Last Week's Terrorism Arrests

Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry onboard. Last week’s foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.

None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 — no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews — had anything to do with last week’s arrests. And they wouldn’t have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn’t have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The new airplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It’s reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details — much of the “explosive liquid” story doesn’t hang together — but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-ons won’t make us safer, either. It’s not just that there are ways around the rules, it’s that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.

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. We can’t keep weapons out of prisons; we can’t possibly keep them off airplanes.

The goal of a terrorist is to cause terror. Last week’s arrests demonstrate how real security doesn’t focus on possible terrorist tactics, but on the terrorists themselves. It’s a victory for intelligence and investigation, and a dramatic demonstration of how investments in these areas pay off.

And if you want to know what you can do to help? Don’t be terrorized. They terrorize more of us if they kill some of us, but the dead are beside the point. If we give in to fear, the terrorists achieve their goal even if they were arrested. If we refuse to be terrorized, then they lose — even if their attacks succeed.

This op ed appeared today in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

EDITED TO ADD (8/13): The Department of Homeland Security declares an entire state of matter a security risk. And here’s a good commentary on being scared.

Posted on August 13, 2006 at 8:15 AM130 Comments


Jim August 13, 2006 8:55 AM

The old follow the money rule may work well for better security. Each airline passenger must purchase a ticket. These transactions provide a great deal of data about the people on the aircraft. If I was trying to stop terrorists from doing something sinister using commercial aircraft, I would use this kind of data. It’s reliable and useful for profiling each passenger regardless of ethnic background or national origin. It’s an information check point that works well in advance of the flight. The idea of stopping everything at the airport and creating long lines and delays is just disruptive. You could have a security rating that works like and with the credit rating system we already have. If the wealthy decide to start skyjacking jets, that could be a problem. History suggests that the less well to do are tasked with these sort of efforts.

Milan August 13, 2006 8:56 AM

What seems remarkable about this situation is how much harm even a foiled plot can cause. Between delays, rescheduled flights, lost productivity among businesspeople flying, lost duty free revenues, and the rest it seems likely to be tens of millions of dollars or more. This as the product of the unsuccessful efforts of a couple dozen people. It highlights the asymmetry between those who can attack anywhere and those who must defend everywhere.

Anonymous August 13, 2006 8:57 AM

Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but a couple of days ago you said it was more or less ok to accept any measure since you didn’t know what the nature of the attack was. Now you say the contrary (which also coincides with your book)

foobar August 13, 2006 9:05 AM

I do quite a lot of flying each year (business & leisure withing US, EU, & Pacific rim) and while I agree with temporary security restrictions, it has reached the point where I just don’t want to fly any more because of all the hassles.

Sarah August 13, 2006 9:25 AM

Exactly what I have been trying to explain to everyone around me over the past few days. Except you said it brilliantly. Ta.

aharden August 13, 2006 9:31 AM

Great op-ed.

One could argue that the real terrorists in terms of making people fear flying is the airport security regime. When it comes to flying, I fear inconvenience, lost time, and challenges to my pride more than I fear for my safety from attacks or hijacking. Try explaining to a six-year old why Mommy and Daddy have to take their shoes off but kids don’t have to. (Yet.) For me, flying has turned from a luxury into a sometimes necessary evil.

I totally agree with Jim’s comment about “security credit”. The multiple, orthogonal tendrils of airline security involving redundant, overlapping authentication attemps and deeply invasive screening create larger and larger haystacks in which a very small percentage might attempt to hide needles.

Jim August 13, 2006 9:33 AM

The target has been hardened, so the terrorists can try in vain to attack. It’s not going to be easy to take over a jet, if they can even get on board. They are looking for holes and are frustrated. The average person who flies, like foobar, is also frustrated. Flying is still very safe. Advanced screening will make it safer.
Making is a big hassle won’t make it more secure. Most of the security is invisible. The best security can’t be observed. It’s there, you can’t anticipate it or plan for it. Having the National Guard seaching bags is theatrics. It makes for good television though.

nbk2000 August 13, 2006 9:51 AM

The first time the jihadi’s succeed in blowing a plane out of the sky from onboard the plane, all the security theater will be shown up as the sham it is.

And everyone involved in the farce will have to explain, despite the near rectal-probe intrusiveness of the current methods, how they failed. 🙂

And against an enemy determined to kill you at any cost, even killing themselves in the process, all the security in the world won’t protect you forever.

All it does is sort out the stupid and unlucky, from the smart and/or lucky.

Throw the dice long enough, and you WILL eventually come up snake-eyes.

Given the number of publicly foiled plots, how many others can we figure were never made publicly known (for whatever reason), and how many rolls of the dice do we have left until they get lucky again?

Quite worrying about shoes and shampoo bottles, accept the fact that casualties are inevitable in any ‘war’, and start hunting them down at the source…before they can get together enough to attack in such grand fashion.

marnix kornman August 13, 2006 10:06 AM

i live in holland whitchis a “free” country.if you try to take a plane in normal times you get completely ündressed”‘. takes the fun of flying. no smoking,no drinking, next no farting or going to the bathroom??? i rather take the blody train!!no fuel taxes and so on!!

Jim August 13, 2006 10:13 AM

“The multiple, orthogonal tendrils of airline security involving redundant, overlapping authentication attemps and deeply invasive screening create larger and larger haystacks in which a very small percentage might attempt to hide needles.” Good point. In the recent foiled British attack, they had one person who worked at the airport, according to news reports. Having an insider or multiple insiders with credentials presents problems. People flying stand-by with buddy passes or comp tickets, who don’t purchase tickets is a hole in security or a potential hole. Giving away empty seats is popular. You need a method to verify those passengers without relying on transactions. They board at the last minute, taking seats that are open due to cancellations or unsold seats. It could be a problem if you have an insider or multiple insiders with an agenda. People working at the airport could be a threat and exploit trust. I haven’t seen much about the suspect who worked at the airport. The question is are there more of them. Getting people into a jet baggage hold with insider help could be a threat.

No1 August 13, 2006 10:19 AM

So the solution is…. don’t be terrorized and just accept that 3000 people could have been killed which is “beside the point”?!?!?!?!? What kind of thinking is that?

Also, noone has ANY IDEA what methods were used to find and track these terrorists. You absolutely CAN NOT say that it was “old-fashion intelligence and investigation”. Unless you work for Scotland Yard or one of the three letter agencies which the last time I checked, you do not, there is NO WAY you can say that high tech, invasive, broad solutions were not the key to these arrests. Any number of things could have been used, from huge databases of financial transactions to phone calls made and received. There’s no way to qualify your old-fashioned statement.

And, we’re not guessing that terrorists are considering liquid explosives. This is the SECOND plot exposed that was planning to use this method. It would be irresponsible to not put extra emphasis on liquids at this time. This is not a permanent ban, in fact DHS is going to make some changes later today.

Terrorists are obviously dangerious but so are the ideas in this article.

mariuz August 13, 2006 10:29 AM

I agree with the anti-terrorism alghoritm :
“Don’t fear” We just have to laugh at their attempts to make our lives horrible and ignore them (too much press give them front pages) , It’s like in the dune’s quote “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

notsure August 13, 2006 10:37 AM

With the increasing use of psyops and the past history of blackops and false flag operations and using agents provocateur, no one has any idea what the true extent of this latest “terror” incident really is. Is it bona fide, or people egged on for political agenda by inside agents from the alleged “good guys”, or perhaps it’s not even any part of reality, all completely made up for the purpose of mass conditioning, part of the ‘big lie” tactic. Can you trust the authorities to be telling the truth all the time? How much “terrorism” is home grown, how much is state sponsored, how much is fabricated for garnering political power and advancing the big brother state? And is it “terrorism” to fight back against invaders? If a much stronger military prsence takes the war to you, invades you, bombs your cities, tries to steal your resources, is using assymetrical warfare back at them really terrorism, or just the only option that is left?

Jim August 13, 2006 10:42 AM

I fail to see the danger in any of the ideas in this article. I guess we’ll wait for more guidelines later today. One guideline should be pack light. Some people are just shipping their stuff using UPS or FedEx, which gets it there faster than you can get there. There are also specialty services starting up that are doing this. It cost a few extra bucks, but you can avoid all sorts of hassles. Maybe UPS will open locations in or near hotels. Let them lug the stuff around and focus on getting there. For a little extra, you can travel light and take your shampoo and perfume. The chances are UPS won’t lose it. UPS is really secure. You pay for that kind of security.

James August 13, 2006 10:53 AM

I suppose the dead may be beside the point, unless I’m about to become one of them, in which case I’m not so eager to write off the possibility that it could happen to me next time.

Also I think it’s too much to expect that any ordinary person living a quite middle class life, which is most of the people who are “targets” of airline terrorists, can make themselves completely un-terrified, no matter how hard they try. For many, I think it is unavoidable that the thought of losing one’s life to a weekend trip, is too much to be overcome by sheer personal willpower. The security procedures at airports, the guys in flak jackets carrying fully-automatic weapons, the look of suspicion, the searches, the lines, the bans… it’s really too much to overcome by talking or thinking hard about what’s “reasonable” to worry about.

Jim August 13, 2006 11:03 AM

Instead of having the National Guard inside the terminal, you would think having the National Guard securing the ramps, airfield and cargo areas would make sense. The security check points are crowded with screeners and passengers. All the potential dangerous stuff is going through the baggage system now. I’d use military assets to secure these areas and functions. Let the TSA deal with carry ons and passengers, like they are trained to do and carry on.

Shura August 13, 2006 11:04 AM

@nkb2000: You’ve got a good point, but once someone actually does manage to slip through and blows up a plane despite all the restrictions etc. put into place, those restrictions will just be tightened even more. Faced with the choice of saying either “we were basically right, even though we didn’t do quite enough yet” and “we were basically wrong”, politicians etc. will always choose the former.

Dan August 13, 2006 11:15 AM

As Jim says, “Most of the security is invisible. The best security can’t be observed. It’s there, you can’t anticipate it or plan for it. Having the National Guard seaching bags is theatrics. It makes for good television though.”

I don’t know the terrorists’ exact mindset, but I would assume that however effective the security measures really are directly, the perception that it is now more and more difficult to carry out any kind of plot is a valuable phenomenon for the security services to exploit. It is surely a deterrent, even if the actual efficacy against a determined attack may not be high.

