1. Last week, writing in The Intercept, civil rights activist Shaun King wrote a story about Michael Christopher Estes, a North Carolina man who planted a bomb at Asheville Regional Airport. The bomb failed to go off. Estes was eventually … Continue reading
This time last year, I published a blogpost that examined police shootings in America. In it, I tried to determine whether police shootings of black people outpaced their expected value in terms of their population share from state to state. I found that the majority of states were within the expected distribution, i.e., in 33 states there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the police were more likely to fatally shoot black people than anyone else. However, the remaining 17 states (my home state of Minnesota among them) showed evidence of racial bias. That is to say, far more black people were shot than could be explained by randomness alone. Additionally, in the most concerning case — when the victim was unarmed, not resisting, and not fleeing the scene — black victims constituted a plurality of the cases. They not only outpaced their population share but were the most common victims of police shootings under those conditions.
Since it’s been a year† I thought it would be a good time to revisit the question and see how we’ve progressed in this area. Despite the best efforts of Colin Kaepernick and his like-minded cohort, it has been my impression that this issue has gotten significantly less press attention in the last year than in the year that preceded it. Is this a reflection of real, quantifiable improvement in this problem? Or have we simply turned our attention to other things?
The results, as one might expect, are something of a mixed bag. Nationwide, the shooting of black people is down roughly 8.5%, while every other category is up slightly. In total, this amounts to an extra three fatal shootings per month, or about a 4.2% rise from the preceding period.
It’s not immediately clear what’s driving the increase in police shootings. I compared state per capita police shootings to per capita violent crime and there is a loose correlation between the two; however, one would expect states that have seen an increase in violent crime to also show an increase in police shootings, but that does not appear to be the case:
Perhaps these results would be more meaningful if examined on the city level. I am unaware of a city level violent crime rate data set.
When segmented by state, the picture looks quite similar to last year. Every state that showed evidence of racial bias last year continued to show it once the next year of data was incorporated. Moreover, three states and the District of Columbia moved from within the expected distribution to borderline status.
Iowa (n=13, p=.027, k=4), for example, is just barely off the expected distribution, though its small sample size doesn’t inspire compelling conclusions be drawn from its example:
Washington D.C. (n=11, p=.490, k=10) is similar to Iowa in this respect. D.C. only had three fatal police shootings in 2017, but all of the victims were black men.
North Carolina (n=75, p=.216, k=28) has a sample size that justifies its placement among the problematic states. Twelve of North Carolina’s twenty-five victims of fatal police shootings in 2017 were black.
Washington state (n=70, p=.037, k=11) had a surprising number of total shootings. Based on national averages, one would expect to see about 30% fewer such shootings, or about 20 (!) fewer fatal shootings since January 2015. Though black victims made up a somewhat smaller proportion of the total shootings in Washington, they well outpaced the population share.
California (n=457, p=.067, k=72) continues to be the worst offender in the country, killing the most of every race and significantly outpacing its population share. In fact, if California’s total shootings were simply the difference between its actual shootings and its expected shootings by population size, it would still rank second in the nation.
It should be noted, of course, that police shootings are not randomly distributed by state, nor are they consistently proportionate to population size. California, Texas, Florida, and New York are the four most populous states in the country and they rank 1st, 25th, 34th, and 51st respectively the rate of police shootings. An important aspect of this conversation is to determine how, exactly, to make California, Arizona, and Oklahoma more like New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. (To the best of my knowledge, no one has studied variance in police shootings by state.) Racial parity here is a laudable goal, but it will be incomplete — and of small comfort to grieving families — if it is not also accompanied by a rapid decline in overall police shootings.
It’s not all bad news. While states such as Washington, Ohio, Florida, and Missouri are killing more people overall, states like Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Colorado are killing fewer. Texas, for instance, averaged reduced their rate of fatal shootings by more than one per month over the course of 2017. This, unfortunately, was not enough to offset the gains in states like Washington, Ohio, and Missouri. Perhaps closer examination of either extreme — with a contrast with the states that saw little or no change — would provide some insights.
