims to give youths a voice

An Innisfail photographer is giving a platform to young central Albertans so… Continue reading

Chopped Canada-winning chef Pete Sok is trying to focus on the future as he reopens Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge in the Holiday Inn on Gasoline Alley during the pandemic. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer’s celebrity chef looks past the pandemic with new restaurant opportunity

Pete Sok is reopening Boulevard Restaurant — and betting on the future

The Red Deer Rebels hosted the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first game of the shortened 2020-21 season on Friday. The two teams faced off again in Medicine Hat Saturday (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Red Deer Rebels fall to Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday

Tigers 7 Rebels 2 The Red Deer Rebels have lost two straight… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Premier slams vandalism after slur painted on MLA’s office window

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is condemning alleged vandalism at the… Continue reading

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Machin waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Finance on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Executives who engage in so-called "vaccine tourism" show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine tourism is both unethical and bad for business, experts say

Executives who engage in so-called “vaccine tourism” show both an ethical disregard… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) battle in front as goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes the save during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, February 27, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
No Matthews, no problem: Minus NHL goal leader, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 4-0

Leafs 4 Oilers 0 EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs knew even with… Continue reading

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Gummed-up bills in House of Commons: harbinger of a federal election?

OTTAWA — All federal party leaders maintain they don’t want an election… Continue reading

The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Pornhub policies reveal legal gaps and lack of enforcement around exploitive videos

OTTAWA — Serena Fleites was in seventh grade when a sexually explicit… Continue reading

Sean Hoskin stands on a neighbourhood street in Halifax on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Hoskin was diagnosed with COVID-19 almost a year ago with symptoms that still persist. Some provinces have established programs to deal with long-term sufferers but Atlantic Canada, with relatively low numbers of patients, has yet to provide a resource to assist them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
On East Coast, exhausted COVID-19 ‘long haulers’ hope specialized clinics will emerge

HALIFAX — On evenings when Sean Hoskin collapses into bed, heart pounding… Continue reading

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

Most Read