If it becomes seen as more likely that you’ll be caught rather than die in glory (or whatever) then the incentive to plot involving aircraft is less.

Sure, as Bruce says, that means the target will simply be transferred to shopping malls, etc, but those targets have always been available but offer less dramatic international potential.

Hillman August 13, 2006 11:15 AM

“Don’t be terrorized” That’s a lame piece of advice. I’ll just will them away. That’s the New Age answer isn’t it? My intent will banish the harm. Not being terrorized…what could that mean in concrete terms?

Jim August 13, 2006 11:28 AM

I don’t do any flying. They fly over here. I’m near the airport. It’s more probable that a jet will crash from mechanical failure than terrorism. Most people don’t think about it or worry about it. The world is strange. The airlines layoff thousands of mechanics to save money and are forced to spend more money on security due to terrorism. The wing is falling off, the landing gear is shakey due to fewer mechanics, less repair work done by less people and the airlines are pushing “cheap” flights. Marketing trumps security. The layed off mechanics are applying to work security jobs because that’s where the jobs are. In the end everybody is working security as the jets lose millions of dollars (higher fuel prices, etc.) and fall into disrepair. Job security is what most people care about. Our energy security is also threatened due to poor policy. We can blame that on terrorism too. Toss your bottle of hairspray and do your duty. I get the feeling the terrorists have won a few battles because we do as we are told, no matter how little sense it makes.

Bruce Schneier August 13, 2006 11:32 AM

“Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but a couple of days ago you said it was more or less ok to accept any measure since you didn’t know what the nature of the attack was. Now you say the contrary (which also coincides with your book.”

I said that the measures were okay temporarily, until we figure out the extent of the plot. As permanent changes, they’re a waste.

Mark J. August 13, 2006 11:35 AM


I agree, it’s the hassle of flying I fear. That and the cramped seats, rude passengers, constant delays, etc, etc. And now I fear taking my laptop along because the TSA may decide at any time to ban them as carry-ons. A laptop in checked baggage doesn’t stand a chance of survival. Even if you pack it well, the case will be opened, which leaves it liable to be stolen.

I’m waiting for an accounting of how many laptops on those UK flights were destroyed or stolen after being checked-in as baggage.

Bruce Schneier August 13, 2006 11:36 AM

“‘Don’t be terrorized’ That’s a lame piece of advice. I’ll just will them away. That’s the New Age answer isn’t it? My intent will banish the harm. Not being terrorized…what could that mean in concrete terms?”

In concete terms, it means going about your day and refusing to give in to fear. If you look at countries that have dealt with terrorism for years, that’s what people do.

Of course this isn’t what a government should do. But you’re not a government. You’re a person. If you want to help, don’t be terrorized.

Grimcoin August 13, 2006 11:37 AM

What surprises me about the current security situation is the security theatre you mention in the op-ed.

The plot has been tracked for a long period of time, and it’s been mentioned that the participants didn’t have tickets or indeed in the cases of some, passports with which to travel (

With that in mind, why would security need to be stepped up after the plot was dismantled? There are two distinct paths that I can see, the first being that the security forces believe that there still might be some would-be-bombers in the wild – but if that is the case, then the current security measures would have been in place since the plot was initially discovered.
The other path, is simply these measures are simply for theatre, the government wins points for the raid (it’s suggested the raid was only carried out at this point in time after pressure from the American government), the press enjoy the wild speculation, and the populous get excited, be it via fear or titilation.

We all have grown up with this theatre of security, and it’s solidified as a great thing by the press. The reality that pure good detective work solves the problems is rarely covered, because while impressive, it is mundane compared to the speculation and fear/titilation that movie-esque security brings.

I would dearly like your views to be more widely spread and hopefully we can one-day do away with this theatre and lessen the terror in this world.

Mark J. August 13, 2006 11:44 AM


“For many, I think it is unavoidable that the thought of losing one’s life to a weekend trip, is too much to be overcome by sheer personal willpower.”

Your chance of dying in a car wreck is vastly greater than your chance of dying in a terrorist incident. Yet most of us ordinary people leading middle class lives overcome the terror of dying in a car wreck. In fact, most of us don’t give it a second thought. I buckle my seatbelt and keep my car in good shape and pay attention to what I’m doing and relax in the knowledge that I’ve hedged my bets enough to survive another commute. I have no problem being “un-terrorized” while flying. I’m much, much safer once I’ve actually made it to the airport than I was getting there.

Jim August 13, 2006 11:52 AM

The devil is in the details. It’s kind of difficult to flesh this thing out at this time. The terrorists rely on dumb luck and dumb people. It sounds like the threat has passed. I don’t feel threatened by terrorism. Then again, I don’t give a damn. Terrorism has no integrity, which should make it easy to smash apart. The terrorists are a bunch of idiots. Our intelligence and social order are superior to anything they could think of. We have all the advantages. All they can do is blow themselves up before we blow them up. They’re a death cult, which may help explain the plot. They’re a minority. Most people enjoy life or want to.

Hadi Hariri August 13, 2006 11:59 AM

@Hillman “Don’t be terrorized” That’s a lame piece of advice. I’ll just will them …”

It means stop becoming paranoid. I’ve had a bomb placed in a hotel 2 km down the road from where I live (Málaga, Spain), by the Baque Terrorist Group. As part of the explosion, they destroyed a really nice restaurant under it. As soon as they built the new one, I went back. It means don’t let them disrupt your daily life. Did you see that comic Bruce posted the link to yesterday? That sums it up.

Implementing security measures against actions already taken is not productive. My 3’5 year old son tries something different everytime he wants something and the previous try didn’t work. It’s just plain logic to not go down the same road every time.

Jim August 13, 2006 12:11 PM

If you look at statistics, your chances of being involved in a terrorists attack are very low. Your chances of hitting a lottery for millions of dollars is greater, much greater. The chances of being killed by terrorists is so low you might as well forget about it. Your chances of something good happening are always much greater than something bad happening, even if you don’t waste cash on lottery tickets. That’s your business though.

NigelO August 13, 2006 12:23 PM

So what are you saying exactly?

“It’s easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it’s shortsighted.” Short-sighted in what view? That it will prevent similar attacks?

Would you say that defending against computer viruses and worms is short-sighted?

It seems pretty clear to me that if a method of attack has been identified as being somewhere in the stages of being executed, then we should defend against it. I can’t see that ignoring the mechanism because ‘they won’t try that again now that we know about it’ is just ignoring the threat. The argument is just over the details of the mechanism of defense (banning of all carry-on items or just liquids, etc).

I agree, though, that we should not expect that the measures we take will prevent all future avenues of attack – these measures are treating the symptoms of a particular method or methods, but not the cause of the people planning attacks. ‘Ignoring the bully’ – not being terrorised into completely changing our ways of life – and doing the mathematics on ‘what are the chances of it affecting me’ is really just the primal ‘saftey in numbers’ approach to dealing with fears, but it does not address the motivations of the perpetrators at the most fundamental level, does it?

LisaY August 13, 2006 12:24 PM

Can I still wear my eyeglasses on an airplane? In school I was taught that glass is a liquid. Can we get a ruling on exactly what viscosity TSA considers a liquid?

Jim August 13, 2006 12:25 PM

Steve, It’s the difference between the terrorist next door and the terrorist that may be moving in next door. They have better odds of getting killed by the terrorists than hitting the lottery than we do. Buy a Power Ball ticket and don’t worry about the terrorists. That assumes you are someplace they are sold.

Jim August 13, 2006 12:28 PM

I’m pretty sure glass is considered a solid material. Unless you show up with molten glass in your bag, you should be safe.

tbo August 13, 2006 12:32 PM

Terrorists can get bombs onto planes if they’re willing to die, and we can’t stop them (not the smart ones, at least). It’s blindingly obvious how to do this, and it means that advanced security procedures are pointless. The simplest undetectable way would to get a bomb on the plane would be for the terrorist to swallow the explosives, coated in a few layers of something that will take approximately two hours to dissolve in the stomach and small intestine.

The explosives could be divided up into several pellets small enough to swallow, and would be coated first in an inner layer that dissolves slowly in a basic environment (the duodenum, or upper small intestine), and an outer layer that dissolves in an acidic environment (the stomach). Alternatively, if the pellets are too large to pass through the pyloric sphincter out of the stomach, a single layer which dissolves slowly in acid would be sufficient. The pellets could be tested on some hapless animals to establish approximate detonation times. A single terrorist (per plane) would swallow several pellets just before passing through security. Even if they detonated early, they’d still kill a lot of people in the boarding area.

Even x-raying every passenger wouldn’t necessarily stop this, as many foods (i.e. cheese, marzipan) have similar densities to explosives. The cumulative radiation exposure for frequent flyers would also be a serious issue. The only reliable method of detecting bombs inside a person would be a full-body MRI, which is clearly impractical for many reasons, in particular that MRIs can’t be used on anyone with metal in their bodies. I suppose we could also shove cameras into every bodily orifice of every passenger, but this seems rather unacceptable.

We need to accept that while basic airport security has some value in stopping morons and crazies, no amount of security can stop intelligent, determined terrorists. The amount of time collectively wasted every year in unnecessary security line-ups in the US alone is equivalent to several hundred human lifetimes, which is more than the average number of terrorism deaths per year. This is a real tragedy, and we as a society need to make some rational cost/benefit decisions.

BTW, if you’re concerned that I may be inadvertantly helping terrorists by posting this, don’t worry. The idea has already occured to many others, as you can see by doing a few quick Google searches. I’m sure the terrorists have already thought of it.

Joe Buck August 13, 2006 12:33 PM

Jim: that’s true until a plot is foiled that involves a bomb component that’s disguised as glass. Or, as comedian Lewis Black said before the latest scare: aren’t we lucky that the shoe bomber wasn’t an underwear bomber?

FP August 13, 2006 12:34 PM

“The arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation.”

That may be true, but I predict that governments will use this plot as an excuse for ever more privacy invasions and power grabs. In short notice, we will see “experts” on TV that explain how this investigation was hampered by existing limits on police power, how lucky we were this time to catch terrorists in the nick of time, and how we must expand investigative power and massive TIA databases to prevent a future catastrophe. Lobbyists for these measures will certainly attempt to spin public perception this way. After all, the ongoing investigation will certainly discover details that would have been obvious in retrospect, if only we’d had the datamining capabilities.