Furthermore, states like Nevada, Alabama, and Kentucky were among eleven in total that significantly improved their performance with respect to racial bias. Nevada, for example, didn’t kill a single black person in 2017, despite the black population of Nevada hovering around 5%.
Lastly, the category I referred to last year as the “most insidious form of police shootings” — when the victim was unarmed, not resisting, and not fleeing the scene — has inched closer to the expected distribution. Black people are no longer the plurality of victims of this category. This superficially positive change masks the devastating fact that the number of this type of shooting has skyrocketed: 35% more in the last twelve months than in the twenty one months that preceded it.
On the whole, I would argue that there is reason for optimism. While it’s unclear what is driving the changes that are reflected in the data, the overall picture is one that increasingly matches the population demographics of our country. (It should be pointed out that this facet is understated in this analysis as the country has gotten less white since the last census, meaning the population demographics used here would make us more likely to find evidence of bias than if more recent figures were available.) Whether this change has been driven by new policies, by increased media attention and protesting, or is just an artifact of having a more robust data set, that aspect of the trend seems to be positive. No state is perfect, and there is a lot of work yet to be done, but the data suggest that, with respect to racial bias, we have taken a step in the right direction. Police are killing more white people, however. Perhaps this is tied to the recent spike in the crime rate, but the data are unclear on this point.
† Every time “2017” is used in this post, I am referring to the span from October 10th, 2016 to October 11th, 2017, and “2015-2016” refers to January 1st, 2015 to October 9th 2016. Apologies for the confusion: this choice was made to avoid making the date references more cumbersome than need be.
Yesterday morning, an Illinois man named James Hodgkinson approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on members of the Republican Congressional baseball team. Hodgkinson, said “to be distraught over President Trump’s election,” indiscriminately shot between fifty and sixty rounds but — miraculously — only managed to injure four people before being shot and killed by Capitol Police.
To no one’s surprise, this incident has reignited the gridlocked debate about gun control. The Washington Post, relying on data from the Gun Violence Archive, reported that this shooting was the 154th mass shooting in America so far this year. Per WaPo:
The archive considers an incident a mass shooting if four or more people are shot, not including the shooter. Some definitions are broader: If the shooter is included in the tally, the number of mass shootings rises to 195. Some, however, are much more narrow: If a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims killed in a public location, excluding robberies and gang violence, the number falls to four.
I am not personally interested in debating how we should define the term “mass shooting.” I am, however, inexplicably drawn to analyzing large datasets, so I spent the morning digging into the Gun Violence Archive’s mass shooting database.
A few notes: the GVA archive is downloadable as an Excel file, but not all of the pertinent information comes with the spreadsheet. I spent the better part of the morning investigating and categorizing each individual incident. In fifty cases, or about a third of the dataset, there was either no suspect in custody, police were not releasing details about the suspect’s motives, or no motive information was available. I removed these incidents from parts of my analysis. Further, some might dispute how I categorized certain shootings. An example: when a shooting was described as a drive-by shooting with two or more shooters, I categorized it as a gang shooting. Someone else might call that terrorism. With respect to the broader implications, I don’t think the distinction matters much.
Of the 104 shooting events I could categorize, I used eight broad categories (listed from most deaths to least): Gang-related, Domestic Violence, Interpersonal Disputes, Robberies/Home Invasions, Workplace Violence, Terrorism, Shootouts (where two or more people exchange fire), and Hate Crimes. Here is a chart of those incidents:
This is where the debate often goes off course. Republicans and Second Amendment advocates tend to point to gang shootings, acts of terrorism, and other crimes as evidence that criminals, by definition, are people who are willing to break the law, and as such are willing to acquire guns illegally. And this point is duly noted: of the incidents where a gun was illegally acquired — or an illegal gun was used — the vast majority were gang-related shootings. One the other hand, in the incidents involving interpersonal disputes, workplace violence, and domestic violence, Democrats and Gun Control advocates have an equally compelling point: most of these crimes would not have happened if the perpetrator, temper running high, did not have immediate access to a gun.
