New York Times Movie-Plot Threat Contest

My contest idea (first and second) has gone mainstream:

Hearing about these rules got me thinking about what I would do to maximize terror if I were a terrorist with limited resources. I’d start by thinking about what really inspires fear. One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.


I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service: I presume that a lot more folks who oppose and fight terror read this blog than actual terrorists. So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.

Far more interesting than the suggested attacks are the commenters who accuse him of helping the terrorists. Not that I’m surprised; there were people who accused me of helping the terrorists.

But while it’s one thing for this kind of thing to happen in my blog, it’s another for it to happen in a mainstream blog on The New York Times website.

EDITED TO ADD (8/9): Sadly, he had to explain himself.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 12:48 PM29 Comments


nzruss August 9, 2007 1:37 PM

But while it’s one thing for this kind of thing to happen in my blog,
it’s another for it to happen in a mainstream blog on The New York Times website.

Bruce, I thought your blog was mainstream…..

Look Twice August 9, 2007 1:41 PM

Are you sure your contest and the NYT contest aren’t violations of Section 402 of the Patriot Act?

If yes, are you sure that all federal prosecutors agree with your reading of that Section?

Ed T. August 9, 2007 1:50 PM

Bruce – are you saying in your last sentence that the criticisms are unreasonable, or that the original blog post was?


A real patriot August 9, 2007 2:01 PM

To all those who think that discussing terrorist tactics is treasonous, dangerous, or otherwise helping the enemy:

Congratulations on capitulating to the terrorists. You’ve just handed them a victory.

Anonymous August 9, 2007 2:25 PM

The biggest fear that terrorist have to be credited with creating is the power our government has assumed over the lawful citizens of AmeriKA.

Even the fear created by the Soviets and other satellites of the past governments does not match that of the Bush family.

Joe Buck August 9, 2007 2:39 PM

Well, you could send every member of Congress a message that if they don’t pass a bill that takes away American freedoms, the country will be attacked, and give them enough detail so that they take the threat seriously and capitulate. After all, what is terrorism if it isn’t the use of threats and force to terrify governments into giving in to you?

Oh, sorry; it looks like George Bush already thought of that one, so I guess it can’t be used in Bruce’s contest.

byebye August 9, 2007 2:59 PM

Gather a bunch of obvious Muslims, say some Imams. Have them loudly pray before the flight in the terminal. When they board the plane, have them sit in the exit rows. Once at altitude, just open all of the emergency exits. No constitution breaking, body cavity search, shoe x-ray, liquids ban, or item theft (with intent to eBay) by the TSA can stop this one. August 9, 2007 3:03 PM

To all of my knowledge, you cannot open the emergency exits in mid-flight. They are made so that you’d have to pull them inward against the pressurised cabin air before you can push them out, which just is not possible in mid-air.

Or is this just an urban legend to keep us all in a false sense of security?

Geoff Lane August 9, 2007 3:05 PM

Pop quiz. Who here imagined that some idiot would stuff his shoes with explosive with the apparent intent of blowing out an aircraft window?

Supplementary question. Who here has not seen this picture of an Aloha Airlines plane missing a huge section of fuselage after a catastrophic fatigue failure.

The plane and most of the passengers survived.

You can’t assume that wanabe terrorists are any less clever or more stupid than the general population. Most people wouldn’t imagine a terrorist dumping tons of aluminium sulphate into the drinking water supply, but it’s happened by accident…

and was at least as effective a “terror” event as any other. Especially as the water supply is unlikely to be as well protected as an airport.

You can be sure that terrorists have already thought of more clever and stupid ideas than anything we’ve seen in this or other blogs. Pretending otherwise is not going to make matters any better.

Greg August 9, 2007 3:15 PM

@byebye: urban legend. The opening handle has massive leverage to enable the door to be opened by hand even in sub-zero conditions when the door is frozen to the body of the plane.

However, there may well be safety locks in place. You’ve probably heard the captain’s announcement as soon as the plane comes to a halt: “Cabin crew, doors to automatic”

LocksRemovedInFlightMoron August 9, 2007 3:34 PM

@Greg: A 2’ x 3’ emergency exit under a typical cruise cabin pressurized differential of 9 psi results in a door pressure of 7776 lbs. Use the handle if you must. Urban legend reinstated.

Jojo August 9, 2007 3:37 PM

Copycat! Someone should put a link to Bruce’s originals in that blog. That will get their commentators going [lol]…

nzruss August 9, 2007 3:39 PM

@ Greg

Modern aircraft cabin doors open inward, then fold very carefully to put them outside the plane. Check it out next time you fly. Because they open inward, and the aircraft is pressurized, there is more force pushing the door closed than you and that big lever can overcome even with only a couple of psi. Many aircraft maintain positive pressure on Taxi & Takeoff to aid in the structural integrity of the airframe (they cannot handle negative pressure very well).

