Movie Plot Threat Contest: Status Report
On the first of this month, I announced my (possibly First) Movie-Plot Threat Contest.
Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with.
Your goal: cause terror. Make the American people notice. Inflict lasting damage on the U.S. economy. Change the political landscape, or the culture. The more grandiose the goal, the better.
Assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.
As of this morning, the blog post has 580 comments. I expected a lot of submissions, but the response has blown me away.
Looking over the different terrorist plots, they seem to fall into several broad categories. The first category consists of attacks against our infrastructure: the food supply, the water supply, the power infrastructure, the telephone system, etc. The idea is to cripple the country by targeting one of the basic systems that make it work.
The second category consists of big-ticket plots. Either they have very public targets — blowing up the Super Bowl, the Oscars, etc. — or they have high-tech components: nuclear waste, anthrax, chlorine gas, a full oil tanker, etc. And they are often complex and hard to pull off. This is the 9/11 idea: a single huge event that affects the entire nation.
The third category consists of low-tech attacks that go on and on. Several people imagined a version of the DC sniper scenario, but with multiple teams. The teams would slowly move around the country, perhaps each team starting up after the previous one was captured or killed. Other people suggested a variant of this with small bombs in random public locations around the country.
(There’s a fourth category: actual movie plots. Some entries are comical, unrealistic, have science fiction premises, etc. I’m not even considering those.)
The better ideas tap directly into public fears. In my book, Beyond Fear, I discusse five different tendencies people have to exaggerate risks: to believe that something is more risky than it actually is.
- People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
- People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
- Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
- People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
- People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.
The best plot ideas leverage one or more of those tendencies. Big-ticket attacks leverage the first. Infrastructure and low-tech attacks leverage the fourth. And every attack tries to leverage the fifth, especially those attacks that go on and on. I’m willing to bet that when I find a winner, it will be the plot that leverages the greatest number of those tendencies to the best possible advantage.
I also got a bunch of e-mails from people with ideas they thought too terrifying to post publicly. Some of them wouldn’t even tell them to me. I also received e-mails from people accusing me of helping the terrorists by giving them ideas.
But if there’s one thing this contest demonstrates, it’s that good terrorist ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone can figure out how to cause terror. The hard part is execution.
Some of the submitted plots require minimal skill and equipment. Twenty guys with cars and guns — that sort of thing. Reading through them, you have to wonder why there have been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. I don’t believe the “flypaper theory,” that the terrorists are all in Iraq instead of in the U.S. And despite all the ineffectual security we’ve put in place since 9/11, I’m sure we have had some successes in intelligence and investigation — and have made it harder for terrorists to operate both in the U.S. and abroad.
But mostly, I think terrorist attacks are much harder than most of us think. It’s harder to find willing recruits than we think. It’s harder to coordinate plans. It’s harder to execute those plans. Terrorism is rare, and for all we’ve heard about 9/11 changing the world, it’s still rare.
The submission deadline is the end of this month, so there’s still time to submit your entry. And please read through some of the others and comment on them; I’m curious as to what other people think are the most interesting, compelling, realistic, or effective scenarios.
EDITED TO ADD (4/23): The contest made The New York Times.