With this idea in mind, I compared the locations of the shootings with the local gun control laws. To do this, I borrowed from Gun Law Scorecard who, through a somewhat opaque process, rates each state by the gun control legislation they’ve enacted. Cross referencing each shooting by the state’s Gun Law Score, I put together this table:
States that received an “F” grade likewise had the most mass shootings, the most deaths, and the most injuries. The Gun Law Scorecard appears to be vindicated, at least in terms of the states they fail. (On the other hand, the states with the fewest mass shootings and least deaths had B, C, and D grades, so the rest of the grading system might require some tweaking.)
But not all gun control measures are created equal. There is plenty of academic debate over the efficacy of allowing or prohibiting concealed carry. However, one measure that seems to be generally effective is universal background checks. In states where universal background checks are required, impulse or “hot temper” mass shootings make up less than a quarter of the overall incidents, compared 58% of such shootings in states that do not require universal background checks. Moreover, mass shootings are more common and lethal in non-background check states.
The single most effective gun control measure appears to be universal background checks. Though Republicans are right that there are a number of situations where a person intent on committing a felony act of violence will acquire a gun by any means necessary, there are many incidents where the mere presence of a gun fatally escalates an situation that would otherwise only result in bruised fists and egos. The evidence also shows that mass shootings are more rare in states that require a background check, the shootings are less lethal in those states, and there are fewer injuries per shooting. Although I generally support the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, a nationwide universal background check on all public and private gun purchases seems to be a clear and effective strategy for reducing, though not eliminating, mass shootings.
In the wake of the unmitigated box office success of Wonder Woman, much of the critical focus has centered on the feminist aspects of the film. Zoe Williams argues that the movie is a “masterpiece of subversive feminism,” while Christina Cauterucci criticizes it for not being “as feminist as it thinks it is.” There’s also this critique:
In my view, apart from addressing issues of representation in film (a theme awkwardly underscored in the film itself), the feminist talking points about Wonder Woman are among the least interesting aspects of the movie. What stood out to me instead was the film’s deconstruction of Enlightenment philosophy, specifically the espousal and subversion of the myth of the noble savage.
According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.” Pinker identifies this viewpoint as a subset of tabula rasa or Blank Slatism. (Far from being some form of obscure or minority viewpoint, recent polling suggests that around three quarters of Americans adhere to Blank Slatism in some form.) This idea is the legacy of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man…. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.
This idea (or variants where “savages” are whatever group that stands in contrast to conventional depictions of Western Civilization) shows up in dozens of films and novels, such as The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and Dances With Wolves in Space. The plot typically plays out according to a basic formula: our war-weary protagonist, reeling from some psychic or physical injury, encounters a native people group and begins to heal as he adopts their lifestyle.
Wonder Woman is set in the waning days of World War I, “the war to end all wars,” and follows Diana Prince as she tries to locate and kill the Greek god Ares. While political powers work desperately to negotiate an armistice and call an end to the conflict, Diana (played with the perfect mix of physicality and enthusiastic naïveté by Gal Gadot) is convinced the war will not end until Ares’ destructive influence is brought to heel. As long as Ares is alive, Diana thinks, he will continue poisoning hearts and minds and men will continue to kill each other. The film’s preoccupation with mustard gas as a weapon of war serves to underscore the idea of the corruptive, corrosive effect that Ares has on mankind.
Diana’s view of human nature — that mankind is inherently righteous and noble but is corrupted by society — is played up as an innocent sincerity, untainted by contact with the outside world. Diana was raised on the mythical island of Themyscira in a decidedly pre-modern society occupied by the Amazonians and hidden from the outside world. Life on Themyscira seems continuously set at 300 BC, and it is implied that the Amazonians have lived there without external disruption since shortly after the creation of man.
