The War on the Unexpected

We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested—even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

This isn’t the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it’s happening everywhere. It’s a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they’re the front line of terrorism defense. “If you see something, say something” is how the ads read in the New York City subways. “If you suspect something, report it” urges another ad campaign in Manchester, UK. The Michigan State Police have a seven-minute video. Administration officials from then-attorney general John Ashcroft to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to President Bush have asked us all to report any suspicious activity.

The problem is that ordinary citizens don’t know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.

Even worse: after someone reports a “terrorist threat,” the whole system is biased towards escalation and CYA instead of a more realistic threat assessment.

Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to—a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant—now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it’s a false alarm, it’s not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he’s wrong, it’ll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he’ll be praised for “doing his job” and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we’re done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.

This story has been repeated endlessly, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Someone—these are all real—notices a funny smell, or some white powder, or two people passing an envelope, or a dark-skinned man leaving boxes at the curb, or a cell phone in an airplane seat; the police cordon off the area, make arrests, and/or evacuate airplanes; and in the end the cause of the alarm is revealed as a pot of Thai chili sauce, or flour, or a utility bill, or an English professor recycling, or a cell phone in an airplane seat.

Of course, by then it’s too late for the authorities to admit that they made a mistake and overreacted, that a sane voice of reason at some level should have prevailed. What follows is the parade of police and elected officials praising each other for doing a great job, and prosecuting the poor victim—the person who was different in the first place—for having the temerity to try to trick them.

For some reason, governments are encouraging this kind of behavior. It’s not just the publicity campaigns asking people to come forward and snitch on their neighbors; they’re asking certain professions to pay particular attention: truckers to watch the highways, students to watch campuses, and scuba instructors to watch their students. The U.S. wanted meter readers and telephone repairmen to snoop around houses. There’s even a new law protecting people who turn in their travel mates based on some undefined “objectively reasonable suspicion,” whatever that is.

If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.

We need to do two things. The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they’re spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

We don’t want people to never report anything. A store clerk’s tip led to the unraveling of a plot to attack Fort Dix last May, and in March an alert Southern California woman foiled a kidnapping by calling the police about a suspicious man carting around a person-sized crate. But these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips. In criminal matters, law enforcement is experienced in separating legitimate tips from unsubstantiated fears, and allocating resources accordingly; we should expect no less from them when it comes to terrorism.

Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.

Causing a city-wide panic over blinking signs, a guy with a pellet gun, or stray backpacks, is not evidence of doing a good job: it’s evidence of squandering police resources. Even worse, it causes its own form of terror, and encourages people to be even more alarmist in the future. We need to spend our resources on things that actually make us safer, not on chasing down and trumpeting every paranoid threat anyone can come up with.

This essay originally appeared on

EDITED TO ADD (11/1): Some links didn’t make it into the original article. There’s this creepy “if you see a father holding his child’s hands, call the cops” campaign, this story of an iPod found on an airplane, and this story of an “improvised electronics device” trying to get through airport security. This is a good essay on the “war on electronics.”

EDITED TO ADD (11/25): More examples of rediculous non-terrorism overreactions, and a story about recruiting firefighters to snoop around in peoples’ houses:

Unlike police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel don’t need warrants to access hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings each year, putting them in a position to spot behavior that could indicate terrorist activity or planning.

Posted on November 1, 2007 at 4:42 AM161 Comments


Keith November 1, 2007 5:15 AM

You’re wrong. The security professionals failed completely on 9/11. The only effective Americans on that day were the security amateurs. The shoe bomber was stopped by amateurs before the professionals deployed any million dollar sniffers or had us all walking in our socks through airports. The professionals have completely failed to secure the airline employee side of airport security. The idea that we should relax and trust the experts is ludicrous. They are bureaucrats. We’re all going to have to put up with some false alarms. Better than the alternative.

Tom November 1, 2007 5:29 AM

I wonder if the solution is not to discourage people from reporting their fears, but to sharply escalate. The more false reports, the more resources will be squandered and the harder it will be for front-line officials to escalate. It will either break the “report your neighbor” system or force officials to develop better threat assessments on the front-line.

DuckAndCover November 1, 2007 6:17 AM

Bruce, terror awareness campaigns in the UK are nothing new. Something many Americans forget is that we had 30 years of IRA bombings before 9/11 which is kind of ironic given that most of the IRA’s money came from the US.

Dovegater November 1, 2007 6:17 AM

Tom:”I wonder if the solution is not to discourage people from reporting their fears, but to sharply escalate.”

