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Keep One Eye on the Sky

An Ohio State professor says the next thing to hit us out of the blue is as likely to be an asteroid as a hijacked jet.

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Afraid of terrorists? Ready to clear-cut the Bill of Rights so they've got no place to hide? John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State (he holds the Woody Hayes chair of national security policy) wants you to calm down. Writing in the September/ October issue of Foreign Affairs, he ponders the assertion by the Department of Homeland Security at its creation in 2002 that "today's terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon."

If that's the case, Mueller asks himself, why haven't they? The notion that the government's vigilance at home and aggression abroad have kept the terrorists at bay doesn't make sense to Mueller. With a nod to Katrina, he observes that government is simply not that competent. Perhaps, he suggests, the terrorists don't exist. He writes, "A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists--like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it--has been massively exaggerated. Is it possible that the haystack is essentially free of needles?"

Mueller's making the argument that our liberties have been put in needless peril to meet a largely imaginary threat. The libertarian John Tierney wrote a New York Times column seconding Mueller's point, George Stephanopoulus read from the Foreign Affairs piece on his news show, and bloggers and Web sites spread it around. Mueller himself observed on the libertarian cato-unbound.org that Stephanopoulus asked a guest, 9/11 Commission cochair Thomas Kean, if Mueller's proposition that our government "may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists" amounted to "heresy," and Kean replied, "Yeah, I think so."

Mueller has a book coming out soon, Overblown, so his argument isn't going away. But there's one piece of it--a point I spotted him making not only in Foreign Affairs but in an interview on the Web site reason.com--he should dump. To put terrorism in perspective, he offered this in Foreign Affairs: "The lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000--about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor."

We know in our bones how small a chance that is. So far as anyone knows, the next person killed by a falling star will be the first. It's possible for mathematical logic to be both impeccable and ludicrous, and the parable of the asteroid fits the bill. "The asteroid threat strikes me as so imponderable," I e-mailed Mueller, "that I'm curious about how anyone was able to calculate any odds at all."

Mueller's source is a highly credentialed ponderer: Alan Harris is a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in La Canada, California, who a few years ago helped prepare a NASA report on the hazards of asteroids (the comet risk was considered too remote to bother with). Mueller forwarded me an e-mail he got from Harris explaining the math, and Harris, equally helpful, patiently answered my questions in an exchange of e-mails.

Harris got his terrorism numbers from the State Department: there's been a global average of 1,000 deaths a year for the past eight years--about 600 a year if the 9/11 "spike" is excluded. Choosing the higher number, Harris supposed international terrorism would go on killing at about that rate in a world whose human population is 6 billion and average life span 80. The math works out to a one-in-75,000 chance of death by terrorism. "I rounded to 80,000 since the number is at least that uncertain," Harris told Mueller.

As for sudden death from outer space, most of the risk lies with the "very large, and hence very infrequent events," Harris wrote me. "The most risky are those just large enough to cause a global climatic catastrophe, which could cause perhaps a billion or more deaths, mostly through famine, and happens, we estimate, a couple times per million years. A billion folks in 500,000 years is around 2,000 per year....Our estimates of frequency have gone down a bit, so our best estimate now is

1,300 per year. But 1,300 don't die every year, in fact not a single person dies in a year, or a decade, or even since the beginning of recorded history."

The reasoning behind the terrorism-asteroid equivalency goes like this: Terrorists will continue to kill in unpleasant but tolerable numbers. At some point in the next half a million or million years an asteroid will strike earth and wipe out a big chunk of the human race. In half a million or a million years the overall numbers will look pretty much the same, meaning tomorrow one's as likely to happen to you as the other.