This sets up the inversion of the noble savage trope. Rather than being told from the perspective of a soldier, Wonder Woman has us tag along with someone pure and primitive as she encounters both war and the West for the first time. She reacts with horror to the injustice of war, and adopts what seems a rallying cry for political activism: “You can do nothing or you can do something.”
Of course, any worldview advocated in a film invites a counterpoint. This function normally falls to the villlain; in Wonder Woman it is co-lead Steven Trevor who embodies the Hobbesian philosophy that humans are violent and combative by nature. Trevor is driven by a sense of pragmatic realism. Knowing the German General Ludendorff and the cartoonishly evil Dr. Maru are developing a form of mustard gas against which gas masks are useless, Trevor believes the Germans won’t enter into the armistice unless the new poison is destroyed: why sue for peace when you have an unstoppable superweapon at your disposal?
Diana’s crisis of confidence occurs when, having killed Ludendorff (who she believed to be Ares), the German soldiers do not immediately stop fighting and return to their righteous, noble nature. Everything she has believed about the nature of mankind is contradicted in an instant and she is devastated to realize that mankind may be beyond salvation. This hiccup is brief, and the ending plays out as a sort of Marxist fairy tale. (I’d elaborate on this, but I don’t want to give away an spoilers.)
Wonder Woman is far from a perfect film. Any superhero that is essentially a god or demigod will suffer the same drawbacks as Superman: without a fatal flaw, no opposition presents a real challenge to their superior might. There were many opportunities for Diana’s naïveté to have painful consequences for her, for her companions, or for the Allied war effort in general, but at every turn her blind, confident stride into action always plays to perfection. She has no character arc to speak of. And there is a scene of mass murder accompanied by extravagant evil laughter that would have fit much better in an Austin Powers movie. And, ultimately, the film could have done more to explore how our different worldviews impact how perceive and treat each other. But Wonder Woman deserves credit for its subtle examination of Enlightenment philosophies. As in the movie itself, sometimes it is indeed better to do anything rather than nothing at all.
Every so often, for one reason or another, people try to tally up the score between their ideological allies and opponents. This activity always strikes me as having a bit of a juvenile, playground quality to it — “My side is better … Continue reading
1. The great British theologian N.T. Wright offers a note of caution about accounting for the perspective of the original audience for a particular teaching of Jesus: “His onlookers’ minds were not tabulae rasae. Nor were they those of modern western democrats. … Continue reading
In an interview with Noisetrade, Natalie Closner Schepman, who together with her sisters Allison and Meegan Closner compose the band Joseph, remarked on how our culture tries to motivate us through fear. “We live in a culture that makes money by scaring us. We are constantly being reminded of what peril lies ahead if we don’t buy this thing or move to this place or choose this particular news source as our primary doomsayer.” “White Flag,” Joseph’s first single off their sophomore album “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” is a song about optimistic defiance to this kind of fear:
I’ll be an army, no you’re
Not gonna stop me gettin’
I’ll sing a marching song and
Stomp through the halls louder than
I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag
Elaborating on the theme of the song, Schepman offered an excerpt from On Living in an Atomic Age — CS Lewis’ essay about how to deal with the sudden, ever-present threat that nuclear war could at any moment wipe all life from the earth. “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
In writing On Living in an Atomic Age, Lewis might as well have had Donald Trump in mind. Like the atomic bomb, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of the president has fomented a collective existential crisis in both the body politic and the public at large. Donald Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” according to the Washington Post. “(Trump’s) contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan have described President Trump as, “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order … an extinction-level event.”
