Reasoning about Terrorism


I try to present facts and logic and solutions rather than just opinions.

Please send any reasoned disagreements to me. If your facts and logic are convincing, I'll change my mind !       





The central lesson from the 9/11 terrorism is that the USA federal government is massively incompetent.

Before 9/11:
Ryan Cooper 's "The idiotic myth that everyone believes about fighting terrorism"

After 9/11:
From Jesse Singal's "In Airports, Security Theater Is Morphing Into Ebola Theater":
[During Ebola outbreak in 2014:]

... reporter Anders Kelto interviewed Larry Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown. "Let's not have the false impression that this is a tried-and-true method and it's gonna keep Ebola out of the United States - it's just not the case," said Gostin. There's little evidence such screening would actually detect Ebola patients, he explained.

It raises an obvious question: Why, then, is the government instituting this policy? Gostin's response:
[People who are scared] insist to their government, "Do something. It doesn't matter what it is - show us that you're doing something. Tell us that we have no risk." And governments, even if they know better, will sometimes respond to that political outcry. They're under a lot of pressure to do something, [to] make the public feel reassured even if it really doesn't make them safer.
Remember that Ebola just doesn't appear to be a major threat to the U.S. - none of the factors that turned it into a West African pandemic are present here. That doesn't mean people aren't freaking out, though - and understandably so given how horrific a disease this is. So how does the government respond? Um, we'll screen people at airports! Yeah! Which leads to an odd situation in which the government wins political points for taking ineffectual action against an imaginary threat.

Odd, yes, but not particularly uncommon. Think of all the 9/11 TSA reforms that people love to gripe about. Was taking off our shoes going to provide any sort of meaningful defense against the next Al Qaeda plot? Probably not (just ask the administrators at the many, many top-tier airports around the world that did not enact these measures). But even as we complained and struggled to bend over and get our footwear off, it made us feel like the authorities were responsive to our fears. At a time of great uncertainty, that was important.

The same logic applies here. As human beings, we derive a real psychological benefit from tangible evidence that the people charged with protecting us are doing a vigilant job - even when the substance of the action in question is questionable. So thank you, government, for soothing our misplaced Ebola fears in a highly visible but ultimately ineffectual way. Or something?

From Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times, 26 June 2011:
... radical jihadist Islam. It is fed by money and ideology coming out of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. The attack of 9/11 was basically a joint operation by Saudi and Pakistani nationals. The Marine and American Embassy bombings in Lebanon were believed to have been the work of Iranian agents. Yet we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, because Saudi Arabia had oil, Pakistan had nukes, and Iran was too big. We hoped that this war-by-bank-shot would lead to changes in all three countries. So far, it has not.

Until we break the combination of mosque, money, and power in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, which fuel jihadism, all we're doing in Afghanistan is fighting the symptoms. The true engines propelling radical jihadist violence will still be in place. But that break requires, for starters, a new U.S. energy policy. Oh, well.

From "Six Questions for Michael Scheuer on National Security" by Ken Silverstein in 2006:
Q: We're coming up on the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Is the country safer or more vulnerable to terrorism?

A: On balance, more vulnerable. We're safer in terms of aircraft travel. We're safer from being attacked by some dumbhead who tries to come into the country through an official checkpoint; we've spent billions on that. But for the most part our victories have been tactical and not strategic. There have been important successes by the intelligence services and Special Forces in capturing and killing Al Qaeda militants, but in the long run that's just a body count, not progress. We can't capture them one by one and bring them to justice. There are too many of them, and more now than before September 11. In official Western rhetoric these are finite organizations, but every time we interfere in Muslim countries they get more support.