At the rate things are going, raising false reports might earn yourself an all expenses paid for vacation to scenic Cuba.

SteveJ November 1, 2007 6:31 AM

“Someone — these are all real — notices a funny smell… Thai chili sauce”

I call unfair comment. Surely you’ve burned chilis before – the “funny smell” you get is more like a cloud of choking gas. “Funny smells” happen in your nose: burning chilis you can feel in your lungs.

And that’s just a couple of peppers in a frying pan in my kitchen – if a Thai restaurant is burning enough chilis to last it a year (and I can assure you a Thai restaurant in Soho will get through a heck of a lot of chili sauce in a year), that’s going to produce quite a lot of choking gas. It would come as quite a shock to someone who walks through it unawares.

I agree that the response was an over-reaction, but was an over-reaction to harmless (if you don’t have asthma) asphyxiating gas, not an over-reaction to a funny smell.

Nathan T. Freeman November 1, 2007 6:48 AM

Keith, did the passengers on Flight 93 need a “if you see something suspicious campaign?” Did the passengers that stopped the shoe bomber need that? Or were ordinary people capable of judging when the circumstances were severe enough to warrant direct action?

Bruce is far from suggesting “trust the experts.” It’s the so-called experts that are leading the fear-monger campaign that gets MIT students captured in front of MP5 machine guns.

nice try, though.

Vicki November 1, 2007 6:49 AM

On 9/11, the amateurs were no better than the professionals at detecting the attacks, or we wouldn’t have lost the World Trade Center and a huge fraction of my local fire department: the passengers on the planes that hit the World Trade Center didn’t guess “we should fight the terrorists.” The amateurs took effective last-minute action during the attack, but only after hearing of the successful attacks.

How to handle an actual in-progress terrorist attack is a different question from how to tell an actual terrorist from either a kid with a stupid sense of humor, or an innocent doing something like making a phone call to a friend, or taking out his recycling.

The stupid kid: some teenage schmuck on a train I was on a few months ago pulled the cord of his headphones partway out of his backpack, put it down, and proceeded to shout something about a “suspicious package”. The train sat there for a few minutes as the train crew worked their way back to our car. Then another passenger picked the pack up, tossed it onto the platform, and called out an all clear, and we went on our way. I don’t know if the schmuck got his bag back from the lost-and-found, had it destroyed by the police, or some other random teenager enjoyed the free MP3 player.

Dimitris Andrakakis November 1, 2007 6:55 AM

@SteveJ :

I think that’s exactly Bruce’s point: Security assessment by amateurs.

I’m pretty sure professional security personnel would not be tipped off by Thai chilli sauce.

jon November 1, 2007 7:10 AM

Great piece. You’re describing a positive feedback loop without any dampening, so that noise will dominate and mask any genuine signal. In economic terms, the cost of all error has been externalized, so there is no incentive to be accurate or minimize false positives; in fact error directly leads to additional positive reinforcement, resulting in news coverage, promotions, additional budget and fancy new gear.

The main problem is that the people who suffer and are inconvenienced by this are not the ones who stand to reap the benefits from the process, and they have little recourse to be compensated for their pains. Police and security have few incentives to increase their accuracy and minimize false positives. Until this changes we should not expect much improvement in policing.

But the true danger of this squandering of resources is that the resources are not available to seek out and neutralize cases of actual terrorism and crime. They’re being used to blow up the briefcase you left behind in the airport lounge.

Humans have evolved many elegant systems to separate wheat from chaff. Terrorism is not so different from other types of crime that are successfully combatted. Most of the successes have come from solid investigation, coordination and a few good tips.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that we insist on viewing terrorism as a new and unrelated phenomena, and assume the inadequacy of proven techniques. Therefore we must have new, and additional staffs, bureaucracies, resources, laws and procedures. That they don’t work will only be apparent after the next disaster; until then, they are evidence of diligent effort.

Citizens should be alert and discerning. Police should be able sift the data and make reasonable choices. Responses to perceived threats should be selective and proportional. This used to be generally provided by common sense, but it seems the terrorists have taken that hostage.

Rusty November 1, 2007 7:35 AM


Actually, Cuba is wonderfully scenic, a beautiful country with a rich history and famously warm and welcoming people. They don’t have much, but they appreciate what they have. A refreshing change from the consumer-centric ‘society’ we in have North America.

DCG November 1, 2007 7:49 AM

Leaving security up to the judgement of panicky schmucks is worse than having no security at all. Remember the parable of the boy who cried wolf? Imagine a whole village full of wolf-criers, who can’t reliably tell wolves from their own shadows.

bytosaur November 1, 2007 7:56 AM

We have now created a state of fear, in which corporations are raking in billions of dollars. What did Bin Laden spend, a couple of million to pull of 9/11? What are spending to counter him? Trillions? Who is winning the “War on Terror”?