Whether such analysis is reasonable or exaggerated remains to be seen, but the paralyzing enticements of fear and despair are in no way new. “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” Lewis argued. “‘How are we to live in an atomic age?'” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might have cut your throat any night.” That death put on an unfamiliar mask did not give it new power; instead, it shattered our cherished illusion that we are immortal. Lewis continued, “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. …you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”
By echoing the sage wisdom Lewis offered in the face of that more immediate threat, Joseph position themselves as the perfect salve for the persistent chafing of our current cultural moment. “There is plenty to be concerned about!” Schepman adds. “We are a polarized country and there is more division than ever right now, so I have marveled at how much I need ‘White Flag’ more and more.” Joseph meets us in our division and discouragement and offers a joyful antidote.
“I’m Alone, No You’re Not” has been well-received since its release last August. While critics have waxed on — rightly — about Joseph’s transcendent harmonies and sharp melodic instincts, I find myself equally captivated by their consistently positive message, an unfolding ideological landscape at least as beautiful as their voices. Take “I Don’t Mind,”* for example, a song about internalizing the belief that you are worthy of love. “I was saying for a while,” recalled Meegan during Joseph’s Tiny Desk Concert, “that it was what I wanted someone to say to me about my own sadness, and it just hit me that I would have to say it to myself first before I could receive it from anyone else.”
I will love you anyway
With all your demons in the way
Nothing can keep us apart
I walk through walls into your heart
*(A simple diagnostic test: if the harmonies at 2:13 don’t give you chills, there is likely something wrong with your central nervous system — consult a doctor immediately. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Closners can sing).
“Whirlwind” may be the only musical meditation on the book of Job ever written that isn’t absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know if the members of Joseph identify as Christians — Schepman attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school — but they find themselves in excellent company with great musicians like Sufjan Stevens and mewithoutYou as they give fresh life to Christian themes without presenting themselves as Christian musicians per se.
Have you held the mallets drumming thunder
Or filled the clouds with rain?
Have you opened up the skies above you
And seen a desert wake?
Have you given orders to the morning
Or shown the dawn its place?
Can you grab hold of the earth’s four corners
And shake shake shake out the darkness
In “Planets,” Joseph conjures Eisley at their fanciful best without flirting with the adolescent imagery that made Eisley feel, at times, unapproachable. “Planets” is also the best example of free form poetry on “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” the line “The stars are a blanket, I’ll wrap them round these shoulders/Arms spread out wide, turn falling into flight” calling to mind Beryl Smeeton’s autobiography “The Stars My Blanket.”
Themes of care, intimacy, and the resolve to embrace life and love over fear and despair make “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” at once timeless and timely. On Living in an Atomic Age ends with Lewis’ observation that “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.” By setting their minds on higher things, Joseph created a poetic experience that will take on new meaning and persistent relevance as our present concerns shift. “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” is a great record to enjoy with a glass of whiskey and my favorite album of 2016.
In the beginning of the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken several noble Jewish children as hostages. Those children were given new names, often ones that implied loyalty to pagan gods – for instance, Daniel (Hebrew for “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar, which means “May Our Goddess Protect the King.” If you can imagine having a new name forced upon you, and having that name be an insult to your religious heritage, you now have a glimpse of how that might have felt. Likewise, they were forced to embrace a new language and a new culture, and there is even some evidence to suggest that these Jews were castrated. These boys were taken from their families, made to live in a new city, had every aspect of their lives transformed, and may even have had their gender erased.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the presidential election, I have to imagine that many Americans can strongly relate to Daniel and his cohort.
I have to imagine that many minorities racial, ethnic, religious and sexual must feel as though they are on the precipice of seeing their value evaporate and their identities snuffed out.
Donald Trump rode a wave of hateful rhetoric to the most powerful office on the planet, allying himself with white supremacists and neo-Nazis along the way. And while it’s certainly true that not all or even most of Trump’s supporters fit that description, the many that do will now feel emboldened to spread their anti-gospel of wickedness and hate as far as they can.
Ultimately, the book of Daniel has a single underlying theme: that despite present appearances, God is in control. If we believe that God was in control when He put Jerusalem in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, how much more must He be in control over so much less a man?
