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Jan 23 2006

The threat of terrorist attacks-1

I have posted in the past about how the current administration likes to keep the populace in a state of constant fear. Succeeding in that task, persuading them that each one of us is under imminent threat enables the administration to undertake the systematic dismantling of the hard-won rights and civil liberties that underly societies that are truly free. It also enables them to rally voters to their side. I argued that we should fight this fearmongering.

Some of you may have noticed, for example, that since the elections were over in November 2004, we have not seen any dramatic announcements of terrorist plots, changes in the color-coded alert system, etc. (Quick quiz: Do you know what the current color is? Do you even care?) But there will be congressional elections this year and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the reporting of vague threats against major cities as those campaigns get underway. The rising bellicosity about Iran seems to be the preamble.

I should emphasize that in making this assertion, I am not underestimating the threat of future terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. Sadly, I think that future terrorist attacks are not only highly likely, they are almost inevitable. The recent release of the bin Laden audiotape (more on this tomorrow) only confirms this pessimistic view. What I am arguing is that you cannot fight this kind of terrorism with bluster and attacks on countries like Iraq that, as needs constant repetition, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and nothing to do with al-Quaeda.

Terrorists seek to frighten ordinary people. They do that by hitting ‘soft’ targets (places where people just congregate, without any special military or political or economic significance that warrant extra security) as dramatically as possible, so as to frighten people into thinking that they are not safe anywhere.

What complicates matters for anyone planning such a major attack and can deter them, just like for any ordinary criminal, is how to escape undetected after the act has been committed. It is this that largely restricts the options and opportunities for criminals to create a dramatic and deadly event.

But once a group has crossed a threshold and feels its grievances to be strong enough to be able to recruit people for suicide missions, and that soft targets of civilian populations are worthy targets, then the biggest deterrent against attacks is gone, and society is utterly vulnerable. Once people don’t mind, and even seek, dying for a cause, you have little defense against them and one’s safety options become highly limited.

This happened in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Once the sense of grievance among the Tamils was high enough that the Tigers could recruit members for suicide missions, they were able to attack targets, even highly guarded ones, with impunity. They were able to kill high ranking politicians and military figures, even the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, as well as high profile targets like the parliament, the Central Bank, and the main airport. And the Tigers were patient, another important weapon in their arsenal. As one can imagine, after all these attacks, there was a tight wall of security around the President of Sri Lanka. But the Tigers patiently planned and waited for years while one of their cadres established an innocent identity that enabled him to get close to President Premadasa and one day he exploded a device that killed him and the President, among others.

It strikes me that what is going on with al-Quaeda is similar. The sense of grievance among their members is huge enough that they seem to have no trouble recruiting people for suicide missions. This is especially so since they have the added incentive (that the Tigers do not use) of claiming that god is on their side and approves of their actions. The US attack on Iraq also seems to have become one of their best recruiting messages, enabling them to convince their followers that the US has evil designs on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world and its resources. They seem to be also very patient. And they are not hesitant to attack ‘soft’ targets if need be.

If I think that an attack is almost inevitable, why am I saying we should not live in a state of fear? Because the threat is random, and should be placed in the context of other random threats and we should respond accordingly. For example, I know with certainty that large numbers of people will die in car crashes this next year, many of them due to no fault of their own. It will be just a random event. I know with certainty that many people will die in other kinds of accidents or be murdered. Many people will die due to hurricanes and earthquakes. And again it will be due to no fault of their own. Another random event.

Any one of those people who die in such random events could be me. In fact, the probability that I will die due to one of these causes is much greater than that due to a terrorist attack. And they will all be random. So why should I live in fear of a terrorist attack more than these other things? It does not make any rational sense.

The administration argument that we should be willing to give up all rule of law and to effectively declare Presidential actions to be above the law is going to be successful in the court of public opinion only insofar as we are driven to a state of almost panic-like fear about death by terrorism. It may be true that by creating an almost police-like state where anyone can be arrested, detained indefinitely, tortured, and even killed without recourse to law we might marginally improve the chances of avoiding a terrorist attack. Is that a deal we want to make? At least shouldn’t we have a say in whether such a deal is made?

All of us make trade-offs involving risks, costs, and benefits. For example, we are told that eating certain foods, avoiding others, getting lots of exercise, stopping smoking, and doing a whole host of other things may increase our lifespans. But there is no guarantee. We are instead talking about very small changes in probabilities and we all decide which ones are worth doing and which ones are too onerous and take the fun out of life.

Extra safety can almost always be obtained, but often at an extreme price. How much are we willing to pay? Some people (Jonah Goldberg and his ilk come to mind) are willing to let other people pay the high price to increase their sense of safety, but I am assuming that most of us have not sunk to that level. (This cartoon by August J. Pollack captures the Goldberg mindset exactly. Pollack follows it up with a survey sent to Bush supporters asking them how far they are willing to go in their support for Bush.)

This does not mean that I think we can do nothing about terrorism. Tomorrow I will look at other options.

POST SCRIPT: Fighting bad science reporting with actual data

George Mason University’s STATS website is doing a valuable service. It is looking carefully at sensational science-related news stories and checking if the data actually match the claims of the reports.

See, for example, its 2005 Dubious Data Awards where they set “The Record Straight on the Year’s Biggest Science Reporting Flubs,” which include the meth drug scare, poison popcorn, and today’s teenagers supposedly alarming obsession with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sex.

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