Anonymous November 1, 2007 7:58 AM

@Rusty, I suspect the Muslims involuntarily transported to and incarcerated at Gitmo might dispute your characterization of the environment and their hosts. I figured Dovegater was referring to Gitmo not Havana.

Reader X November 1, 2007 7:59 AM

For some reason, governments are encouraging this kind of behavior.

The problem is not just economic. We don’t have a choice but to take reports from uninformed people, but there are far too many law enforcement personnel who are not only uninformed, but culturally unable to make distinctions between ‘different’ and ‘threat’. This is an artifact of conformist culture that runs very deep in the authoritarian followers who choose to serve politicians, i.e. civil servants, and is promulgated by authoritarian leaders wherever they are. The economic conditions you describe only amplify the effects of this condition.

Rorschach November 1, 2007 7:59 AM


I think the fairly obvious implication of Dovegator’s post is that false reports might land you in a cell at Guantanamo Bay, which I do not imagine to be beautiful, richly historied, or famously welcoming in the way that Cuba at large may be.

Anonymous November 1, 2007 8:04 AM

@bytosaur, those billions go to fuel corporate profits, enriching shareholders. So everyone who owns a mutual fund or IRA is winning.

And of course the politicians re-elected by campaign contributions from the profiteers are winning.

Any more questions?

Amateur_historian November 1, 2007 8:10 AM

  • A bit of history. Nazi Germany worked this way. They had a (highly successful) campaign to have average citizens inform on each other. The largest effort the Nazi Gestapo (Secret Police) had to do, was to sort out the “real” problems from the people who didn’t like each other.
  • So, if history holds true, any day now you can start to expect that any one you piss off will report you as a terrorist! There is no cost to individual making the claim. The police will quickly know your not dangerous, so they (the police) can safely throw their weight around.
  • Oh, and expect exponentially increasing budget demands from the “police” agencies.
  • For the Bush Bashers, another parallel to Nazi Germany and Hitler.

Anonymous November 1, 2007 8:16 AM

@Amateur_historian, aren’t we already experiencing those budget demands? The whole war on terror is a wealth transfer scheme. So is the terrorist threat, the terrorists want wealth transferred to the third world, the corporations and government are using that threat to transfer wealth from private citizens to the oligarchs. See “The Iron Law of Oligarchy” section in

Sneeje November 1, 2007 8:17 AM

“The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. [..] Politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong.”

Wow, yeah, that’d be great, and everyone should live happily ever after. You need to think this through more thoroughly to its logical conclusion.

Escalation must be praised or it won’t happen. To get large populations of people to behave in a socially cohesive way, you have to give them intuitive, simple, and “no-cost” guidelines. If people are not encouraged to err on the side of caution, they will simply rationalize what they’ve seen because they don’t want to cause a scene. Authorities won’t escalate because they will also rationalize it to avoid waste and time.

The point is to encourage people to push beyond their tendency to not buck the status quo.

Your perfect vision will only work if terrorism manifests itself in ways so obvious, no one could dispute it–like if terrorists all wore placards declaring their intentions.

Shad November 1, 2007 8:35 AM

Sneeje: You are correct. However, the question here is if the little loss of security would not be worth the decrease of paranoia and corresponding increase of quality of life.

Brian November 1, 2007 8:38 AM

@Sneeje, I think that’s the point here, the average Joe is an extremely poor judge of what might be terrorism unless it “manifests itself in ways so obvious, no one could dispute it”. There is a certain point at which you don’t need a poster campaign to get people to speak up, and that is really the only point at which it makes sense for people to speak up. Because the average person is not a security professional, encouraging them to speak up for anything less than a placard wearing terrorist is to encourage nothing more than false alarms. Subtle warning signs of an impending terrorist attack are going to slip by most people, instead what they’ll report is “that’s one of those Ay-rabs who blows up airplanes”.

The other thing worth considering is that “erring on the side of caution” might not mean what you think it means. Terrorist attacks are extremely rare, and reporting people who are different as terrorists is not a no cost activity to society. In addition to the monetary cost of having the police run around like chickens with their heads cut off, it fractures society to have people “reporting” each other like that.

Dennis November 1, 2007 8:42 AM

Maybe we should stop encouraging people to fear things and sacrifice a little perceived security for some much needed liberty?