In the long run, we're not safer because we're still operating on the assumption that we're hated because of our freedoms, when in fact we're hated because of our actions in the Islamic world. There's our military presence in Islamic countries, the perception that we control the Muslim world's oil production, our support for Israel and for countries that oppress Muslims such as China, Russia, and India, and our own support for Arab tyrannies. The deal we made with Qadaffi in Libya looks like hypocrisy: we'll make peace with a brutal dictator if it gets us oil. President Bush is right when he says all people aspire to freedom but he doesn't recognize that people have different definitions of democracy. Publicly promoting democracy while supporting tyranny may be the most damaging thing we do. From the standpoint of democracy, Saudi Arabia looks much worse than Iran. We use the term "Islamofascism" - but we're supporting it in Saudi Arabia, with Mubarak in Egypt, and even Jordan is a police state. We don't have a strategy because we don't have a clue about what motivates our enemies.

From David J. Rothkopf's "The Black Hole of 9/11" 8/2011:
In fact, the success of Osama bin Laden was in masterminding a low-cost, comparatively low-risk action by a handful of thugs that produced one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America. Bin Laden aimed for Wall Street and Washington, seeking to strike a blow against symbols of American power, but in so doing he also hit us where it would hurt the most -- right in our sense of perspective. ...

... ask ourselves, looking back over the past 10 years, what other developments took place that exceed 9/11 in lasting importance ?

10. The response to 9/11.
9. The Arab Spring.
8. The rebalancing of Asia.
7. The Stagnation of the U.S. and Other Developed-World Economies.
6. The Invention of Social Media.
5. The Proliferation of Cell Phones and Hand-Held Computing Devices.
4. The Crash of 2008.
3. The Eurozone Crisis and the Crash of 2011-2012.
2. The Failure to Address Global Warming.
1. The Rise of China and the Other BRICs.
A response to the Rothkopf article:
Politicians are supposed to run a country calmly and with its best interests in mind (and not the best interests of their own and campaign sponsor's wallets). Politicians are not elected to run the country by emotional knee-jerk reactions. We wouldn't need politicians for that, we could toss coins for office at the local pub, if we wanted that sort of government.

So let's look at what it means for a politician "to save American lives":

- every year we have 10x 9/11 on the streets, because we have annually 30000 traffic deaths, of which 15000 are from drunk driving. So in the last decade we had more than a quarter million people die because of automobile traffic, bad infrastructure, bad signage, lax enforcement of DUI laws, etc.

- we have each year tens of thousands that die of preventable heart attacks from bad nutrition, people who suffer from diabetes due to bad nutrition, etc.

- we have easily tens of thousands who die prematurely because they lack health insurance and bear early warning symptoms and show up in emergency rooms when it's too late.

So what do US politicians do? They spend TRILLIONS of dollars to avenge a few thousand that ONCE died on 9/11 while sending a few more thousand US troops to die in a senseless and unrelated war (Iraq), when a few MILLIONS of dollars could have saved ANNUALLY at least as many lives as 9/11 cost.

If one adds up the victims of terrorism of the last DECADE it's less than the number of people who die EACH YEAR from preventable causes. If that doesn't spell political failure, I'm not sure what does, and I'm not even including the violation of democratic, American, etc principles that still happen daily, such as torture, wire-tapping, suspension of habeas corpus law, retroactive immunity for law-breaking telecomm companies, etc.

...

Never mind all the useless security at the airports: My karate teacher of yesteryear is more dangerous naked than any Arab with a box cutter. ...

Lessons we should learn from 9/11, so we don't repeat it:
  1. We're connected to the whole world. What we do in other countries may come back to bite us at home.

  2. There's no such thing as perfect security or safety. We can't obtain it by surrendering our rights and liberties, by imposing a surveillance state, by bombing or drone-striking other people.

  3. We can do incredible damage to ourselves by panicking. We lost some 3000 lives on 9/11. That's about the same number we lose on the highways each month. In reaction to 9/11, we lost close to 6000 lives of our troops, probably 5 times that many horribly disabled for life (brain injuries, multiple limbs lost, etc), spent several trillion dollars, killed probably several hundred thousand people in foreign countries (including lots of bystanders such as children). Ruined our reputation by using torture, rendition, indefinite detention without justice, mercenaries, drone-strikes.