This plot will serve as more material for a culture of fear.

Andrew August 13, 2006 12:58 PM

Certain Fortune 500 companies are quietly but radically changing how they support their business travelers:

  • laptops are starting to travel with all data encrypted and backed up, or even wiped during transit and re-loaded at destination — you can steal my hardware but you can’t steal my data!
  • laptops are shipped to secure destinations instead of being traveled with
  • instructions for shipping a laptop home via FedEx are being distributed, in the event of another TSA mid-travel change
  • a lot more ground travel is being authorized and air travel is being discouraged and/or just plain cancelled when not a business necessity
  • travel carriers are putting employees in certain parts of the aircraft, either behind the wings or in the emergency exit seats, on the theory of improved survivability

  • procedures to make it easy for travelling employees to get help from company operations centers are being checked and improved

Last but not least, many companies are re-visiting running their own private jet travel programs. Sun and HP have tried variants of this over the years.

I predict that several of the high-travel Fortune 500 companies will get together and quietly build up their own hub system using owned jets. Screw the TSA.

Q August 13, 2006 1:02 PM

This begs the question of who will dare file a class action against ALL governments that implement theatre security, on charges of obstruction and disturbance of public peace, a.k.a. terrorism, and for the loss in productivity plus the damaged luggage.

This democratic strategy of making the government put its money where its mouth is and bear the full cost of its actions is further discussed here:

Of course, the loophole in this strategy is that the government can impose a tax increase in retaliation, so the real trick would be to get rid of governments altogether. Utopic indeed, but more and more appearing to be a dire necessity.

Jim August 13, 2006 1:03 PM

Clearly there are all sorts of what ifs. You got the tampon bomb, the belly bomb, the baby bomb the ipod detonators, the dreaded Casio watch timer and the list goes on. I guess the only defense is to know who’s on the aircraft and what they are about. You have to profile suspects. And profiling has somehow become a bad word in the U.S.A. because of the racial war, before terrorism took over as a national worry. The problem is that you can’t treat everybody the same way. The end result is that everybody is a suspect or treated like one, hair gel and all. In our area, they were saying no exceptions, they being the people who know best. The pilots were on the news, all dumping costly cologne and hair gel. No exceptions! If the pilot is a suspect, we are all in big trouble. We may be any old way you stack it up. NO EXCEPTIONS.

antimedia August 13, 2006 1:04 PM

Imagine my surprise when I read this – the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation.

Yet you have been extremely critical of the NSA surveillance programs.

Why the suddent change of heart? The realization that it actually works?

James August 13, 2006 1:29 PM

Mark J:
“Your chance of dying in a car wreck is vastly greater than your chance of dying in a terrorist incident… Yet most of us ordinary people leading middle class lives overcome the terror of dying in a car wreck. In fact, most of us don’t give it a second thought…”

I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about the others. You know them: the people who buy lottery tickets… every day…. and MORE lottery tickets on the days that the jackpot is higher.

If you have a means of persuading them, en masse, to invest that money rather than throwing it away, you can probably explain airline safety to them.

on the other hand we statistics-impaired have to consider: past performance is no indication of future results. What if the bad guys DO have an uber-plot that will get through security and take out lots of planes… on the day I’m flying (“Just my luck”)

or to put this another way, most people fly rarely, and aviation accidents tend to be mostly fatal, so the perception right or wrong is of high risk, particulary given the state of panic at most airports right now and really since 9/11… most people drive frequently, and auto accidents tend to be mostly not fatal, people perceive ‘at least a chance to get away’ (rightly or wrongly)

as for me personally, i take public transit to the airport and have only spent a few hours in cars this year… i don’t like either option !:)

Jim August 13, 2006 1:34 PM

Old fashioned intelligence: We balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination.

The NSA problem or modern problem is replacing imagination with technology and getting a good result and good intelligence. Instead of needing investigators, you end up with technicians feeding you intelligence from computers with no imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. The case was foiled by people, which is old fashioned, but has been proven effective. 911 was the result of failures in technology. The terrorists turned off the aircraft transponders, for example. We relied on those transponders for location and responders. Without them, nobody knew what to do. We got lost in our own maze of gadgets and technology. Even the NSA could do little or nothing to stop the world shattering events. The passengers brought the jet down in Pennsylvania. Something had to be done and people stepped up and did it. When technology fails, people march on. All the NSA can do is watch, like the rest of us. They have more computers and can listen to more than we can. Then there’s the problem of translators, which we need more of. Computers can translate, but not as well as people n@.

Nicolai Brown August 13, 2006 1:46 PM

Great op-ed, Bruce.

I’d like to echo something he wrote about fear and being terrorized: If you refuse to give in to fear, terrorism fails. There’s a lot of empirical evidence showing why you shouldn’t fear terrorism.

How likely are you to die under various circumstances, in the US?

Heart Disease: 685,089
Cancer: 556,902
Stroke: 157,689
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 126,382
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 109,277
Diabetes: 74,219
Influenza/Pneumonia: 65,163
Alzheimer’s disease: 63,457
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 42,453
Septicemia: 34,069

Even in 2001, only approximately 3,000 in the US died of terrorism. Only one person — ONE! — died last year, and that individual died of injuries sustained in the Sept. 11 attacks.

You are far more likely to die of the flu, or even septicemia (whatever that is). And when septicemia is so much more deadly than terrorism, why don’t we know about that when the faces of 9/11 hijackers are common knowledge?

Bottom line is that the government and its media have a lot to gain from your irrational fear. Just look at government since 9/11 — it’s gotten a lot more powerful. And as Bruce seems to suggest, it hasn’t helped us one bit.

Sparks Fly August 13, 2006 2:21 PM

I am a lesbian, but if I could go straight for any man, it would be you. And I have blog envy, too. Hope it was ok to put a link to this in my blog today. Keep up the good fight!

James August 13, 2006 2:23 PM

Nicolai: illness caused by genetics, or virus, or infection, isn’t avoidable. I would wager that most people who “fear” flying now, do so because for a great many people, it IS a conscious decision to take that flight versus not taking it. one can always stay home and be “safe from terrorists.”

The arguments here about the rationality or irrationality of the worry are pointless if you are talking about a population that DOES in fact fear something. This time would be better spent understanding what is feared and why. The current environment of “safety inspections” is doing more to promote fear than anything else is. The fear has been created by the security apparatus, men with guns and dogs in airports, and “terror threat red” flag-waving. Deal with that, don’t blame those who are bombarded with the official message that doom lies around every corner and in every bottle of Pocari Sweat.

Dan Lewis August 13, 2006 2:32 PM

antimedia, the NSA surveillance program did not help investigators break open this terror cell. The NSA surveillance program is voodoo.

The plot was foiled by an anonymous tip from the UK Muslim community.
“The London Evening Standard, critical of British Muslim leaders in the past for failing to speak out against the militants within, in an editorial yesterday stressed “it is encouraging that the current investigation was prompted by a British Muslim, who, after 7/7, saw the need to report his suspicions and so helped save thousands of lives. Those outside the Muslim community need to show it support while its leaders face up to the challenges ahead.??? Police also revealed that they had found “useful information??? thus far in their searches, but refused to comment on British press reports that they had found airline tickets in the names of some of the alleged plotters for yesterday on United Airlines.”

jgruszynski August 13, 2006 2:32 PM

No1, et al.

“So the solution is…. don’t be terrorized and just accept that 3000 people could have been killed which is “beside the point”?!?!?!?!? What kind of thinking is that?”

Quick pop quiz, No1: how many people are killed in automobile accidents every month? Answer: ~3000. Every single month! For the last few decades!!

The simple, unassailable fact is that 3000 deaths by automobile are absolutely deemed “acceptable losses” by the US public today. This is a self-evident fact based on simple statistics.

If it weren’t acceptable losses then how many people would be willing to:

1) require 5 years training to get a driver’s license with annual full day re-certifaction exams,
2) have the government install a monitoring device on your car to assure that you never break any traffic laws and so you can always be traced to accidents that do happen, and
3) require that you pay for the above directly and be barred from using any insurance since insurance shields you from “moral hazard” leading to dangerous automobile operating decisions – damages must come from your personal cash and assets on-hand

If we only had these three changes you could reasonably expect to achieve zero-tolerance for any traffic death. You would be finally “safe” on the road. BTW compare these 3 points to current anti-terror executive privilege claims and policies.

But 3000 deaths by terrorist, once over a 5 year period, are somehow worse? No, death is death. 95% of the US government and US publics response to 9-11 has been an obscene, disproportionate over-reaction. Those of us more worldly sometimes believe the purpose is the cynical political and financial control of the US population, but I digress.

Are 3000 terror deaths acceptable losses? Our acceptance of other types of “preventable” death are de facto proof that society has made the same choice before: absolutely yes – 3000 deaths by X is often acceptable and we move on. Here’s a personal check: do you grieve deeply everyday for the 100 people who are killed each day on our roads? Of course not, very, very few do. Mostly relatives and friends of those recently killed. Otherwise, those are acceptable losses given the value of being able to drive your car.

Those of us who have studied risk know why this poor assessment occurs: humans are profoundly bad at assessing risk in situations that rarely occur or that have uncertain cost or that are determined by a small, isolated group of people. Seat-of-the-pants is often good enough to avoid a lion on the savannah but it’s not good at assessing accurate risk in the modern world. The book “Decision Traps” is a good intro on the subject.

The fact that humans assess risk poorly doesn’t mean that responding emotional is an acceptable alternative. Usually the opposite is true. That’s what Bruce is saying, indirectly.

Carlos August 13, 2006 2:57 PM

Three points.

  1. When terrorists are known to work in multiple, redundant cells that adopt parallel plans for simultaneous attacks, then what you are calling “last time” (the “previous” attack) might not yet be over. There may still be other active cells out there prepared to use the same tactics, and if our targeted counter-tactics are not immediately in place, they could carry out their planned attacks on an urgent basis.

So your point about ‘preparing for the last attack’ doesn’t hold water.