Anonymous #3 November 1, 2007 8:43 AM

@Bruce Schneier

‘after someone reports a “terrorist threat,” the whole system is biased towards escalation’

That reminds me of the joke in which the description “a crock of sh*t” gets turned into “a bucket of manure”, then “a vessel of fertilizer”, and then “something that promotes growth and very powerful”, as information is passed up the management chain.

Richard November 1, 2007 8:44 AM

Seems to me that we should simply get terrorism off the agenda entirely. Remember: more people in the USA are killed per year by lightening than by terrorism (that includes 911, when averaged over a decade), or by drowning in the bath. Let’s put our resources where they will do some good, eg road-safety, or healthcare.

Also, remember that there are 4 possible permuations:
(1) real attack, thwarted
(2) false alarm, over-reaction
(3) real attack, successful
(4) normality.

The point is that (1 or 3) is very very rare compared to (4), and that (1) is extremely rare compared to (3). This makes case (2) very very much more likely than (1 or 3).

In other words, the lack of recent attacks is almost completely uncaused by the huge counterterrorism effort; it is principally because BinLaden etc al have simply not tried again.

Norm & Al November 1, 2007 8:58 AM

William Gibson made an interesting point the other day: the terrorists actually are in a bit of a bind, because the next strike has to top 9/11, which would be pretty hard to do, since the net effect of a weak incident will be to drop fear levels (to a more realistic level). I think we can expect no serious attacks for quite some time, actually.

ab3a November 1, 2007 9:05 AM

Context is very important here. Asking flight crews to report suspicious behavior is different from asking the public to report suspicious behavior on an aircraft.

Asking a meter reader to report unusual circumstances is actually not all that strange. They visit many houses in the neighborhood and might actually witness something worthy of note (perhaps blood or a dead body smell).

Asking people to notice their surroundings and report things that just don’t seem right will result in amateurish security. And you’re right. These reports need to be filtered. However, I want to remind you that the reports of the flight instructor with the student who “only wanted to learn to fly, not land an airplane” were squelched by these so-called “experts.”

At some point you simply have to trust in common sense; and realize that common sense often isn’t.

shoobe01 November 1, 2007 9:09 AM

I used to think all the signs in Brazil were darkly funny, but we’re almost there in airports and rest-stops already.
“Be Safe: Be Suspicious”
“Suspicion Breeds Confidence”
“Don’t suspect a friend, report him”
“Who can you trust?”
“Mind that parcel. Eagle eyes can save a life.”

Shouldn’t be long till we get ads for places like this:
“Top Security Holiday Camps. Luxury without fear. Fun without suspicion. Relax in a panic free atmosphere.”

Bored November 1, 2007 9:09 AM

There’s a bit of ambiguity here over two possible meaning of the word “esalate”.
One is to refer the problem to higher authority. There’s nothing wrong with asking someone who might know better, “I don’t reognize that, is it okay?”
There’s nothing wrong with a security guard asking for guidance from his supervisor if he sees something unexpected or unusual.
What IS wrong is an AUTOMATIC escalation in force while carrying out an escalation in expertise.
The idea behind “if you see something, tell someone”, is to increase the sensiticity of threat detection.
The single most obvious consequence of that is that the detection loses specificity: there will be more false positives.
So you have to have a second, or even third round of testing to see if a perceived threat is a real one. In the meantime, there’s no reason to get very excited.

Sure, all the chemical weapons squad when you smell “tear gas” from cooking chilies. But they should be told that there’s an unconfirmed report, and could they please check it out?
The goal is to see if there is a problem before delaring an emergency.

bzelbob November 1, 2007 9:17 AM


Wise words.

I agree that terrorism is no different than normal crime; we’re just more afraid of it. If we all just settle down and stop our knees from jerking we would have more energy to put to the task of actually detecting and catching the criminals.

Bruce’s essay is right on. Encouraging people to report vague fear and suspicion only reinforces the notion that we should give in to fear. And that’s never a good idea.

“Refuse To Be Terrorized!”

Joe November 1, 2007 9:19 AM

Remember Germany in the 30s? This could very well be just one step closer to getting people to become govt snitches as we become more and more a police state.

Vin Diesel November 1, 2007 9:20 AM

Try thinking of it in terms of a church–particularly the Catholic Church a few centuries ago. What incentives do the peasants have for resisting the inquisition, and what incentives do they have to go along with it? How about all the people who work for the church–what reason do they have to be overly-enthusiastic when reporting demonic possessions or satanic rituals, and what incentive to be overly cautious and reject false positives? (And in our modern inquisition, some of the “demonic possessions” are real.)