In Romans five, Paul reminds us that while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly; that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Too much can be made of terms like “sinners” and “ungodly.” Paul’s point was not so much to point out the moral shortcomings of His audience, but rather to help us feel the overwhelming torrent of the love of God. Instead of thinking of those words with their moral meaning, replace them with their relational significance: when we were still strangers to Him, Christ died for us. When God owed us nothing, He gave us everything.
It goes without saying that with a majority in the House, the Senate, and a “Republican” as President, Republicans and conservatives may feel emboldened to impose a legislative and judicial will on America that will turn American citizens into refugees at home, “an America for me but not for thee.” I hope they resist that urge. I hope the principled members of Congress, regardless of party, resist that urge at every turn. I am optimistic, but not naïve.
Christians need to remember what happened to the heroes of our faith when they fell into the hands of a tyrant. Christians need to remember the astounding grace we received when we were still strangers to God. Will we extend our love to those who now feel powerless? Will we sacrifice ourselves for those who find themselves pushed to the fringes? Will we affirm and reaffirm the infinite value of every person created in the image of God, which is just a redundant way to say “all of humanity”?
Or will we make those who seem somewhat unlike us feel even less like us, to pursue power as though we think this is “a Gospel for me, but not for thee”?
The Righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go and visit you?”
If Abraham Lincoln was correct, if the real test of a person’s character is how they handle power, these next four years will shine a spotlight on the character of Christians in America. I hope we rise to the challenge. I hope our affiliation with Christ dominates our affiliation with politics. In 2011, Egyptian Muslims formed a human shield around Coptic Christians who wanted to celebrate Christmas, producing one of the most touching photographs I can remember – and the clearest example of Christ-likeness I can think of. I hope American Christians follow their example, and – hand-in-hand – stand between our brothers and sisters and those who mean to hurt them.
“The mind is not designed to grasp the laws of probability, even though the laws rule the universe.” ― Steven Pinker 1. There is a famous experiment in statistics where a professor divides his class into two groups. In the … Continue reading
Recently, Donald Trump, Jr. – son of the Republican nominee/possible lizard person – tweeted out this graphic:
The insinuation, of course, is that any Syrian refugee could possibly be an ISIS sleeper agent trying to gain access to the United States. The comparison was quickly denounced in some circles, roundly praised in others, and given a stern rebuke by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the maker of the fruity candy, who said, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectively refrain from further commentary, as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”
Perhaps the most interesting response came from Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Nowrasteh argued that the Skittles meme is an appropriate metaphor, but only if utilized properly. It is, after all, a very different story if our bowl holds fifty Skittles or if it holds a million. Per Nowrasteh:
Imagine a bowl full of 3.25 million Skittles that has been accumulated from 1975 to the end of 2015. We know that 20 of the Skittles in that bowl intended to do harm but only three of those 20 are actually fatal. That means that one in 1.08 million of them is deadly. It gets even better though. There are over three hundred million Americans and not everyone can get a Skittle. This means that the chance of any American actually eating the fatal Skittle and perishing is about one in 3.64 billion a year during the 41-year time period. Do you eat from the bowl without quaking in your boots? I would.
The odds of an American being killed by a refugee in any given year are one in 3.64 billion. That is an absurdly small number. But is it correct?
Nowrasteh arrived at his estimate by finding the number of refugees admitted to the United States who were either convicted of planning a terrorist attack or actually carried one out. There were twenty such individuals. “Refugees were not very successful at killing Americans in terrorist attacks,” Nowrasteh writes. “Of the 20, only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people.”
Nowrasteh then comes to his yearly average by dividing three by the sum total of the American population from 1975-2015 (roughly 10.9 billion) to arrive at his one in 3.64 billion figure. (The most dangerous form of immigrant is the one here on a tourist Visa: the odds of dying to such a person in any given year are one in 3.6 million. The second most dangerous? Students.)