Harris wrote me, "The current authorities would have you believe that [terrorism] is steeply on the rise, and your future risk will be much greater than your past risk, unless of course you surrender your life style and your money for them to 'protect' you. But is it? Your pal John Mueller seriously questions that when he asks 'where are they?' I agree with him....It is clear that the easiest way to bring down airliners is to ship bags with bombs in them. Even if security finds nine out of ten, bombs are cheap and terrorists could bring down lots of planes just by shipping lots and lots of bombs. That's not rocket science. They must have figured that out by now. So the question is, 'where are they?' If there really are terrorists out there, and if they are even halfway smart, the security forces should have a warehouse full of captured bombs. I repeat, 'where are they?' One can concoct a conspiracy theory that the security forces are keeping that a secret and they really do have a warehouse full of them, but frankly, I doubt it. My own conclusion is simply that they don't exist. For the most part, we are chasing bogeymen...

"If I were an actuary selling insurance for death by asteroid or death by terrorism, I'd charge about the same premium for either one. The only difference is, with terrorism I'd probably have to pay up a small amount every year. With the asteroid, we'll all go together and I won't be around to pay up."

I find the terrorist-asteroid equivalency pretty fascinating. But Mueller and Harris need to know that I'm pretty much alone in this. To others I've described it to, it's a lot less illuminating than loopy. The case they're making probably should come in from outer space.

Sick Day

Chief justice Robert Thomas has sued former Kane County Chronicle columnist Bill Page for libel, and the trial is scheduled to begin October 24. There was an early skirmish last Friday in a restaurant parking lot in Saint Charles.

Page was having lunch at Francesca's with a couple of companions when Thomas and his attorney, Joseph Power, walked in and sat down. Page quickly led his companions out through a side door, but Thomas saw them go. "We talked about how we were going to handle it," says Power. "We weren't happy campers."

Thomas's suit turns on three columns Page wrote in 2003 accusing Thomas of a "little political shimmy-shammy" in Kane County, allegedly trading his vote on the court for political favors. Power and Thomas had planned their day in Kane County around taking Page's deposition, but the day before he'd begged off, saying he was sick. They'd come out from Chicago anyway to take another deposition, but it was much less important. The sight of Page at lunch made them fume. Power, less certain than Thomas that it really was Page, decided to go out and try to spot a license plate number. Thomas followed.

One of Page's companions had gone back inside to retrieve something. So when Thomas and Power emerged, there was Page.

"They made a beeline for me," says Page, who claims Thomas told him, "You don't look sick." But Power says Thomas said that to Page from across the parking lot and when he and Thomas turned to go back into Francesca's Page stormed up to them.

Alleging intimidation and harassment, Page later filled out a police report. In it he told the police, "Thomas made another comment and I said 'You really are a miserable little shit.' I also said, 'How dare you talk to me. You can't bully me like you've done to everyone else.'"

Power agrees that's what Page said.

Page's account goes on: "With that Thomas raised his voice and yelled 'You're a liar. You lied and we'll prove it.' I responded, 'You sold a judgeship for $25,000 and I can prove that, and you cut a deal with [retired judge] Donnie Anderson and I can prove that.'"

Power says Page has the order wrong. He says Page accused Thomas of selling a judgeship and cutting a deal, and then Thomas accused him of lying.

That ended the confrontation. "I'm flabbergasted that he would make these outrageous, derogatory comments," says Power.

Page tells me, "If the roles were reversed, if I had been the one to confront him, you know I'd be wearing an orange jumpsuit now."

News Bite

As Chicago campaigns for the 2016 Olympics, the Jon Burge scandal is hardly the only skeleton in its closet. Monroe Anderson reported in a Sun-Times column last Sunday that a group called Black People Against Police Torture has written members of the International Olympic Committee calling the city unworthy of the games. But the committee will also be considering the city's recent track record with big global events. In the mid-80s Chicago was chosen to host the 1992 world's fair, but the city couldn't get its act together and dropped out.

Chicagoans might tell the committee that would never have happened if a Daley had been mayor. But that's to pretend the current mayor never intended to build a new airport in Hegewisch, and that Millennium Park came in on time and on budget. And let's hope Olympics site selectors who come here to measure Chicago's get-up-and-go don't ask what the story is behind that 91-acre wasteland just south of the planetarium.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Godfrey Carmona.

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