  1. You made my next point for me when you said: “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.”

Well you almost made my point. You failed to notice the fact that plots can be BOTH well planned, AND carried out by sloppy and stupid people. 9/11 is an example. The word ‘stupid’ is tricky. People can be both stupid and smart. They do some smart things, some stupid things. Preparing to thwart well-planned plots carried by sloppy and stupid attackers is a good idea, not a bad one.

  1. Security theater may actually deter some attacks. I don’t have evidence to back this up, but you also don’t have evidence to back up your apparent belief that no attacks have been deterred by the measures put in place since 9/11. If your point is that no system is perfect, please go preach it in an ivory tower. We actually live in a real world. If some vacillating, cowardly, needs-to-get-a-life potential recruit is afraid a plot might not work, and they abandon the plot because of this belief, that’s fine with me. You don’t seem to think that’s a possibility. Me, I do. Yes, the costs have to be balanced with the effectiveness. And yes, security theater doesn’t create perfect security. But I missed the part of your article where you pointed out what does create perfect security.

Bruce Schneier August 13, 2006 3:08 PM

@ Carlos

You’re have valid points. Of course this is more complicated than I can fit in a 550-word op ed. In Beyond Fear I talk about these sorts of things: copy-cat terrorists versus the ones who think of new ideas, the complexities of sloppy vs stupid, and the value of security theater.

Adam Fields August 13, 2006 3:27 PM

1) We need to remove the word “terrorist” from the lexicon. They’re criminals, plain and simple. They need to be caught using the same law enforcement techniques as any other criminal. “Criminals” only succeed when they succeed, but “terrorists” succeed when they try.

2) It’s a problem that attacks or the threat of attacks are used for political gain. The only way to prevent that is to align the interests of the politicians with the actual prevention of attacks instead of security theater – to guarantee that in the event of another attack on US soil, every incumbent politician loses their next election. If this message got across loud and clear, I posit that security theater would evaporate rather quickly and be replaced by more effective measures. Of course, that may introduce a whole host of invasive civil liberty restrictions that we’d have to deal with separately.

Erik V. Olson August 13, 2006 5:21 PM

So the solution is…. don’t be terrorized and just accept that 3000 people could have been killed which is “beside the point”?!?!?!?!? What kind of thinking is that?

No. 1, why are you such a coward?

statistian August 13, 2006 6:17 PM

As the old joke has it, the statistician ensures safety by carrying his own bomb onto the plane. The negligible chances of two bombs …

Vik Olliver August 13, 2006 6:23 PM

There’s a lot of playing into the terrorist’s hands here, as airports and foyers fill up with people and unchecked luggage. A suitcase or two packed with something nasty would achieve a very high death toll as witnessed in Mumbai.

Also, why this preponderance over batteries when a simple match will set off a bomb quite effectively?

Rumours I’ve heard from unreliable sources are that the “liquid explosive” is a red herring, and that the real scare is for a binary nerve agent. Makes sense, even if it is a wild-arsed guess.

Vik :v)

Kickstart August 13, 2006 6:25 PM

I don’t know about you all, but I’m all feared out. They used up as much of my available fear as they could a long time ago.

All these current steps are about is control and fear. They don’t care a bit that they are useless for saving lives…appearances are better for them than thought and wise action.

The worst part of this is that neither the media nor the political opposition is standing up and having the cojones to tell the emperor he’s wearing no clothes. Without one or both of these doing so, we’re going to get worse before we get better.

Troy Rollo August 13, 2006 6:50 PM

As usual, Bruce, you’ve got the security issues covered. Unfortunately you are expecting both our politicians and the people in general to be rational about things, and the available evidence shows that it is easier to whip the populace into a fear-induced frenzy than it is to calm them down and get them to rationally evaluate a situation. The fact that political points are scored these days by sound bites in mass entertainment media rather than informed discussion in the higher-bandwidth (in terms of content) written media does not help, since a fear-inducing soundbite fits into the limited mass entertainment media space available much better than a reasoned discussion.

Andrew Pollack August 13, 2006 6:56 PM

I flew Boston to Heathrow on Thursday the 10th, and was delayed but otherwise untroubled. My gadgetry was allowed on the flight and all went fairly well.

Tomorrow (today technically) I will not be allowed to take anything on board.

5 hours before my 7 hour flight, allowing an hour delay on the front end and an hour through passport control and customs in the US plus baggage means this trip leave me entirely out of touch for at least 14 hours.

If my flight is cancelled, I have no mobile phone to call friends to be picked up, and probably cannot get my baggage back until the flight is rescheduled.

All this as a result of cowards, alarmists, and the terrorists who give the power hungry men an oportunity to increase their control.

Bastards, all.

I’m off now to make sure the data contents of my hard disk are fully encrypted with Blowfish. 🙂

Jim August 13, 2006 8:06 PM

My neighbor said everything on MacGyver could be done in real life.
MacGyver created a bomb to open a door using a gelatin cold capsule containing sodium metal, which he then places in a glass container filled with water. When the gelatin dissolves in the water, the sodium reacts violently with the water and causes an explosion which opens the barred door.

P-dro August 13, 2006 8:25 PM

For those who asked Bruce for more concrete terms on “Don’t be terrorized” here’s an important and powerful qualification of what you can physically do:

  • think when you vote

Whether or not you’re afraid when you fly is meaningless to security or terror. You can’t tell TSA that you’re not afraid and therefore will not succumb to a security screening – in fact, don’t do that, it’ll land you in a world of trouble.

Whether you choose to fly or not is not likely to change much of the economy because there are many of us that have no choice (I fly for business too).

As far as what you can do to help with security and to deter terrorists on a day to day basis, there’s little that would make a difference or that I would almost care about. And I’m not talking just about a turban-wrapped middle-easterner male…because some of you are still thinking that, as scary as it seems.

But what you can do is think about what kind of actions the leaders you elect will present. You can look at their history of decision-making. You can chose not to vote for the guy that will “kill the terrorists”… (I am hard-pressed to think of a more meaningless statement).


antimedia August 13, 2006 8:36 PM

Dan Lewis writes, “antimedia, the NSA surveillance program did not help investigators break open this terror cell. The NSA surveillance program is voodoo.”

I’m sorry, but that’s clearly untrue. I’m not going to fill up Bruce’s blog with links, but multiple stories have told of “US intelligence officials” who supplied the Brits with “chatter” picked up over the phone lines, which led directly to the arrests the other day.

The Muslim women triggered an investigation, but electronic intelligence played a part in the end result – another plot foiled.

For those who insist technology doesn’t help, I can assure you, as computer security professional, it most certainly does. It helps you to narrow in on the potential problem areas that really matter rather than chasing rabbits all day.

I agree with Bruce that many of the “security measures employed today are both silly and counterproductive. I’d like strangle Richard Reid, for example. I’m sick and tired of having to take off my shoes at the airport.

But the same people ranting about the government wanting to create a climate of fear would be loudly complaining that the government failed to warn them of a successful attack – just as was done after 9/11.

To those who say, “it’s only 3000 deaths a year – cancer kills more”, I say, tell that to the people who lost loved ones to terrorism and continue to lose them every day. I’m sure they’ll appreciate your observation.

Rob Mayfield August 13, 2006 8:40 PM

Seems this pilot was fairly tense:

“A British Airways (BA) flight carrying 231 people from London to New York has turned around mid-flight and returned to London’s Heathrow airport after a mobile phone started ringing.”

Satphone or are there GSM cells in the middle of the atlantic now ? Seems a little odd to me either way, you’d think if it was already ringing and nothing went bang then the risk is minimal, unless of course they were waiting for someone to answer so they could say “theres a bomb on the plane, if you go under 500km/h …”

Nick Lancaster August 13, 2006 9:32 PM

It comes down to being aware instead of being afraid.

The media, sadly, sensationalized the details of the plot – using a bottle with a false bottom – to the threat of a sports drink mixed with gel-like substance X = explosive.

In fact, the sports drink had nothing to do with it – it wasn’t a component at all. I’m compelled to think the whole ‘detonated by an MP3 player’ is overstated as well.

And the surveillance crowd is still arguing for a model that relies on getting the right intercept to win. Imagine a football team that played a group defense on a single player, and you see how silly this gets.

Defense in depth, matched with a response capability if we FAIL to detect the enemy’s plans in advance, is what we need.

Erik August 13, 2006 9:42 PM

There is a qualitative difference between deaths caused by lightning strike outside and death caused by terrorist act. One of them is random and one of them is not. When I see lightning during a storm, I am not overly concerned that nature is targeting me. If I saw a carbomb explode outside my house, you can be sure that I would get out of there, because someone may be trying to attack me.

Also, no one intelligent really believes in the 100% solution, but does understand that it’s what you have to say to the unwashed masses. It’s another thing to say that politicians are doing worthless or dangerous antiterrorism efforts that look good. As Bruce acknowledged, there is value in stopping the less professional 90% of the terrorist attack attempts in an airport. You know, there is a reason even though planes aready had high security that they were chose as targets anyway, it’s not random and attacks won’t just shift onto other targets. On a plane people can’t go anywhere and can’t easily fight back.

bac August 13, 2006 9:45 PM

More statistics. Data was obtained from the FBI website.

Murders in 2003: around 16,500
Murders in 2004: around 16,100

There was no data for 2004 through 2006.

So you are more likely to be killed by a regular killer than a terrorist killer. I like Adam’s idea. Just call anyone who kills people a murderer. Treat them like any other murderer.

All humans die. How you die is just semantics.

antimedia August 13, 2006 9:51 PM

This is just plain silly.

“And the surveillance crowd is still arguing for a model that relies on getting the right intercept to win. Imagine a football team that played a group defense on a single player, and you see how silly this gets.”

At work we use passive monitoring to look at every single packet that leaves our network. The software that does this looks inside the headers and identifies the service being offered. It then reports this to me IF I ask the right questions. It’s my job, as a security professional, to know what the right questions are. For example, why would a host be offering a service on a non-standard port?

Intelligence works the same way. When I was in the Navy, doing signals intelligence, the equipment sifted through a mountain of data and present us with a summary view. (I’m simplifying, but you get the point.) The summary view allowed us to sift through mountains of data and spot anomalies very quickly. THEN we could zero in on the details of the anomalies and determine if there was anything to them.

