A Comparison of Gun Violence in America and Terrorist Attacks in Israel

I was part of the group of students and faculty that recently visited Israel. It was truly an amazing trip, and it reshaped my perception of everything from the Syrian civil war, to Biblical history, to the contemporary political dynamics that complicate efforts to secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to life in the United States. I do not purport to be an expert on anything pertaining to Israel, and my thoughts on the trip are still a bit scattered, but I thought I would share at least one major impression: Israel felt more secure than I thought it would. Having read about the country’s various security problems for years, I started the trip with some anxiety about traveling in what was for me unprecedented proximity to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria. To borrow the title of an 1980s sitcom, I thought that anti-Western groups would be a little too close for comfort.

But I felt completely secure, and I think everyone else did, too. It appeared that Israel’s citizens manage to live normal lives in basic safety notwithstanding the various security challenges they face. Markets, tours, businesses, restaurants, and schools all operate without any apparent sense of danger. The external threats are serious, but none of them appeared to be terribly consequential on a day-to-day basis for the individuals who live there.

A comparison might help to illustrate how this is possible. Consider the rate of firearm homicides in America and the rate of civilian casualties in Israel as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are the numbers for the United States from 2007 to 2011:

Year Firearm Homicides in the U.S. Per 100,000
2011 11,101 3.58
2010 11,078 3.58
2009 11,493 3.74
2008 12,179 4.00
2007 12,632 4.19

And here are the numbers for Israel:

Year Israeli Civilian Casualties for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Per 100,000
2011 11 .14
2010 8 .11
2009 9 .12
2008 35 .49
2007 13 .18

In short, Americans have been far more likely to die from gunfire than Israelis to die from terrorist attacks. The rate of firearm homicides in America in 2011, for example, was over 25 times higher per capita than the rate of civilian casualties from terrorism in Israel during the same period. If Americans can manage to feel safe, it should come as no surprise that Israelis can, too. This is not to say that Israel’s security environment is stable or satisfactory, but simply that by one important metric it is no worse, and in fact much better, than our own. To the extent that we perceive otherwise, I think it is probably a product of the media’s tendency to focus on terrorist attacks and conflict, rather than the mundane aspects of daily life. Tragedies are better than peace at garnering attention.

*Figures for firearm homicides in the U.S. are from CDC and UN reports. The Israeli death tolls are as reported by B’Tselem and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Population data for Israel and the United States are from the World Bank and the U.S. Census Bureau, respectively.

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