My point is that there’s enormous social and economic incentive, to stir up and inflame the fear of terrorism well beyond what’s justified by facts alone. Many people are invested in this political/economic institution and profit from its growth.

I’m certainly not suggesting that it was created out of thin air by a conspiracy; just that, now that it exists, it’s constantly being fed by forces that want it to grow. It’s hardly just a matter of amateur incompetence; there’s a gradient where people in these situations are under more pressure to report false positives than to filter them out, and that pressure is rooted in fundamental social and economic forces that can’t be easily removed or changed.

Ray November 1, 2007 9:23 AM

I know it was pre-9/11, but where do you see Richard Jewell’s story fitting into your escalation/CYA framework? If you recall, he did see a suspicious package AND acted on it, only to be called a suspect. This was not because he acted oddly, but because he fit a certain assumed profile.

X November 1, 2007 9:23 AM

This story also applies to employment situations. My life was trashed by a series of CYA decisions.

Robert Anderson November 1, 2007 9:24 AM

Bruce should be reported since he is obviously trying to get TRUE PATRIOTIC AMERICANS to NOT report his fellow terrorists….or something like that …I think?

House November 1, 2007 9:26 AM

If you’re going to start with 9/11, how about the footage CNN didn’t show, where you can clearly see synchronized explosions in the weight-carrying columns and the stabilizing cords? Or how about the fact that the security guards with dogs were removed from the towers’ lobby a few weeks before the attack? Or the fact that the owner insured the towers for an astronomical sum a year before that? Or the fact that ALL of the gold was removed from towers prior to the attack? And the fact that bush administration got TONS of power as a result of that?

James November 1, 2007 9:28 AM

Gibson’s reasoning isn’t that strong though. London was very much more afraid after the smaller 7/7 attacks than it was after 9/11. It follows that the next attack doesn’t have to be bigger, it just has to be somewhere else that previously considered itself safer than NY.

Robert Anderson November 1, 2007 9:29 AM

HOUSE is right!….oooooooh, there realy is a terrorist under my bed….NOT…get a life

Dan Van Riper November 1, 2007 9:32 AM

Strange to say, all the commenters are missing the source of the problem here. Even more odd, Mr. Schneier does not mention this, although he has brought up the point more times than I can remember.

We desperately need transparency. It is the lack of free flowing information about “terror” and criminality in general that leads to this absurd conundrum. Because of knee-jerk secrecy and classification of what should be public information, we can neither trust nor rely on our authorities to do the right things. Why? Without oversight by the public, the authorities can and will abuse their powers over the public.

At the same time, members of the public are kept in the dark about the actual details, what are the real threats and what we should be looking for. Thus, the average person is racked with illusory fears and phantoms. He/she is rendered incapable of making rational security decisions about even their selves, let alone their communities.

The sole purpose of secrecy is to manipulate those who do not possess information. But secrecy delegitimizes authority. What Mr. Schneier is describing is a society spiralling downward into an authoritarian dictatorship.

Look what happened to the old Soviet Union, which killed itself by strangling information. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we should not be emulating that failed model.

Chris Wuestefeld November 1, 2007 9:33 AM

I’m afraid that the current situation may cause people to react in the opposite way, as well.

Just a few weeks ago I was at the check-in line at the airport. There was a backpack laying to the side, with no apparent owner. Other people seemed to be studiously ignoring it, and I know that I was thinking to myself “Please, nobody report that bag! I don’t want to have to miss my plane.” Luckily, no one did, and after a few minutes later someone in the line realized that he’d forgotten to move his bag along as he moved forward.

The costs of these wild escalations have NOT been fully externalized, and in at least some circumstances they amount to a significant penalty against the one doing the reporting.

Vin Diesel November 1, 2007 9:35 AM

Jewell’s situation stands out, but I think it’s also a matter of people in the chain of events doing a CYA escalation, except turning it around on Jewell himself instead of just the package.

There’s no guarantee that participating in the chain will save you from being a suspect. But I agree that it’s a variation few would have expected at first glance.

Giles Bowkett November 1, 2007 9:42 AM

You left out the two people who died in TSA custody (a Polish man and a New York woman). I totally agree, I’m just saying, if anything, the problem is even more severe.