Surveillance doesn’t rely on getting the right intercept. It relies on capturing ALL the data and then summarizing it for people who are trained to understand what it all means.

In the realm of terrorism, it would mean, for example, noticing that an unusually high number of calls from one number are going to known suspects. That merits investigation, which then triggers a FISA warrant and a full-blown FBI investigation.

Your comment about the MP3 player is even sillier. Unless you just believe that people in government lie all the time. If you do, then why bother trying to argue about it? No one will convince you otherwise, and rational people will write you off.

druid August 13, 2006 10:39 PM

Just want to make a limited comment. I am from Bombay and as everyone is aware we have been affected quite a bit by terrorism. I think the point about not getting terrorised is completely valid. If we all go about our lives not over reacting to terror incidents it effectively takes the sting out of terror incidents. Of course there will be an initial reaction especially if you or people known to you are directly affected. But collectively the best rebuff to terrorists is to shrug them off. It may sound like indifference – it is not. It is just an understanding that by reacting in a crazy manner and slamming a community at large is not the answer.

Rick Auricchio August 13, 2006 10:56 PM

Wait till someone tries something with his bare hands. Then they’ll have to set up amputation stations at all airports.

another_bruce August 14, 2006 2:15 AM

my worry budget is fully subscribed right now. absolutely no additional worries will be entertained until the beginning of the next worry planning period.

Jojo August 14, 2006 2:37 AM

Great op-ed! Too bad we elect idiots who are incapable of understanding what you write. All they know is how to REACT after the fact.

As has been said here before, once they find a terrorist with bomb components logded up their body cavities, everyone will be traveling nude in reaction.

Puma August 14, 2006 6:02 AM

I’m from Pakistan and my government in all its capacity in trying to stop this menace. Even this incident was checked with assistance of Pakistani intelligence.

However, one thing to point out that although it is critically important to invest in security infrastructure and intelligence gathering. One must also work to understand what breeds terrorism.

We in Pakistan are in a dilemma, the more of these guys we catch, the more get produced.

Some would say this is due to religious extremism and wrong interpretation, and I totally agree to it but only as one of the factors. Most of us aren’t even aware of the other factor i.e. political disputes. It is the political disputes, occupations, collateral damage etc. which fuels this fire.

People in the west or under democratic governments in my opinion should put pressure on their governments to have a fair foreign policy, the recent Lebanon conflict only served the terrorists purpose when the US refused to push Israel for a cease fire when clearly it had gone overboard by bombing civilian infrastructure thus resulting in massive civilian casualties and economic loss on an un-imaginable scale.

Now an important thing to note, is putting pressure on your represantative does in no means, mean you’re giving in to terrorist pressure. I think it only means you are trying to find a solution to a lingering problem taking into account all aspects.

DISCLAIMER: I am totally completely against all forms and means of terrorism. To me life is sacred and the takers of unarmed, innocent, common peoples’ lives are terrorists and murderers, who do not represent my religion.

Amin August 14, 2006 6:34 AM

Interesting comments and I’d go along with nearly all of them.

Seems to me that there is an agenda to increase power as a result of some of these activities, whether the extra powers are effective at stopping terrorists or not. Nobody, I feel, could face death from some lunatic’s bomb with equanimity. Yet we do face possible death every day from the myriad other causes such as heart disease, cancer, car crash, stabbing, gun shot, fights, rail accidents, earthquakes, flu……… It is a fair point to talk about proportionality of response since inherent in our ‘systems’ does seem to be an ‘acceptable’ death rate. Good heavens, in some parts of the UK the decision whether to let you live or die through medical treatment can be made based on your post (zip) code.

I insure my house against burglarly, fire, flood and the like and I lock my doors and windows at night. What I don’t do, given the actual risk of being burgled, is to install a moat, electrify a fence, have security guards patrolling the house and stay awake 24 hours a day just in case. On the other hand I make sure I take my medications every day to help control my blood pressue so I don’t drop dead from it.

When the IRA were bombing Britain at the height of the ‘troubles’ we took extra precautions in this country, but we made damn sure normal life was allowed to go on so the terrorists didn’t win. They don’t have to kill us all to win either – they just have to affect our national civil liberties and keep us an oppressed people in our own nation.

Give up liberties for the greater good? Even during the World Wars attention was paid to ensuring normal life continued as much as possible. Let’s all be vigilant, but not incarcerated, please!

Jim August 14, 2006 7:43 AM

Terrorism is the new mafia in the world. It’s all based on threats and reputation. Mobster were ruputed. They had families, they have cells. Terrorists are suspected. The jargon is a bit different. The methods for defeating the bad guys is the same old same old. You have RICO, which gave the FBI all sorts of tools to infiltrate the mafia. With terrorism you have to infiltrate. Basically the mob guys started flipping, they were killing each other and nobody could trust anybody else. It the same sort of thing with terrorism, with a more suicidal mind set. They are a minority, using fear and the threat of violence to operate a secret sort of society. Bin laden is the boss of bosses, in some hideout. Law enforcement has all the advantages, operating in the open with almost unlimited resources or at least the same resources that allow government to do things like go to the moon and return safely to the earth. In the end, the more technically advanced people are going to crush the criminal organizations that depend on disorganization to exist and grow. It’s like cancer and the whole body dies from a few cells that keep growing. The terrorists have a big disadvantage as criminals. Not only is the government going to work on crushing them, the other criminals are going to try to kill them in the process. They aren’t a part of the criminal fraternity. No self respecting criminal would have a thing to do with a terrorist operation. The terrorist has no self respect, thus is a suicidal maniac focused on self destruction and taking others down in a blaze of madness. There’s no glory, like old glory. There’s no glory or honor in terrorism. As bad as the mafia is, they usually leave the innocent alone and focus on internal organizational struggles. The terrorist wants to drag the innocent down with them. They are basic thugs, bullies and cowards who do it behind your back. The FBI will get in your face, because they want you see it coming. They won’t blindside you. Add the military into the fight and we can kill at a rate of 100 to 1 over an extended period of time. Soon the enemy gives up the fight or resorts to half assed efforts based on sneak attacks directed toward killing innocent civilians. They kill 100 and we kill 1,000 with advanced remote control technology like smart bombs. The side with the most technicians and the best technology can’t lose. We have satellites and they have shoe bombs. Why are we taking off our shoes at the airport?

Carlo Graziani August 14, 2006 8:23 AM

Antimedia: Please don’t be confused. The NSA runs many programs, many of which are not controversial in the USA. The ones that are objectionable from the point of view of US civil rights are the ones that sift through millions of US citizen domestic phone records, looking for patterns of suspicious activity.

There is no evidence that I know of that these specific programs contributed anything to the detection and monitoring of the plot. Presumably the chatter monitoring that you refer to was through the classic Echelon program, which while controversial in target countries, is unproblematic in the US.

The wiretapping conducted by British authorities was not broad and unfocused, but rather targeted at specific suspects. It is precisely the sort of activity that is covered by the FISA law in the US, and which the FISA court rubber-stamps in a heartbeat. There would be no legal difficulty in following such a plot electronically in the US, if the Administration bothered with such niceties of law.

Naturally, the Administration is eager to confuse the issues publically, making silly claims about the plot validating all their absurd and dangerous claims about the President’s authority to ignore the law. But the fact of the matter remains, lawless government is a greater threat to liberty than terrorism.

antimedia August 14, 2006 9:19 AM

Carlo writes, “Antimedia: Please don’t be confused. The NSA runs many programs, many of which are not controversial in the USA. The ones that are objectionable from the point of view of US civil rights are the ones that sift through millions of US citizen domestic phone records, looking for patterns of suspicious activity.”

The NSA program that stirred up so much controversy was described as monitoring both ends of a conversation where one party was in a foreign country and one was in the US, and one of the two was a known terrorist associate.

Exactly what do you think the FBI was following up on when the NSA gave them leads and they began surveillance?

Surely not people in foreign countries!

There has been a great deal of huffing and puffing about the NSA program, and many people, such as yourself, describe it as “illegal”. It is not. It never has been.

Benny August 14, 2006 9:38 AM

@ antimedia

Perhaps you missed this in the news:

“The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

‘It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,’ said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.”

This program is in violation of FISA law, meaning it is, in fact, quite illegal.

No1 August 14, 2006 9:44 AM

I am not afraid but my lack of fear won’t keep me from being a victim of a terrorist act. Terrorists have political and religious motives and not being scared doesn’t keep them from trying to kill me.

There’s also a large difference between a car accident and a terrorist event. In a car accident, there isn’t any intent, it’s an accident and in a terrorist attack, the intent is to kill as many people as possible.

Carlo Graziani August 14, 2006 9:50 AM

Antimedia, you are still confused.

The useless NSA “leads” that the FBI was following up were generated not from focused monitoring of presumed terrorists, but from link analysis and signature analysis of hundreds of millions of calls, both foreign and domestic.

The domestic part — calls entirely between end-points in the US, contrary to your assertion — is most certainly illegal. In consequence of the enthusiastic application and political use of domestic wiretapping by the FBI, the Federal Government’s authority to monitor domestic communications was circumscribed by Congress in the early ’70s. Laws mandating court approval of wiretaps in criminal cases were supplemented by the FISA law, which details, which details the procedure for authorizing surveillance — including full-up wiretapping, trap-and-trace, and pen registers. In the national hysteria that followed 9/11, the FBI was also given the authority to issue “National Security Letters” to ISPs and Telcos, to secretly subpoena communication records.

None of these procedures was activated by the NSA in its trawl operations of domestic phone records. Quite aside from the administration’s open disdain for the FISA law, the NSA may not issue National Security Letters (only the FBI may do so), and in fact the NSA is never once mentioned in any statute as an appropriate recipient for such records. In the case of the records they requested from the various telcos, those requests were informal, and US West was told explicitly that the NSA had no intention of invoking any legal process.

If you bother to read the administration’s justification for its actions, it boils down to essentially the assertion that the president has the authority to ignore any law if he determines that it is in the interest of National Security to do so. If you accept that argument, then certainly the NSA program is legal. But the other consequence of that argument is that the president is above the law, in virtue of his power to determine what National Security interest is.

