One of the world’s favourite (and sometimes least favourite) topics is the issue of terrorism and security. On one side, there are those who feel the risk of terrorism justifies significant sacrifices of money, convenience and civil rights to provide enough security to counter it. That side includes both those who honestly come by that opinion, and those who simply want more security and feel terrorism is the excuse to use to get it.
On the other side, critics point out a number of counter arguments, most of them with merit, including:
- Much of what is done in the name of security doesn’t actually enhance it, it just gives the appearance of doing so, and the appearance of security is what the public actually craves. This has been called “Security Theatre” by Bruce Schneier, who is a friend and advisor to the E.F.F.
- We often “fight the previous war,” securing against the tactics of the most recent attack. The terrorists have already moved on to planning something else. They did planes, then trains, then subways, then buses, then nightclubs.
- Terrorists will attack where the target is weakest. Securing something just makes them attack something else. This has indeed been the case many times. Since everything can’t be secured, most of our efforts are futile and expensive. If we do manage to secure everything they will attack the crowded lines at security.
- Terrorists are not out to kill random people they don’t know. Rather, that is their tool to reach their real goal: sowing terror (for political, religious or personal goals.) When we react with fear — particularly public fear — to their actions, this is what they want, and indeed what they plan to achieve. Many of our reactions to them are just what they planned to happen.
- Profiling and identity checks seem smart at first, but careful analysis shows that they just give a more free pass to anybody the terrorists can recruit whose name is not yet on a list, making their job easier.
- The hard reality is, that frightening as terrorism is, in the grand scheme we are for more likely to face harm and death from other factors that we spend much less of our resources fighting. We could save far more people applying our resources in other ways. This is spelled out fairly well in this blog post.
Now Bruce’s blog, which I link to above, is a good resource for material on the don’t-panic viewpoint, and in fact he is sometimes consulted by the TSA and I suspect they read his blog, and even understand it. So why do we get such inane security efforts? Why are we willing to ruin ourselves, and make air travel such a burden, and strip ourselves of civil rights?
There is a mistake that both sides make, I think. The goal of counter-terrorism is not to stop the terrorists from attacking and killing people, not directly. The goal of counter-terrorism is to stop the terrorists from scaring people. Of course, killing people is frightening, so it is no wonder we conflate the two approaches.
To make a simple analogy, imagine a border which has a large number of crossing checkpoints. These checkpoints are spaced some distance apart. A terrorist comes in through one of the checkpoints. It seems our reaction is often simply to close that checkpoint. In this analogy, it makes no sense; the terrorists can very readily travel a few miles to find another checkpoint which is open. The people who live near the closed checkpoint however are highly inconvenienced.
Yet at the same time, the security people know that if another terrorist comes in through that same checkpoint, the public will see a pattern — even a pattern that isn’t really there. If it happens again, they will demand to know why the checkpoint wasn’t closed the first time. With hindsight, they may even demand to know why it wasn’t closed before the first time, because there was intelligence of terrorists operating near the checkpoint.
With air travel, security seems to act the same way, and for the same reason. The techniques used on 9/11 stopped being effective even before the attack was over. The United 93 passengers learned the terrorist goals and fought back. That same attack is not likely to happen again. In particular they also strengthened the doors on cockpits, something that cost money but came at no cost of convenience or civil rights.
The terrorists are quite content to not do that attack again. They have so many things they could do. However, I do think the heavy-security crowd has a valid point here. Given the opportunity, the terrorists would like to do the same attack again, because it would be particularly scary and demoralizing if they did so. This is particularly true if we’ve made efforts to secure against a particular attack. They would indeed like to say, “See, you can never be safe from us. You tried and we just did it again!”
This creates a no-win situation. If we secure heavily against a repeat attack, we cost them very little and they just move on to the next plan. If we don’t secure well they get to show us we can never be safe.
But we do seem to forget that the terrorist goal is fear. In the London Tube bombings, the 4 young men brought rucksack bombs onto the subway and bus. They could easily have left the bags behind and lived, even a world that is paranoid about an abandoned bag. One minute to run away would be plenty. But they deliberately trained the young volunteers to die in part to show that they could do it, and do it with British natives.
The underpants bomber failed. Or did he? He decided to try to light the bomb close to landing. If he had detonated it with success earlier, over the ocean, we would have been left with a mystery, perhaps not unlike Air France 447 that vanished after leaving Brazil. An explosion before landing would have left debris all over Ontario, with far more TV coverage and mayhem. The source of the explosion, however, would not have become known. Even being caught, the bomber caused tremendous cost to the air travel system, generated panic, and the deployment of technologies which many experts feel would not even necessarily detect such a method of bomb smuggling.
Even if the TSA realizes that the goal is to stop them from scaring us, they clearly forget it much of the time, often creating more fear themselves with their orange alerts and movie-plot scenarios. In order to justify their own role and cost, they feel a need to pump up the enemy. And sometimes the terrorists are just good at what they do, and succeed in making the nation, and its officials, panic.
Is there a way out of this no-win situation? Can we learn how not to react with panic? Unfortunately even if we do learn that, the terrorists have the option of just finding something else we’re scared of, which can generate more panic.
I continue to believe that the best response to terrorism is to try to route out the cause. This is difficult because there are many reasons not to give in to terrorist demands or to be seen to give in. And the true fanatics can’t be won over in many cases, even by getting what they want. The only technique I see is to use non-violent techniques to erode the base that supports the fanatics. If they are seen as fanatics by their own people, their attacks will remain small in number and withstandable. If they receive unofficial, underground support they can continue.
They other, commonly chosen course is to find them all and kill them. This is difficult to do without breeding more fanatics, particularly if the methods involve “collateral damage.” The only answer may be to truly win over their former supporters, and then get help in killing or capturing the true fanatics.
Winning over their base takes a great deal of time, for it is a cultural battle, and often the cultural battle is what breeds the fanatics, who are afraid of the erosion of their way of life by foreign influences. The foreign influences will eventually win, but not quickly.