  4. Govt has been shown to be massively incompetent. For example, before 9/11 they assured us airport security was fine. After 9/11, they missed getting Bin Laden in Afghanistan, then kept us in Afghanistan for more than a decade trying to "fix" the country. And attacked a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with 9/11. Those who think govt is engineering complex conspiracies or hiding aliens or something should see if those ideas square with the demonstrated incompetence related to 9/11.

From Patrick Smith's "TSA Hypocrisy Underscored by Boston Arrests" 5/2014:
For the past thirteen years, pilots and flight attendants have been forced to undergo to the same tedious and intrusive screening as passengers, while baggage handlers, cleaners, mechanics, caterers and the like, all of whom have access to aircraft, have been able to saunter through unmanned checkpoints, subjected only to occasional random screening.

Duncan Blasts "Useless" Air Marshal Service
Justin Peters' "It is Shockingly, Terrifyingly Easy to Breach Perimeter Security at Most Airports"
Robert Evans and Rafi Sela's "7 Reasons the TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective)"




The government seems to be making the same mistakes they made in losing the wars against drugs and AIDS: when you start losing, do the same old stupid things, but harder. Longer prison terms, harsher rhetoric, more macho stuff, louder patriotism, more god-talk. As if any of that worked in the past.

Drone program

Flag-waving jingoism: Remember 9/11



It irritates me every time someone says citizens stopped a terrorist:
Pundits and officials keep saying that citizens stopped the "underwear bomber" by jumping on him in that airplane, or citizens stopped the propane-bomber in Times Square by seeing smoke and calling police, or passengers stopped the terrorists on United 93 in 9/11 by crashing the plane. All of those things are untrue.

On United 93 on 9/11, the passengers never made it into the cockpit. The terrorist at the controls dove the plane into the ground as they pounded on the cockpit door.

In the cases of the "shoe bomber", "underwear bomber", and "Times Square bomber", each bomber got to his target and detonated his bomb, and each bomb fizzled. Then passengers piled on or citizens called police. None of these cases are a "triumph for the American spirit" or an "example of citizen power". In every case, only the fact that the bomb fizzled saved us.



Some good things they're doing:



From Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker 10/3/2005:
... Graham Allison's "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe" (on Amazon) is the indispensable text on the subject of nuclear terrorism. "Americans are no safer from a nuclear terrorist attack today than we were on September 10, 2001", he writes. "A central reason for that can be summed up in one word: Iraq." The invasion and occupation have diverted essential resources from the fight against Al Qaeda; allowed the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan; fostered neglect of the Iranian nuclear threat; undermined alliances critical to preventing terrorism; devastated America's standing with the public in every country in Europe and destroyed it in the Muslim world; monopolized the time and attention of the President and his security team (for simple human reasons, an extraordinarily important factor); and, thanks to the cry-wolf falsity of the claims about Iraqi weapons systems, "discredited the larger case for a serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism." ...



Brad Plumer's "Eight facts about terrorism in the United States"
Patrick Smith's "Letter from Boston"
Nathan Myhrvold's "Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action" (PDF)



My recommendations for anti-terrorism:



From "McMafia" by Misha Glenny (on Amazon):
The War on Drugs, by nurturing a huge and unmanageable criminal swamp in which all manner of undesirables roam freely, almost guarantees that the War on Terror can never be won.



Suggestion for improving airline security and efficiency:
Ban all overhead-stowed carry-on baggage (still allow under-the-seat carry-on luggage). This ban would mean:
Sent this idea to Patrick Smith's Ask The Pilot and got:
It would certainly speed things up. A lot. But it will never, ever, ever happen.

For one, there isn't enough underfloor space on many planes to hold both checked and unchecked luggage.
But a baggage handler doing an AMA on reddit said there usually IS enough spare space in main "pit" to hold what goes in overhead. Another person said "Depends on the size of the plane. If it's small like a CRJ/CPJ, then we may not have enough room. If it's a 747/777, then yeah we'd probably have enough room."