Random August 14, 2006 10:28 AM

Alot of so called terrorists in teh west are called freedom fighters in the east. How do we know which is right? What is a freedom fighter? Freedom from what? Hezbollah is repeatedly calle da terrorist organisation by Israel who at the same time was systematically destroying all of southern Lebanon. And kept on doing it even after hezbollah agreed to stop sending rockets if israel stopped bombing civillian areas.

Now theres a cease-fire, but wait, israel still has the right to take “defensive” action? We all know what that defensive action is… Dropping tons of leaflets telling poor civillians to leave there homes because those very homes are going to be bombed…because all lebanese are housing hezbollah of course. I think that is a much greater exapmle of terrorism than anything else.

Why didnt Israel negotiate for those 2 p.o.w’s? Why did Israel kidnap civilians in Gaza not too long before this war(rape?) started?

Why did america buy so much time for Israel?

Who are the real terrorists?

What hope do those people have? If no one listens when you speak, you have to get up and shout. That’s why 9/11 happened. Thats why Leila Khaled hijacked that plane. After both events the really important questions started being asked by the general population.

Who are these people? Why would they do such a thing? What are their reasons? If you dig through the filtered news “Bush and blair working feverishly to stop the lebanon/israel war”(yeah right) you might find some interesting answers.

i dont agree with any sort of murder, but how many people have died in Iraq since the USA pludered it, right now the average is at 60 per day? 1000 civillians dead in lebanon in one month, a 3rd of them children.

who are the real terrorists. How much of the “terrorist” actions would be stopped if the world leaders listened to the plight of these people?

Mr Pond August 14, 2006 10:40 AM

Just an observation – much of the media reportage surrounding this latest thwarted plot seems to focus on the belief that the terrorists have somehow partially succeeded, due to the discomfort and disruption suffered by hundreds of thousands of air passengers.

Rubbish. I would submit that aim of the terrorists was to kill 3-5000 people (based on 500 people on each of 10 planes). If by this they significantly disrupted air travel for thousands more, then I’m sure they would not have objected, but very obviously the primary objective was a mass slaughter.

Hindsight is such a wonderful thing.

As an Irish republican terrorist once said: “you have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.”

I would however agree that this appears to validate the maxim that the very best form of security is well trained, knowledgeable ‘boots on the ground’ rather than the over-reliance on purely technological solutions that appears to be an increasingly popular trend.

Matt D August 14, 2006 11:16 AM

@Mr Pond: “I would submit that aim of the terrorists was to kill 3-5000 people (based on 500 people on each of 10 planes). If by this they significantly disrupted air travel for thousands more, then I’m sure they would not have objected, but very obviously the primary objective was a mass slaughter.”

Yes, the primary, tactical objective of the alleged plot appears to have been mass casualties.

Secondary tactical objectives would have been the self-same panic, disruption and financial damage that we are now seeing.

So although the primary tactical objective seems (thus far) to have failed, the secondary ones have still succeeded, albeit in a somewhat reduced fashion.

The strategic objectives of Al Qaeda (or whomsoever was behind the alleged bomb plot) are similarly likely to have been furthered in large part as much by the plot’s failure as they wuld have been by its success.

“As an Irish republican terrorist once said: “you have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.” ”

A more appropriate quote from the Provo’s doctrine at this point in time might be their maxim that “One small bomb in London is worth ten large ones in Belfast” – Islamic radicals have blown a number of Russian airliners out of the sky over the past few years, and the reaction of Western governments and news media has been muted, to say the least. But when a putative plot against UK / USA is uncovered, then all hell breaks loose, worldwide.

Pat Cahalan August 14, 2006 12:38 PM

@ No1

There’s also a large difference between a car accident and a terrorist event. In a car
accident, there isn’t any intent, it’s an accident and in a terrorist attack, the intent
is to kill as many people as possible.

If you’re talking about legal enforcement, establishing sentencing guidelines, etc., then obviously intent is an important factor.

If you’re talking about allocating resources for prevention, intent doesn’t matter. If your goal is to prevent people from dying (from anything), then you want to expend your resources appropriately, to prevent the most number of people from dying from whatever the cause.

Hypothetically, let’s say you have an iron clad guarantee that you can spend $10B over 4 years to get exactly one of two results: you can prevent cancer, or you can stop terrorism. Are you going to spend the $10B to stop a few thousand terrorism deaths, or the 2.2 million deaths from cancer? The answer is even more obvious if you consider the fact that “curing cancer” enables you to halt 550K deaths per year (just in the US), forever, presumably at no additional (or very little sustainable) cost. Whereas you have to spend $2.5 B a year, every year, forever to stop all the new terrorists who crop up.

The U.S. has spent an obscene amount of money in the last five years in “anti-terror” measures. All of this money to protect us from a statistically negligible event.

Warren August 14, 2006 12:55 PM

Great report, and some nice comments.
Having been on four flights to/from UK airports this weekend, I have two comments on security at airports;
1) I note that there are two areas on men, and three on women, that security staff avoid frisking. I would not advocate their doing so of course, but in view of the range of none metallic or explosive items that could be smuggled inside underpants or in a bra, doesn’t this lack of checking rather invalidate the search anyway?
2) They were making parents drink baby milk. If I were a terrorist planning to blow myself into Paradise where 42 virgins awaited my pleasure, in about half an hours time, would I worry if I had to drink something that tasted nasty? Would I worry about being poisoned, and missing the final big bang? I think not. Surely the Security people should sample the milk instead, so they can be sure it tastes ok, and thus treating the rest of us to the sight of the security guys suckling milk from a baby bottle, instead of humiliating the parents in this way?

Peter Kelly August 14, 2006 1:06 PM

I fly a lot. Security in airports frustrates me because I know that if someone tries hard enough, security measures won’t stop intelligent persons determined to cause harm. At the same time security is inconveniencing travelers. So I feel that it is mostly a waste of time.
I don’t know how to stop people angry enough to kill. My feeling is in some way the approach of the powerful to the weak needs to change. Otherwise we will only create more angry people.
If the money we spent on war was spent trying to improve education, health, provide food and shelter. There would be less angry people. People in power do not think this way. People in general are split between those who feel an aggressive approach will eventually cause our enemies to become weakened enough to no longer be a threat, and those who feel that hurting people will not make you safe.
I don’t have a plan for changing the philisophical outlook of aggressive people.
I really liked your article. It put into words many things I have been thinking for quite a while.

Anonymous August 14, 2006 1:09 PM

It’s even worse than that:
they’re really not declaring fluids a
security risk, it seems they are declaring
their ignorance in the field
a security risk.
Against that there is no defense.

Edd Conboy August 14, 2006 1:37 PM


I appreciate your thoughtful review of the current security theater being played out in airports all over the world. As a very frequent flier, I too am amazed at how much attention is paid to the public stage, and how little to the grips and gaffers backstage.

On a slightly side note, though, I wonder about some of the internal contradictions being exhibited by these “terrorist cells???. It seems on the face of it that they are determined to out do the attack on 9-11, and on the other attacks in Europe post 9-11. That means more manpower, more complexity, and more opportunities for skilled investigators to pierce the veil of secrecy (which seems to be the case in this last thwarted plot).

The more that they seem so determined to create a big bang, the less “terrorized??? I am. (And BTW I agree with you about the need not to be terrorized.)

What would concern me more would be if they were to change tactics and “go random???. This is what made the French and German underground so powerful in War World II. The randomness of the attacks on the Nazi transportation infrastructure by small self-organizing groups with little centralized command and control forced the Nazi regime to waste precious resources in a futile attempt to protect their assets.

Thankfully, these cells do not seem familiar with Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theories and the power of seemingly random events on behavior, or we would all be jittery.

R.K. August 14, 2006 1:59 PM

I have a new movie-plot terrorist scenario for you:

Eighteen young Muslim women, bitterly opposed to America, travel to Dubai. There, they have huge breast implants installed. Unlike normal implants, however, these are filled with a gelatinous explosive. After boarding American airliners, they construct crude detonators out of capacitors and sewing needles concealed in their boots, then explode them using current from the in-flight entertainment system. The resulting breaches in the skins of the various airplanes causes them to crash, killing all aboard.

C Gomez August 14, 2006 2:38 PM

I agree with Bruce that not every measure taken since 9/11, including things like taking off shoes and setting up terrorist watch-lists, does a thing to improve security on airplanes. However, is it okay to concede that some things are an improvement?

What is wrong with trying to prevent weapons from coming onboard aircraft? The terrorists on 9/11 used weapons, even though they might have been a bit unconventional. One can concede that we “can’t keep weapons out of prisons”, but does that mean no effort should be made to try?

There’s no question more effort and resources (I am loathe to say “money” because simply throwing money at a problem is no solution) should be put into the old-fashioned investigation techniques that led to foiling this attempt, but even Bruce concedes some measures should remain in place to at least place the bar somewhere off the ground.

KDT August 14, 2006 3:09 PM

Good, critical, thinking and analysis, Bruce. Here’s a letter I submitted last week to the local paper:

Terror wins another round. We immediately throw away our toothpase and hand lotion to board flights, even though officials admit they had known of the latest plot for months, and had also known for years that certain dangerous chemicals could evade airport security. Why, then, were the skies suddenly less safe on August 10, after 19 suspects had been arrested, than they were the day before, when none had been?

Remember the summer of 2004, when we learned of the plot to attack certain skyscrapers in Manhattan? Lines immediately formed outside midtown office buildings, as untrained security guards became bag inspectors. The inspections went away as soon as the cold weather hit — apparently terrorists only attack in warm weather. And when was the last time a terror plot was foiled by the NYPD’s misguided “random” bag checks at subway stations? All a bomber has to do is turn around, leave the station, and enter the system somewhere else. How does this make any sense?

Canceled flights and hours-long delays for millions of travelers all add up to a win for Osama. What is needed is a reasonable response — not another mindless, knee-jerk reaction — to terror threats. We are many times more likely to be seriously injured in our drive to the airport than we are once we board the plane. Perhaps liquids should be banned from cars?

Mark August 14, 2006 3:21 PM

“Satphone or are there GSM cells in the middle of the atlantic now ? Seems a little odd to me”.