“The three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed their attacks in the 1970s,” Nowrasteh adds. “(They) were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern rigorous refugee-screening procedures currently in place.” According to Nowrasteh, there have been no such murders committed by foreign-born refugees since that act passed.
There are a couple things to consider here. The first is that translating a yearly probability into an absolute probability is a fairly tricky process. The absolute probability over the span from 1975-2015 is roughly 1 per 166 million people. (The sum of Americans who are alive today plus the number who have died since 1975 gives the total number of Americans alive at any point since 1975. That number is approximately 500 million. If three died in refugee-related terrorist activities over that span, that gives us approximately one in 166 million.) But 41 years does not cover the average American life-span. If we can expect to live to 75, on average, and we can expect this rate to remain constant at 1 in 3.64 billion, then the odds of being killed by a refugee-terrorist are now one in 49 million, or roughly the odds of winning the Powerball if you buy four tickets.
Second, if we use the number of refugee-terrorists (whether or not they were successful in their attacks) as our numerator, the odds get a little worse. The number of victims in any given terrorist attack is highly variable. Sometimes these attackers are victims of their own incompetence and there are no victims except for an amateur bomb-maker and the application of common sense. Future attacks, if they are ever indeed carried out, might be more effective at producing casualties. According to John Mueller, professor at Ohio State University, there have been approximately 3.2 million refugees admitted to the United States since 1975. Of those, 20 have attempted acts of terror, or about one for every 162,000 refugees. That’s almost identical to our current rate of mass shooters, which begs an uncomfortable question: are comfortable with the current level of mass shooters in our country?
That leads us to the final, most important factor: is there any reason to expect that the current rate of one in 3.64 billion should stay constant? This is the question at the heart of the debate. “Perhaps future Skittles added into the bowl will be deadlier than previous Skittles but the difference would have to be great before the risks become worrisome,” says Nowrestah. Total refugees from ISIS-controlled territories have increased steadily. According to the State Department, there were 31 total Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. In 2015, that number was 1,682. Refugees from high-percentage Muslim countries have increased a small amount since 2008 (30,934 last year compared to 23,490 in 2008).
Of the twenty refugee-terrorists on Nowrasteh’s list, nine of them entered the US after 9/11. Four of them – Yassin Aref, Najibullah Zazi & Zarein Ahmedzay, and Abdullatif Aldosary – came from regions affiliated with terror groups. Given the high numbers of refugees from these areas, the relative risk for such refugees is one in 44,000 – four times higher than the average rate for refugees. (None of these men were successful in carrying out their crimes).
Depending on how you frame the question, you have between a one in 49 million and a one in 166 million chance of being killed by a refugee-terrorist on American soil. Somewhere between one and 44,000 and one in 162,000 refugees will attempt such an act. Those numbers may seem high, maybe even intolerably high. But stop to consider the fact that you are 7300 times more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a refugee-terrorist. Have you stopped driving yet?
The refugee vetting process starts with the UNHCR, which is the U.N.’s refugee agency. The U.N. performs interviews, biological screenings, and attempts to do background checks to weed out criminals and military combatants. After the U.N. refers candidates to the U.S., the Resettlement Support Center initiates an interagency background check, sending the relevant information through the FBI, NCC/IC, the State Department, and Homeland Security. (Syrian refugees receive an even more thorough screening than the average refugee.) Basic biometrics are collected and a medical screening is done. Less than half of referrals are accepted. Finally, an NGO determines where refugees will be settled.
Refugees are subject to the highest level of scrutiny and security checks of any traveler to the United States. The process takes 18-24 months to complete. Refugees have little influence on where and when they will be resettled. As a recipe for spreading terror across an ocean, this method has serious drawbacks. It’s no wonder why the most deadly terrorists came here on student and travel visas. Though we may squabble about particular numbers, the current risk posed by refugees is absurdly low.