Pavel November 1, 2007 9:46 AM

Another variation on the NYC ads is “Last Year 1994 New Yorkers Saw Something And Said Something”. (Number is about that high, though I won’t claim that is the exact number on the poster)

Every time I see that, I figure “hrmm.. about 7-8 calls / day.” How much of that was followed up? What was the “false alarm” percentage. Of that, what was “Should never have been reported in the first place” percentage? Arguably, the “should” part is subjective, so I claim ‘reasonable, not fearmongered to the point of jumping at shadows, dark-skinned people, and someone with an accent is the standard.

hp November 1, 2007 9:46 AM

Hi Bruce, did you already hear about Ron Paul? I am from Germany and for me it seems you both have a lot in common what your logics are.. Have a look at

Best regards, hp

Andrew November 1, 2007 9:48 AM


I feel for you, my friend. Paranoia is a horrible disease to have to live with. I understand that you are having trouble grasping the difference between happenstance, coincidence and enemy action. In this you are little different from our government, so don’t feel bad. The ‘explosions’ you saw were what happens in a classic ‘pancake collapse’ where each floor fails in turn. No det cord required. Changing how you manage risks (dogs, insurance, gold) is a normal part of doing business — much stranger if they HADN’T made some changes in the year prior.

“And the fact that bush administration got TONS of power as a result of that?”

We let the Bush administration lead us down this path. If you don’t like where we are, and where we’re going, this is the time to speak up and vote the bastards out. While we can.

@ the rest of us

“the average Joe is an extremely poor judge of what might be terrorism”

He is also an extremely poor judge of crime and criminal activity. So what is he doing forming a jury of our peers?

Clearly the average Joe cannot be trusted. Let’s take away his civil liberties and his right to vote, too.

Can he be trusted to make responsible use of his freedom of speech? Clearly not, as shown by many recent examples.

The average Joe IS the problem. If we got rid of him, we’d all be much happier.


The average Joe, before being misled by this massive PR campaign, was actually pretty good at recognizing terrorism as politically motivated violence. Instead of refining our ability to handle citizen information (“tips”) and make effective use of citizen volunteers, we’ve flooded local agencies with well-meaning but false tips and actually reduced our ability to handle natural and artificial disaster, i.e. FEMA and Katrina.

The average Joe and Jill will save this nation. Don’t knock them!

bzelbob November 1, 2007 10:09 AM

Also want to point out that Rod Serling covered some of this same territory back in 1960:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record: prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and the thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own, for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that such things cannot be confined… to The Twilight Zone.”

tried to be a vegan, but failed November 1, 2007 10:16 AM

The “security is a hot area” wannabe, career-building, ladder-climbing mentality in corporate environments is filling our cubicles with information security amateurs. For every twenty-five “security pros” I encounter, maybe one has the right combination of formal education and experience.

Ander Chydenius November 1, 2007 10:17 AM

In the movie Brazil, one of the posters that was in the background of several shots read, “Don’t Suspect a Friend. Report Him.” It was used for comic effect.

Get it?

It was a joke.

Political leaders are not businessmen. Their incentives are different from businessmen’s. Otherwise, individuals who choose politics as a career would have chosen business, instead.

Granted, there is a wide overlap between business and politics, but the defining characteristics of each are different.

The paranoia that unsettles Bruce is a drag on the US economy. The economic costs of the War on Terror, Operation Iraqi Liberty, the war in Afghanistan, paramilitarized US airports, Real ID, and all the rest exceed the economic benefits. If political leaders were businessmen, they would scrap the money losers.

However, it isn’t about money, but about power. Sure, the economy might suffer, and valuable men, women, and equipment might be getting destroyed on the other side of the globe in the prosecution of a lie, but look at the raw, awsome power that the President has!

Not since FDR ordered the rifling of Americans’ safe deposit boxes, or Lincoln ordered Americans to slaughter each other, has a US President wielded this much undiluted power.

And, where are the protests? Where is this generation’s Abbie Hoffman? If we had one, he’d probably be in Colorado, playing canasta with the Unabomber by now.

As a nation, we have traded our liberty for security, and retained neither. I don’t have numbers here, but the anecdotal evidence that I am hearing suggests that a quiet exodus has begun. No doubt, when it becomes a full-fledged brain drain, the mainstream media will start calling for the institution of exit visas, in order to keep ‘our’ educated citizen-units from selling ‘our’ human capital to ‘our’ enemies.

The current environment plays straight to the incentives of our political leaders. Why is anyone surprised?

Dick C. Flatliner November 1, 2007 10:45 AM

And you thought “Idiocracy” was about the FUTURE?? Well, JohnJane Public stares at TV’s (the lead cups of the New Rome) for his/her “information”, so how bright could he/she/it possibly be? Giving 2% of them badges and telling the other 98 that they’re James Bond? Priceless.

