Terror and security

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.


Have you read this?


Key point: "terrorists are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists".

I'm skeptical that their real motivation is to sow "terror in the hope of attaining political goals". The social and status motives described by Abrahms ring truer and make more sense to me.

If he is right, the solution is to let people have better and more profitable things to do, so that joining a terrorist group becomes uninteresting.

Though I would debate a few of its points. I don't believe terrorists are wild-eyed crazies, but I do believe they are often fanatics, willing to give up almost everything for some reason, be it the false hope of helping their cause or even impressing other terrorists as the paper suggests. However, at best this thesis applies only to the terrorist leaders, and not the suicide bomber footsoldiers who obviously are not hoping to gain better ties with other terrorists.

I agree terrorism is not chosen as a last resort, but rather would say it is chosen as the most extreme resort available to those who feel oppressed by democracies. Terrorists do not attack autocracies, there would be little point. Only when civilians are the government does it seem effective to target civilians.

But you clearly can't substitute Rotary Club for a terrorist organization and keep them happy. Terrorism does not spring up where there is not some seed for it.

"Terrorists are not out to kill random people they don’t know."

This is simply not true. How many people in the WTC did the terrorists know?

In some cases, particular people are targeted. In other cases, there is collateral
damage. In other cases, the targets ARE random. Depending on the situation, any or
all of these strategies are adopted.

I also take issue with the claim that the primary goal of terrorists is to scare people.
Yes, in a sense, but if we react because we are scared, and thereby increase our safety,
you can be sure that the terrorist doesn't think "even though I can't kill them, I've achieved my
goal, because they are scared".

The goal of terrorists is to force people into doing something they otherwise would not
do that is important for the terrorists. The terrorists are not interested in scaring people
per se; it is a means to an end. For example, much islamic terrorism is directed against the
military and other presence of non-islamic countries in islamic countries. Whether one thinks
this is OK, or whether this takes place with the consent of the governments in question, is
beside the point. Bin Laden wants the US out of Saudi Arabia. His goal is that, no more and
no less. Everything else is a means to an end.

In Spain, Al Kaida attacked shortly before an election in which the Spanish presence in Afghanistan
was an issue. The result of the election was that those who were in favour of withdrawal won. This
is what the terrorists want to achieve, and perhaps in this case they did achieve it. (It is unclear
whether Zapatero would have won the election anyway, since there were other issues. However, it
is interesting that the ruling conservative party was very quick in declaring this attack to have
come from Eta, even though, after decades of experience with Eta, it was clear that this was not
the case. The conservative party had a perhaps somewhat harder line against Eta, and an Eta attack
before the election would have helped them.) As this example shows, terrorists attacks are targeted
where and when the terrorists hope to be able to pressure people into doing their will.

The only good strategy is to never give in, since this will encourage further acts of terrorism. (At
the same time, one must not oppose something just because some terrorist, somewhere, is in favour of it.)

Yes, some politicians who want control of the population for dubious reasons might use terrorism as
an excuse. However, you have to admit that the libertarian crowd is similarly prejudiced: whatever
the issue, if there is a choice between freedom and security, they choose freeom. This now routinely
extends to acts which are universally recognised as criminal, such as copyright violation. The baby
is thrown out with the bathwater just as often by the libertarians as by the supporters of the Patriot

The analogy with the border crossings is not a good one. The reaction is not to close one crossing, but
to beef up the security at ALL crossings.

You're right that it is not their agenda to scare people, but my point is that it is not their agenda to kill random people. They have their agenda (see the paper in the prior comment for some radical thoughts on that) and their methodology is terror. Their means to terror is, sometimes, random killing and violence. My point is that the terrorist doesn't want to kill you, he wants to scare other people by killing you.

My point about the borders was to describe what we sometimes do. We don't close Logan airport because the terrorists boarded there, of course, everybody agrees that would be crazy. But what the TSA does do is make everybody take their shoes off because one guy put a bomb in his shoe.