The most likely place to find a GSM cell in the middle of the Atlantic would be on the plane itself. Thus perfectly easy for the flight crew to turn off without leaving the cockpit, unless installed covertly. (Why would anyone covertly install a useful piece of hardware on a plane though?)
About the only “innocent” explanation is that the phone in question was generating a low battery warning rather than “ringing”.

Matt D August 14, 2006 3:49 PM

@mark, @rob:
” “Satphone or are there GSM cells in the middle of the atlantic now ? Seems a little odd to me”.
The most likely place to find a GSM cell in the middle of the Atlantic would be on the plane itself. ”

Has it actually been stated how far into its journey the plane was when the cell phone rang?

Depending on the exact destination, flights from the UK to the USA can be over or close to the British/Irish archipelago for the best part of a thousand miles after take off, and some of the higher power GSM base stations in the remoter parts of the UK and the ROI have a considerable range, especially when the handset is at a high altitude, giving a direct line of sight to the base station.

For comparason, it is rare, but not unknown, for handsets located on the south coast of England to successfully register themselves with base stations in France and Belgium.

Also, it the plane is heading that way, another source of (possibly high-power) mid-Atlantic GSM base stations would be Iceland (and possibly some of the costal settlements on Greenland).

Remember – Great Circle routes often look odd on an atlas, and laying a ruler across a map often doesn’t give you the shortest route from A to B, on a scale of thousands of miles.

Another anonymous person August 14, 2006 4:59 PM

I just read that U.S. Atty. General Alberto Gonzales has said that the “no liquids” rules may become premanent unless a way to screen for liquid explosives can be found.


safe to fly August 14, 2006 5:30 PM

In the last 5 years appx. 10 times as many US civilians have been killed by terrorists involving commercial airliners than by mechanical/pilot error. I believe the crash in October 2001 in Belle Harbor, NY was the last major airline accident in the United States. In the last decade (including flight 800) 4-5 times as many civilians/passengers have been killed by terrorists in the United States (than by pilot error/mechanical failure). Organized Terrorism’s goal is one of force multiplier-if 3,000 people died every 10 years in airline crashes in the United States due to pilot/mechanical error the long lines and discomfort of today would seem trivial. You could argue that terrorism is the only real threat still a big part of flying. Major carriers hardly ever crash anymore unless someone wills it.

Rob Mayfield August 14, 2006 5:46 PM

@Matt D – all they said was that the flight “turned around mid-flight”, I haven’t seen mention of where they were when the phone actually “rang” (or did whatever it did to cause a ruckus – someone mentioned battery low warning, depending on the phone it could also have just been an alarm clock function or a meeting reminder, if it was a windows mobile phone it could have been crashing/rebooting, there’s lots of possibilities), they don’t mention how long it took to raise the alarm from that time, how long they discussed it, how long the pilot or ground controllers took to make a decision or vacillate, and how long after the decision it was safe that the captain decided to go back to Heathrow in spite of the advice (I wonder if they will dock the fuel from his pay ?).
So they could have been anywhere. Mid-flight according to the press is probably any time the wheels aren’t on the ground. One has to assume they were still closer to Heathrow, otherwise the captain would need some other reason why he’d rather be back at Heathrow than proceeding to the US, there’s a few possibilities …
As for GSM coverage – who knows. The design maximum cell size is 35km, however there’s plenty of systems that extend further, 120km or more. That said, it’s not a pager, two way comms are required and most handsets are very average transmission sources at best. 10km altitude is certainly a good point of origin for small signal transmissions – wide footprint and typically good propagation and low attenuation except the initial aluminium can, which never seems to inhibit RF terribly much. Agreed on GC paths, never worried about them much except based on my own point of origin for RF work.

Gavin August 14, 2006 6:22 PM

There are SO many ways to get around the “ban on liquids”. Like the breast implant idea.

Even easier– how about terrorists with colostomy bags filled with yucky-looking-and-smelling, highly explosive stuff? Wouldn’t even need to be REAL colostomy bags, I’m sure it would be pretty easy to fake the real thing.

Or a camelback hydration system between your shoulders (cyclists use them all the time) filled with something nasty; very hard to detect, unless you’re frisked and/or strip-searched.

Davi Ottenheimer August 14, 2006 10:13 PM

“Of course this is more complicated than I can fit in a 550-word op ed.”

Oooh, I like that. Bruce, I think you are often right on many of these issues, but sometimes you give bad and/or contradictory advice. Of course my explanation is more complicated than I can fit in this comment box, so you’ll have to wait for my book to be published. 😛

“In Beyond Fear I talk about these sorts of things: copy-cat terrorists versus the ones who think of new ideas, the complexities of sloppy vs stupid, and the value of security theater.”

Ah, but I have not found it convincing or comforting when you dismiss attackers as not “clever” enough.

For example, page 82 says “Most attackers are copycats. They aren’t clever enough to react to feedback from the countermeasures and invent new techniques. They can’t think up new ways to steal money out of ATMs or bank vaults.”

Yes, this is consistent with most historic views of attackers. The majority of attackers can’t think up new ways to threaten others because they didn’t think up the old ways to attack. This is not because they are not clever, but because they have little prior/relevant experience and are thus meant to carry out fairly routine steps and insulate the innovator from harm. No matter how smart you are, it is expensive to innovate compared to just following directions. A person who is especially quick to innovate relative to others is usually working with a rich background with experience on a subject, perhaps even from the insider’s view, and all that doesn’t come for free.

Why do I point this out? I am concerned that your “clever” test is misleading. If the attackers have the barrier to their attacks lowered in terms of cost (e.g. a tool becomes available) they are far more likely to attack (with success). I see this as very different than requiring them to become more clever.

I think this is precisely why it’s very important to put controls in place that increase the cost of attacks (e.g. close known vulnerabilities and require innovation/discovery for new ones) in order to reduce likelihood. The trick of course, to be “effective”, is to find the least costly control that correlates to the most expensive hurdle for attackers; and if you can not reasonably predict a particular hurdle, then you must find a series of controls that together raise the cost of attack (or eliminate the threat).

Incidentally, on page 116 where you talk about the ’82 Tylenol poisinings you left out an important detail: the decision to pull the drug from shelves was apparently made due to the copycat attacks, not the initial crisis (the FBI said J&J could only pull its product if a copycat emerged). So you have to wonder if there not been copycats, would we have “triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging”? More to the point, it is often said that the Tylenol attacker did not seem particularly intelligent.

So while I often hear you warn that a reaction can be a waste when attackers move to a different product or vector, I think you would agree that J&J was wise to introduce controls (innovate) in a way to reduce risk to their consumers. In fact, they not only did a good job changing the vulnerabilities (and creating a new bar for secure packaging) but they also managed to make a quick recovery with consumer confidence. Of course returning to business-as-usual also was helped by a PR campaign to “communicate the message that the company is candid, contrite, and compassionate, committed to solving the murders and protecting the public” [Jerry Knight, “Tylenol’s Maker Shows How to Respond to Crisis” Washington Post, October 11, 1982].

Alas, like I said, see my book for details.

Nick Lento August 15, 2006 4:24 AM

Davi, the bottom line is that “Terrorism” is a profit center for all manner of businesses and a power generator for governments.

They both have perverse incentives to increase the levels of fear.

Perverse, that’s the word. There’s a symbiotic (albeit unconscious) relationaship between the actual “terrorists”, the anti-“terrorism” industry, and politicians. They feed off of, and reinforce each other.

Davi, have you read all the comments here?

Most of it is stuff (in re 9-11) that was obvious to me (and, I suspect many many millions of others) going back to 10/01…it’s great to see that more and more people are getting “hip” to this scam.

These “terrorists” are driven crazed hateful people who are often (manipulated into) reacting to insane and unjust situations with insane and unjust means.

Nothing can justify what they do; but if we don’t deal with the underlying motivations, their numbers wll simply increase every time new victims are created by the actions and policies of inhumane governments. (How many more thousands of crazed pissed off frustrated people with nothing more to lose do you think we have created in Lebanon and Israel in the past few weeks?)

Of course, people like Bush and Bin Laden have a perverse incentive to see those numbers increase. Fear, injustice, greed, violence, egistic power trips hiding behind false religiosity….it’s all a self feeding destructive dynamic.

Yes, we need to do practical due dilligence to protect ourselves as best we can; but the current “security industry has as much incentive to truly eliminate terrorism as the medical industrial complex has to employ preventive wholistic medicine by making it covered by insurance.

The only way to truly eliminate the growing numbers of crazed hate filled angry people who have nothing to lose is to build a world where justice and common human decency count for more than greed and profit.

Real security is a matter of wholistic prevention that involves all elements of human activity. The perverse dynamic which is currently dominant can only result in escalations/trajectories that will result in human extinction.

And, again, Bush and Bin Laden are equally convinced that they are “good” and doing G-d’s work.

Davi, are ya listening?

Zwiebeltuete August 15, 2006 7:15 AM

People fear terrorists and for that we have this theater.

If you look at the US statistics from 2003 (numbers are from memory) 13000 have been killed by homicide, 17000 killed themself, 17000 deaths from AIDS and 45000 killed in traffic. These threads are much more serious than terrorists, still e.g. cars are allowed to drive faster than 5kph/mph.

CodeRot August 15, 2006 9:52 AM

I have been thinking for a while that I was an aspiring terrorist leader, I would try a new approach: instead of trying to get bombs on board the plane, which takes a lot of sophistication, I would get my crew to detonate their asses in the check-in aisles. Or they could all just pull out an Uzi and start spraying people down. You could take out a lot of people attacking INSIDE the airport, and you would still score all those extra benefits of an attack inside a plane: for one, all aviation traffic around the world would be halted; stock markets would fall; gas prices would spike; George Bush and Tony Blair would appear on TV and spout the usual rhetoric of “This is a war between good and evil”, etc, etc. Terrorists have got to get more creative in their approach to terror. Mind you, they have proven so far, to be about ten times as creative as the forces they oppose — that of western corporate capitalism led by Bush, Blair, Omert et al.

One of Your Readers August 15, 2006 10:20 AM

I really appreciated your essay yesterday, entitled “Last week’s Terrorism Arrest”. I found it pithy and on point!

Your final paragraph begins with these lines: And if you want to know what you can do to help? Don’t be terrorized.

Ah, easy for folks who have some folder to stick it in! Otherwise, it sits on their mental desktops and won’t file because these is no container to hold it.

