Donald Trump Jr. and Very Big Numbers

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.


One thought on “Donald Trump Jr. and Very Big Numbers

  1. Pingback: On Christian Terrorism and Keeping Score | The Dying Away

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