My point was that this creates a no-win situation in the common thinking on terrorism. The terrorists have done the shoe thing, they have no big need to do it again, nor is there any reports that they have. However, if they did do it again, the public would be very scared and critical of the security people.

Actually they do want to kill random people! The idea is after all terror for the masses not for the few. The prime goal of terrorist is to cause as much damage as possible materialistically, mentally and physically. The fact that everyone is spending so much on terror prevention is one of their goals. The fact that it now takes 3 hours to go through an airport instead of 20 minutes is one of their goals. Screwing up our private travel plans is one of their goals. These are not rational people? Well the ones carrying out the attacks are zealots and crazies but the ones calling the shots are very rational. It makes perfect sense to cause as much disruption and financial hardship to everyone not just a few "important" people.
That said most of what we go through as we travel is useless BS that only seems like prudent to those who don't see the giant holes in security screening.

"This is spelled out fairly well in this blog post."

This addresses a different issue. Yes, it does make the valid
point that many, many more people in the US are killed by handguns,
in traffic accidents, by disease etc than by terrorists. This is
essentially the same argument many people used in England when
CJD was killing people: don't worry about it, more people die in
other ways.

Of course, the US is a special case, with ten times 9/11 killed
every year due to the right to keep and bear arms (upheld by, among
others such as born-again Christians, the libertarians). However,
this is basically true. The point is, it is irrelevant. It's like
saying why worry about getting polio if more people die of cancer?
The correct answer is that one should try to avoid ALL dangers.
Of course, the effort must be in proportion to the gain, but in some
cases increased security in the US (like requiring ID) is something
which is a NON-ISSUE in many countries. Getting uptight about that
is just not believable, unless there is a hidden agenda.

Another issue is that people who smoke are aware of the risks and it is
their own fault if they get lung cancer. Most people killed in traffic
accidents acted irresponsibly, whether or not the accident was legally
their fault. Even the innocent people who die realise they are taking
a risk, and feel that it is worth it. With a terrorist attack, the people
endangered have no say in the matter; it's not a voluntary risk. That's
the huge difference. Especially if the risk can be reduced by something
as simple as a THz scanner. Anyone who has a problem with a monochrome
silhouette being seen by an airport security guard does not have the right
to decrease my security by saying he is embarrassed.

Consider the following: Each year, a government selects one person at random
from the population, who is publicly drawn and quartered. Perhaps some revenue
can be generated by selling tickets. Most people would say that this is morally
wrong and should be prevented. The libertarian crowd might say "don't sweat it,
your chance of being selected are much less than the chance of being struck by
lightning". In other words, the argument "other stuff is more dangerous" just
doesn't cut it.

The article in question is not saying "Terrorism kills few, so don't worry about it." It is saying that in deciding what we are going to spend our resources stopping (personal and governmental) we should examine the real risks and dangers and compare them to the cost of dealing with them.

In particular, we must try not to act out of fear, for that is just what the terrorists hoped for.

What this says is not that you should not take steps to prevent terror. However it does say that it is not rational to spend billions -- and sacrifice civil rights -- to prevent a small number of people dying from terrorism (or other crimes) when you could save far, far, far more people in other ways with that money (and without those losses of freedom.)

The point of that article is that our reaction to terrorism is out of proportion, way out, not that it should not exist at all. And, to cap it off, that this out of proportion response may be just what they want (even if only to impress their fellow terrorists.)

The problem for America is that it causes thousands of dollars worth of damage with millions of dollars worth of bombs - then gives the terrorists millions of dollars of free advertising and influence every time they make idle threats to attack something like a sporting event.

"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." I couldn't agree more. I feel that the ProVision millimeter wave scanners that I'm now encountering at airports are a prime example of this.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon the 'war on terror' is. States are resorting to practices which have long been prohibited by international law, attempting to justify them in the name of national security. While Amnesty acknowledges the right of governments to protect their citizens when they face complex challenges and threats, these measures should never result in the compromise of human rights.

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