Jack Whitsitt November 1, 2007 10:49 AM

There is no lack of -data- for law enforcement to find and track potential terrorist activity. What they lack is validated -knowledge- with a suitable level of confidence.

The problem with having amature citizens report every permutation of “different” they see if that it adds a significant amount of unvalidated, low-confidence -data-, without increasing knowledge.

To turn that much data into knowledge, through validation and analysis, is time consuming and difficult, and the difficulty increases with the rate at which data is received. So much so, in fact, that that effective analysis -cant- be performed within the time window required for effective action, and so the analysis/validation is not done and uninformed action is taken.

The problem with 9/11 data analysis was that the agencies couldnt analyze/validate/provide confidence to existing data and turn it into knowledge – not a low rate of data induction (which is what citizen reporting addresses)

dave November 1, 2007 10:57 AM

this is a bit of a silly article, what is a “security professional”? Just another guy doing his job and like any other job half of them give a dame and the other half don’t! I agree that there is a massive over reaction to “terror” and that the powers that be are inadvertately esculating things but that’s just the way of the world now! The western world is regressing in many ways. If someone get’s hurt it’s got to be someones fault… hasn’t it? And then we’ve got to “fix” that problem with laws and rules so it never happens again. Our culture has gone blame crazy. I agree it’s not nice when something bad happens but it’s life. It’s part of the system we live in. Now we aren’t content with this.. life must be perfect. We must gain knowledge and solve all this problems.. but what happens when we try to solve the current problems…. new ones come up.. so we try to solve them.. but with each interation these seem to get more and more complex.. further from the actual problem itself… and on it goes!

Matt November 1, 2007 11:04 AM

It’s interesting that Schneier has really built a career off of convincing people they are vulnerable. If he succeeds, they desire his services. If he fails, they don’t.

And as you look at the book titles he was written over the years, they have shifted from “matter of fact” to scarier and scarier titles.

The sad piece of all this is that increasingly folks feel their must scare the crap out of folks to justify their causes. Environmentalists have known this for years. To the average consumer, the number of potentially catostrophic events forecasted by “experts” they must sort through the prepare for is absolutely mind numbing.

Brian D November 1, 2007 11:06 AM

It seems that the problem is two fold. One, the current trend to dislike taking responsibility and being self-reliant. And two ignorance and not willing to do anything about it, in other words too heavily relying on “experts”.

When someone sees something suspicious sure they should go to the local authorities and report what they see, but they shouldn’t stop there: it’s important for them to learn more, especially if their accusations were wrong. What does a bomb look like? How do I tell if that white powder is dangerous? Who are those suspicious new people in the neighborhood?

Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating a vigilantly police force. It’s about getting yourself educated to what a real threat would look like, so you’re not swayed by entertainment “news” and the general hysteria. It’s about getting to know the people that live around you so you see the new faces. It’s about self governing. It’s about taking responsibility and acting within your own authority until it really is necessary to escalate.

D November 1, 2007 11:23 AM

I think you really need to omit the imams and the musicians as misunderstandings. While it is possible that those events were nothing but misunderstandings I think it is equally possible that there was no misunderstanding of the events at all and highly suspicious behavior did occur.

The imams may not have been up to anything terroristic but I do believe that they were attempting to precipitate the very treatment they then decried. They acted suspiciously and then when someone noticed and brought it to the attention of the flight crew who escalated it to the authorities then the imams start acting as if it were all a big misunderstanding once they’d been taken off the plane. Then they start threatening lawsuits against the airline and the passengers who’d reported them. It might have been a misunderstanding, but it might also have been a calculated move on the part of the imams to cause embarassment to the airline and to have a chilling effect on passengers who see suspicious activity.

As for the “musicians” they may very well have been musicians as they are said to have been but that does not preclude ulterior motives on the part of one, several, or all of them. Their actions were suspicious enough to draw attention which may have been intended on their part or may have simply been unavoidable as they went about their probing of our defenses. Like the imams they may have been acting suspiciously simply to get a reaction, or they may have been actively probing the airliner to see if they’d be noticed doing it, or they may have been actively probing the airliner and completely unconcerned about any reaction by passengers and crew as they were just “musicians” who would at most be questioned and released.

James Woods was on a flight with some of the 9/11 hijackers before the event occurred. He can’t be dismissed as some panicky bigot like the Salon article you linked attempts to do to the woman who reported the Syrian “musicians” because the guys on Mr. Woods’ flight did turn out to be terrorists. If Mr. Woods had thought to report them before 9/11 would he have been taken seriously then or would he have been dismissed as a panicky bigot? Why don’t you think about that a bit before deciding the imams and the “musicians” were just victims of a misunderstanding.