Sometimes it helps people to imagine building a mental box and giving it a label. Where do You file such stuff, Bruce? Where might they?

I can tell you where I file it: in a mental box labelled with a quote from Samuel Johnson, the first lexicographer. He said of his many critics: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” (He also said of his critics who wrote scathing responses to his essays that it was “Like being nibbled to death by ducks”.)

Oh, the power of naming! Please tell your readers not only what they can do to help, but also how they can help themselves…and others.

And, please keep writing!

Jimi August 15, 2006 10:21 AM

“Gas prices would spike.” You don’t know what you are talking about. When jet fuel demand drops suddenly, oil prices go down and not up. If aviation stopped for any long period of time, the cost of oil would plummet. The value of commercial jets would go down as well.

Jimi August 15, 2006 10:32 AM

“Terrorists have got to get more creative in their approach to terror.” Any jackass can knock down a barn door, it takes a carpenter to build one. I think we can conclude that CodeRot is a jackass.

Mr Pond August 15, 2006 10:38 AM

Ultimately Terrorism provokes a far more emotional response from public and government alike, as it is by and large an unregulatable risk.

Take the often given example of car accidents. Yes, they kill vastly more people than terrorist actions, but most people are happy motoring as they believe that their driving knowledge gained from experience coupled with knowledge of most possible threats will reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

This is not true of terrorism: if people believe that the terrorist is capable of striking anywhere with little or no warning and with little or no probablility of being intercepted, this produces feelings of helplessness that are difficult to control or cope with.

It’s unfortunate that those who are best placed to placate these (arguably)irrational fears are incapable, and rightly so, of speaking in any great detail, about any countermeasures or counter-terrorism operations that are in use.

I suppose it comes down to how blind much trust one chooses to place on the police / MI5 / FBI etc… Organisations which are expected to come up with 100% reliable countermeasures when everyone ought to realise that intelligence is far from being an exact science – more like an inexact art.

CodeRot August 15, 2006 10:39 AM

I might not be an expert on the mechanics of gas pricing, but I know this, that the world economy today runs on fear. It is a more valuable commodity than oil, in many ways. That is why the people who really know how to peddle fear (like George Bush, who was an unremarkable leader before September 11 happened) get ahead in this kind of environment. Fear of terrorism is just that old ancient fear, fear of death, rebranded in a new package. But as with many posters on this board, the only solution is to get statistical: what are your chances of being killed by terrorists? And of course the chance is so small that is not worth worrying about. You have got more chance of being run down by a bus, as many posters on this thread have already pointed out. So instead of trying to eradicate terrorism, our leaders should adopt a kind of “terror management” policy. No matter how you structure a world system, there will always be people who object to it — and who lash out against in the form of terrorism. But the threats they pose can be managed. For example, forcing Israel to give the Palestinians a nation of their own would be a good first step in managing the problem of Arab/Muslim terrorism.

Jimi August 15, 2006 11:41 AM

I place faith in the art, inexact or exact although the science is important also.

“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.”

Terrorism, like any crime, can be prevented. As an artist I don’t worry about the criminal elements including terrorism. To do so would only dissipate my energy. I have more important matters requiring concentration. Art is vital, crime is incidental. Once I’m dead, I’ll have it made. Until then all I can do is create something. Terrorism can’t stop me from doing what I want to do. I can’t be prevented.

JA August 15, 2006 1:43 PM

Having witnessed my wife, who suffers from unstable blood sugar levels, being forced to get rid of her grapes (which have proved to be an effective remedy in case of emergency) prior to a flight, on the grounds that they contain liquid, I have to agree with Bruce that this farce has nothing to do with security. She was also told at the check-in desk that she can only take to the cabin the amount of prescription allergy and asthma pills she needs for the 90-minute flight, and later by security inspectors that she can’t have the pills without their original container that had the prescription on it. With the delays and missed connections the trip ended lasting 18 hours, and this could have been really scary if she hadn’t managed to smuggle in some pills anyway.

This makes me wish airports had a separate “security theatre” for the people who need to see this kind of show to feel secure. They could even sell tickets to cover the costs! The rest of us could just go through normal inspections through expedited lines and wouldn’t have to show up three hours early for the show.

Probitas August 15, 2006 1:51 PM

To all those who wail about being advised to “not be terrorized”, I must wonder how much of your day is spent being terrorized about the thought of dying on the way home in a car accident. Such an event is far more likely that any terrorist attack taking your life, yet you fail to get worked up about it. The fact is, you have just acclimated to and accepted that risk as part of your life, much as Bruce has suggested here. The advice is sound, however disturbing it may be.

Bill in Lyndeborough August 15, 2006 1:53 PM

Bruce Schneier writes:

    “It’s not security, it’s security theater: measures designed
    to make us feel safer but not actually safer.”

Even Bruce slips sometimes!

Theater, true enough. But not designed to make us feel safer. They are measures designed to remind us of our duty to be fearful.    (Source: Bruce Schneier 🙂    Fear is where the money* is.

The “not actually safer” part is correct, of course.


*We’re currently reading that no greater an intellect than John Ashcroft is now able to reinvent himself in a new career, lobbying for the enormous contracting opportunities spawned by fear and our politics of fear. TSA and its security theater are not failing in their mission.

Checco August 15, 2006 3:27 PM

I am in total agreement. In fact, given the location WHERE the checks are done, any detonation at the checkpoint would efffectively shutdown that terminal for an extended period. So taken one step further, imagine a coordinated effort whereby terrorists enter a multitide of major airport terminals and detonate at security checkpoints in sync…. Compared to the recently foiled plot, this have more causalties, more economic repercussions, and less remedies.

Phila August 15, 2006 3:30 PM

It’s really interesting how resistant some people are to the idea that they shouldn’t be living in abject fear. It’s as though they think fear is some sort of moral obligation for Americans.

Very weird, especially given how often fear leads to bad decision-making.

michaelc August 15, 2006 4:58 PM

I often wonder if muslim fanatics – the ones who want to see an islamic Britain for example, are happy with the way this is all going? do they yet have a sense of the dark place this is leading to?

Amanda August 16, 2006 3:26 AM

It’s amazing; those of us who lived in and between NYC and DC on 9/11 tend to accept terrorism as just another risk in life, while my family back in Texas are still wound up about it and particularly fearful.

I managed to freak several people at a childhood friend’s wedding by talking about working in downtown DC and riding the Metro constantly. “Oh, Amanda, we’d feel a lot better if you’d drive to work!” Pretty much anyone killed anywhere on or near a Metro was trying to kill themselves. Plenty of people die on the Beltway each year, though.

I’m now living in rural Bavaria, where I know I have a much greater chance of meeting a premature end on a little 100 km/h country highway than driving 160 km/h on the Autobahns, but that either is far more likely than terrorists deciding to strike a plane out of or into Munich.

Michael August 16, 2006 9:08 AM

What you said about the goal of terrorism is what most people (especially
the Bush administration) don’t get. Everytime we react to terrorism
in a way that curtails our freedom, we’ve scored one for the
terrorists. Terrorists will achieve the ultimate victory not when
they’ve killed all of us, but when they’ve achieved the transformation
of our society from a free one to a police state.

Davi Ottenheimer August 16, 2006 9:51 AM

@ Nick Lento

Yes, I agree with you, but I was trying to point out that if you are unable to reduce the threat than you have to consider reducing the vulnerabilities. I thought the movie Munich did a reasonable job of handling the issues you describe.

Rusty August 16, 2006 4:20 PM

Well, I’m not afraid.

BUT, I am feed up with the zero-brain approach to airline “security”, and I will no longer submit myself to such foolishness by flying.

Train, ca or bus will do for continental trips (and, given aiport waiting time, closed borders, etc probably just as quick as flying); and a lovely 5-day cruise across the Atlantic should I need to visit the continent.

In my view, the over-reaction of governments is a bigger problem than the terrorist “threat” and I encourage you all to govern yourselfs accordingly. Rembember who started these illegal actions, and think about why everyone seems to hate your country.

I know reflection isn’t a strong suit for most of you, but give it a try…

Matt D August 17, 2006 6:39 AM

@Rusty: “Train, ca or bus will do for continental trips (and, given aiport waiting time, closed borders, etc probably just as quick as flying); and a lovely 5-day cruise across the Atlantic should I need to visit the continent.”

But then, sooner or later, one of the gimps at DHS is going to watch ‘Juggernaut’ (IIRC) over a few beers and then it’ll be rubber glove time for all embarking cruise liner passengers, just in case you’ve got half a dozen oil-drums full of HE hidden up there…

Joe August 20, 2006 9:32 AM

Absolutely right! America is obsessed with technology, spending billions of dollars in sophisticated and complicated equipment. We are looking for “the bomb” and not for the “bomber”.
Key for success is training people at the airports in identifying suspicious behaviour. Only the combination of human factor and technology will bring success in preventing attacks.
From the regular citizen’s end, being prepared and taking proactive action is the name of the game. Check out more on this at

Joe August 23, 2006 10:15 AM

Interesting. Bottom line is though that we are still very VULNERABLE here in the US. We, the citizens, must be proactive and take responsibility for our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. Being PREPARED can be the difference between life and death. And it can be as simple as carrying a Breath of Life mask. Check it out at

R Staudenmaier August 24, 2006 1:15 PM

Aren’t you afraid that increased surveillance of (suspected) terrorists and plots, no matter how well executed, might fuel the drive to invade privacy?

R Staudenmaier August 24, 2006 1:16 PM

Aren’t you afraid that increased surveillance of (suspected) terrorists and plots, no matter how well executed, might fuel the drive to invade privacy?

aspendougy August 24, 2006 4:05 PM

A number of foreign intelligence experts feel that the so called “islamic terrorist threat” is largely concocted by those who wish to see the U.S at war with Islam.

Please go to and read

Anonymous October 18, 2006 6:00 AM

You guys need to understand one thing that Muslims only understand the language of tit for tat. You start retaliating by doing collateral damage against their populations after every terrorist attach and they will get back into their senses and “understand” the value of democracy, secularism and above all humanity. Nothing else will work. But you need to have resolve for the same and willing to take stern actions without fearing for any repercussions. Tit for Tat is the only way here!

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