Ross August 9, 2007 4:08 PM

Terrorism gets it power not from the few people the bad guys kill, but from the subsequent reaction. It’s basically an auto-immune disease, like lupus or eczema, but of society rather than of individuals. It isn’t the house dust mites that get you but the overreaction of your immune system, followed by the scratching, the secondary eruptions, the worsening immune response and so on round the whole dismal cycle.

Rather than asking “what’s the societal equivalent of antihistamines and steroids?” we should perhaps make the more primitive demand: “stop scratching!” Every time a politician goes on the TV and asks for a new repressive, xenophobic law, or whatever, that’s scratching. The goal is to stop scratching.

David Robarts August 9, 2007 4:41 PM

Thanks for the quick calculation debunking Greg’s theory that the lever would enable the door to be opened mid-flight.

ButSeriously August 9, 2007 5:34 PM

But but but… the door does open! I’ve seen it done in at least two movies – Air Force One and Cliffhanger. So it must be true, nevermind any of that fangdangled fancy math.

Oh, and healthy dose of 🙂 for the humor impaired. This was, afterall, about movie plot threats.

One positive that might come out of this is that when lots of people see this sort of stuff in NYT might start to, you know, actually start questioning the efficiency of those idiotic policies. Why oh why is it that so many people believe JFK conspiracy rumors or moon landing hoax claims, yet don’t even think of questioning modern day anti-terrorism policies?

Mitchel Ashley August 9, 2007 6:21 PM

I worry. I worry a lot.

More and more companies and networks aren’t protected by NAC products such as my Safe Access product. It’s one of the most important steps to true network security.

sooth_sayer August 9, 2007 8:15 PM

If you have time to read all these postings on plots .. you MUST be a budding terrorist .. surely out of means and probably a job too

MikeA August 10, 2007 10:52 AM

@ButSeriously: One positive that might come out of this is that when lots of people see this sort of stuff in NYT might start to, you know, actually start questioning the efficiency of those idiotic policies.

My impression had been that the average NYT reader was both a little more educated and a little to the left of the folks who believe in the efficacy of security theater. Perhaps the demographics of the online readers skew differently. When the SJ Mercury New canned their locally-produced weekly and replaced it with Parade, then Parade with USA Today’s magazine, I heard nary a rumble. I cannot imagine the (paper) NYT getting away with that. (Of course, I’m eagerly waiting the first issue of the WSJ to have a nice engraving of an Alien Baby on the front page 🙂

Anonymous August 10, 2007 11:45 AM

The NY Times article doesn;t come pup with anything new — evn the ide a of attacking several sites at once is simply an adaptation of military strategies that have been used countless times in history.

The more interesting aspect is the responses to the article which seem to show that Americans have been brainwashed into thinking terrorists are just some backwater hicks that can be stopped by giving up hard won freedoms and making airline passengers take their shoes off before boarding…

Charlie August 10, 2007 12:10 PM

I think this exercise is useful to the degree it gets people talking about their fears — the only real response to terrorism is to shrug it off. It is a pinprick, not a war.

However, what this exercise gets wrong is the purpose of terror. It is not really shut down the country, or attack our way of life. At the end of the day, attacks are meant to 1) get the US of the mideast; 2) remove US support for Isreal and 3) (most important) make the terrorists look big, strong and powerful so they can succeed in taking over parts of the mideast. That’s why they need something on TV.

Granted, this next generation being trained on IEDs in Iraq may be different; 20+ random highway bombing a day for a week would pretty much shut down the US, but I don’t reallly think there is enough bang for the buck in running that operation.

Jim August 10, 2007 12:26 PM

If the prize was $100,000 I might get interested. Hell, even $10,000 might get my imagination working. Other than that, it sounds like an exercise for bored geeks.

Roger August 22, 2007 10:56 AM

@Geoff Lane:
Re Richard Reid, And Aloha 243:
I’m not quite sure of your point, but you seem to be implying that because Aloha 243 survived, Reid’s bomb could not have destroyed an aircraft in flight. If so, that’s completely incorrect. The survival of Aloha Flight 243 was a 1 in a million miracle; if there had been marginally less symmetry in the way the roof peeled away, the aircraft would have been torn totally apart. For contrast, Pan Am Flight 103 was completely torn to pieces in seconds over Lockerbie, after the detonation of just 1 lb of high explosive. Reid’s “shoe bomb” contained approximately 10 ounces of high explosives.

dumping tons of aluminium sulphate into the drinking water supply, [….] was at least as effective a “terror” event as any other.

Sorry? Not one person was killed by that accident. (Some are claiming to have been permanently injured, but there is considerable skepticism seeing as aluminium sulphate is not particularly poisonous.) Obviously, there are many terrorist attacks that have killed more than 0 people.

Especially as the water supply is unlikely to be as well protected as an airport.

Any given water supplies may or may not be as well protected as an airport, but most large municipal water supplies are quite well protected, because the possibility of hostile parties poisoning the water supply has been considered since before WW2.

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