Someone else's idea: reverse the way baggage is charged today. Charge for each bag carried onto the airplane.









From Stephen Flynn interview on NPR 2/2007:

From James Fallows article in The Atlantic magazine 9/2006:

From Patrick Smith's "Ask The Pilot":
Airline security:

The fundamental problem is the Transportation Security Administration's relentless fixation with the in-flight takeover scheme last perpetrated on Sept 11 2001; that is, the fallacy that physical weapons, rather than the element of surprise, were ultimately responsible for the hijackers' successes on that day. In truth, the hijackers' possession of box cutters was irrelevant -- a deadly weapon can be fashioned from virtually anything, including many objects and materials found on planes -- and for any number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the confiscation of pointy objects at the concourse checkpoint, the 9/11 blueprint is all but off the table to a would-be saboteur. Yet we continue to devote our money and resources toward the preposterous and ultimately unattainable goal of keeping any and all weapons out of the hands of passengers. In doing so, we are forced to treat every last flier, regardless of age, race or gender, as a possible terrorist or criminal, resulting in an apparatus so massive and cumbersome that it cannot adequately enforce the very policies it claims are so important. Civil liberties are subverted, billions of dollars are wasted, and millions of people are hassled and inconvenienced, all with little or no effect on actual safety. It is a national embarrassment.

What we need is a TSA willing to concede that the real nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes take place well out of view. We need to immediately rescind most of the rules restricting sharp objects and liquids, with a return to basic screening for firearms and bombs. With respect to the latter, the emphasis should be put squarely on improved anti-explosives screening of all luggage and cargo.

And although the attacks of 2001 took place on U.S. soil, the greater threats are at airports abroad. American carriers now operate throughout Asia, South America, Africa and beyond, where they remain potentially high-profile targets for extremist groups or rogue terrorists. Here we are confiscating scissors from somebody's grandmother in Indianapolis when most of our security in foreign countries is outsourced to local authorities. How about relocating some of our domestic manpower overseas to help prevent a bombing or shoot-down?

Send airline security suggestions to FAA

Send suggestions to Citizen Corps



Humor about security levels:



Personal defense in case of terrorist attack:



The "avian flu virus" scare may be a good thing: it will get us ready for a bio-attack. I'm completely convinced one is coming; it's just a matter of when.

Laurie Garrett on The Science Show about Dual-Use Research of Concern (DURC)



From Martin Rees in Edge.org's "2013 : What *Should* We Be Worried About?":
... the downsides of powerful new technologies: cyber-, bio-, and nano-. We're entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger a societal breakdown with such extreme suddenness that palliative government actions would be overwhelmed.

Some would dismiss these concerns as an exaggerated Jeremiad: after all, human societies have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes and pestilence. But these human-induced threats are different: they are newly emergent, so we have a limited timebase for exposure to them and can't be so sanguine that we would survive them for long nor about the ability of governments to cope if disaster strikes. And of course we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that even more powerful future technologies could do.

The 'anthropocene' era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. ...

...

Nuclear weapons are the worst downside of 20th century science. But there are novel concerns stemming from the impact of fast-developing 21st century technologies. Our interconnected world depends on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and so forth. Unless these are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system.

Moreover a contagion of social and economic breakdown would spread worldwide via computer networks and 'digital wildfire' - literally at the speed of light. The threat is terror as well as error. Concern about cyber-attack, by criminals or by hostile nations, is rising sharply. Synthetic biology, likewise, offers huge potential for medicine and agriculture - but it could facilitate bioterror.

It is hard to make a clandestine H-bomb, but millions will have the capability and resources to mis-use these 'dual use' technologies. ...



Interesting article that says a "dirty bomb" is not really a physical threat, but would use our own policies and fears of radiation to cause huge disruption and panic: Richard A. Muller's "The Dirty Bomb Distraction"











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