Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Too Many Targets

Bruce Schneier beautifully sums up the lessons of the recent terrorist plot:

It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets -- stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security -- and too many ways to kill people.

Security measures that require us to guess correctly don't work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It's not security, it's security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.

Airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one at that. Sure, it'll catch the sloppy and the stupid -- and that's a good enough reason not to do away with it entirely -- but it won't catch a well-planned plot.
As an aside, I'd add that the media love to stir up hysteria about chemical weapons and recherche explosives, even - or especially - when the threat they pose is comparatively small.

And why not? The image of an ethnic enemy skulking in his secret laboratory has a pedigree that goes back at least as far as Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, who frequently pointed out how many of his dark arts he'd learned from Western universities. This particular confluence of paranoias - racial animus, joined with the fear of science, education, and immigration - remains as powerful in 2006 as it was in 1913, and just as useful to conservative demagogues.

These airy speculations aside, there are two obvious reasons to focus on tactics. First, it frightens people. Second, it gives defense contractors an endless supply of specific, limited, lucrative projects to work on.

Apropos of which, Raytheon is working on a dirty-bomb detector for ports. If it's successful, I guess that anyone who wants a dirty bomb will have to build one within the United States. Let that be a lesson to 'em!

By the way, you can make picric acid out of aspirin. I suggest we get it off the shelves before it's too late.


Phila said...


They're playing Whack-A-Mole...the Sport of Kings.

Phila said...

The rest of the article is fatuous - why do you keep harping on about racism?

I harp on racism because there are two issues here: the threat posed by fundamentalist terrorism, and the dangerous rhetoric and weird assumptions of people like yourself, which make it harder for serious people to address that issue effectively.

Here in America, a building was blown up by a white man who felt that Jews were running American foreign policy. We have plenty of similarly minded white supremacists with arms caches, including what you might call "WMD." However, these fanatics don't have the same hold on the public's imagination that Muslims with chemical weapons do...even though McVeigh's terrorism killed hundreds of Americans right in this country's heartland.

I'm sorry you find discussion of racism "tedious. Perhaps you should go somewhere where you won't be exposed to it.

Do you or do you not accept that fundamental islam poses an existential threat to western democracy?

I do think it poses a serious threat. But I think that irrational, stupid, shortsighted, and (above all) ineffective response to it also poses an existential threat to Western democracy.

it's pc bullshit like the constant screech of 'racism' which prevents us from have a meaningful discussion on the threat of unassimilated muslims

It's not "pc bullshit"; it's realism. If you really want to look at a situation like this accurately, you have to take factors like racism into account, along with factors like Islamic hatred of the West. You can't simply clap your hands over your ears because discussion of racism makes you uncomfortable.

It's precisely this tendency that makes you and your ilk such lightweights..."meaningful discussion" means retreating into your little fantasy world where only pre-approved factors are allowed to have a bearing on the course of events. That's a big part of why the Right's plans and predictions keep going wrong, in my opinion: they can't or won't allow information they don't like into their calculations.

And as far as scolding people with PC rhetoric goes, if the Right hasn't outstripped the Left yet, it's well on its way.

except i suppose 9/11 was all orchestrated by the jews and the 'military-industrial complex'. For someone who takes a fair bit about the right's attempt to 'create paranoia' you're startlingly full of it yourself.

I'd take that comment a lot more seriously if I'd ever said - here or anywhere else - that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Jews and the military-industrial complex.

It's so much easier to debate people when you can write their arguments for them, eh?

But hey, at least we agree on Al Bowlly.

Phila said...

surely 'islamofacists', another term you dislike, are a lot more real than the mcveighs of the world.

I do dislike it. Not because I don't believe Islamic extremists are dangerous, but because it's ahistorical and inaccurate.

See, I have this weird belief that if we're truly in this epochal life or death struggle, it's best to define our terms accurately, look at as much of the big picture as possible, and see things as clearly as we can. I keep being lectured by right-wingers who want me to understand that democracy faces "an existential threat." But for some reason, they won't pay due respect to the seriousness of that threat by being serious themselves. They could start, just for instance, by not constantly telling demagogic lies that would make a cat laugh. From there, perhaps we could move on to passing a law against war profiteering.

that was one nut case - we're talking thousands.

You're British, so I can't fault you for not knowing anything about American white supremacists. But I assure you, you're completely mistaken. There are thousands of white supremacists in the USA, and a good percentage of them are heavily armed and extremely dangerous. Instructions on how to build chemical weapons and culture anthrax circulate quite freely among them; in one post, I describe such instructions being handed out at a gun show.

The interesting thing here is that American law enforcement, particularly in the 1990s, was quite good at tracking these people and thwarting their attempts at creating mayhem. Needless to say, they didn't assume anyone who was white was a terrorist. Instead, they monitored, infiltrated, and isolated extremists without stirring up undue public hysteria. It's not a bad way to proceed, really.

i think the most important thing in this whole debate is that we have finite resources and we have to allocate what we have effectively.

I agree completely. What puzzles me is how you can believe that this is what's being done. From this standpoint, invading Iraq was an unconscionable waste of resources on top of being a moral catastrophe. Add to this the fact that we've done virtually nothing to secure ports or chemical plants in the USA, and becomes very hard to see where Bush gets his credibility on fighting terrorism.

This is what I don't get. Honestly, despite our differences, you seem like a reasonably smart and sincere person. Don't you ever suspect that the "War on Terror" is being waged more for political and personal gain than for actual effectiveness? Because the evidence of this seems overwhelming to me.

It's not that I think the fear of terrorism is irrational; it's that I think Bush's policies make us less safe, because he's radicalizing people; and failing to take obvious protective steps in the USA; and changing our laws at his whim (which gives me the uncomfortable feeling that Osama bin Laden ultimate gets to decide what freedoms we can have in America).

Anyway, thanks for your comments. If you like Al Bowlly, you might enjoy Annette Hanshaw.