Could be that you’re just being lulled into believing that there is no threat and you’re just being jumpy, or paranoid, or bigoted when you get suspicious. Some of the posters above mentioned the little boy who cried wolf. Don’t forget what happens at the end of the story.

charles November 1, 2007 11:24 AM


thank you for another brilliant essay. Your expression and opinions are brilliant and insightful.

I’ll buy you a dinner any time you want, as you make post 9-11 life easier for me to digest, as I know I’m not the only one out here thinking these thoughts.

It comes back to that old Ben Franklin quote:
“Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security. “

Jonas November 1, 2007 11:27 AM

Bin Laden attacked the U.S. to gain attention for a specific cause – that the U.S. should abandon bases in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islamic sacred sites. We didn’t get the message. The attack was horrific, but it didn’t accomplish its goal. It didn’t work.

The Bush admin. has repeatedly twisted the story to paint the terrorists as a bunch of zombies, attacking us out of unthinking blind rage because we are (or used to be) a free society and that pisses them off. Zombies attacked before for no reason, and we are not now free of the threat of zombie attack and never will be.

So, who is more delusional, @House who believes there were no planes hitting buildings on 9/11, or the American people, who believed there were WMD’s, yellowcake, and that the zombies had morphed in Iranians blind with rage lining up to attack us? What is a more ludicrous belief?

giafly November 1, 2007 11:46 AM

Bruce, last year I found a stolen car radio dumped in my garden.

When I reported it to the police they could not have cared less. I had to take it in to the station myself.

Now I’ve read your piece, if this happens again, I’ll report it as an “electronic device” and watch as a dozen cops drive up with sirens blaring.

dragonfrog November 1, 2007 11:58 AM

Bruce, I agree with your overall thesis.

However, I disagreed with you at the time, and still do, about the guy with the pellet gun. Several reports of a man in a downtown building, pointing a scoped rifle at buildings and at the street – and the police are supposed to brush this off, decide it’s probably just some idiot with a pellet gun? At what point to do they evacuate the downtown area and sweep the place looking for snipers – after the actually starts shooting people, perhaps?

andyinsdca November 1, 2007 12:06 PM

@Dimitris Andrakakis:

Unfortunately, the “security professionals” in Boston were all excited about a bunch of Lite-Brite boards advertising a cartoon. I think that security professionals are more likely to overreact, partially out of CYA, more, though out of ensuring they have a job.

Brianary November 1, 2007 12:24 PM


You’re going to have to support that opinion with more anecdotal examples than that!

“We’re all going to have to put up with some false alarms.”

Like rendition and torture? I know of guys in Oregon and Canada that may argue that point with you.

“Better than the alternative.”

Ah. I see. More fearmongering. I’m just not afraid of terrorists. Now, an out-of-control government is another kettle of fish entirely.

“Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.”

steve November 1, 2007 12:26 PM

A voice of reason, how refreshing. Wonderful article, chilling situation that we’re in. I wish everyone in this country would read, and reflect on, this post.

meerling November 1, 2007 12:36 PM

Keith, sorry, but the need for a professional in the case you mentioned wasn’t need because the dumb fool was TRYING TO LIGHT HIS SHOE !!!
If he’d had two working braincells he’d have gone into the bathroom where he could have done that in peace. (Then pieces…)

Even with all the stupid annoying “security” at airports, any reasonably intelligent person can get all kinds of dangerous materials onto the planes. The only real effect all this is having is annoying the customers, and making the dumb have warm fuzzies. (The increased costs and wasted time are part of teh annoying the customers.) Heck, years ago a security guard showed me how to take a small metal knife through most magnetic detectors. It makes sense if you know the science. (No, I’m not telling anyone how to do these things, this is just a warning to WAKE UP!, you’re living in a fantasy if you think this B.S. is really effective.)

Ok, enough of my ranting. Thanks for listening.

Cynic November 1, 2007 12:41 PM

Demoralized, terrified people are easier to manipulate than people who are relaxed, at ease, and happy. A wise man once said, “Refuse to be terrorized, people!”

Chris November 1, 2007 12:42 PM

I agree with Bruce. These Public Service?? campaigns continually remind people of 9/11, and raise people’s level of fear/angst in general.

Fear has been used historically as a way of controlling populations. I’m sure these Public Service Announcements are just meant to protect us.

The question is who are our governement officials protecting? Are they protecting the people from terrorism, or themselves from scrutiny? Be afraid, be very agfraid, not of the terrorists without, but the terrorists within.

If we are not allowed to be free from fear, can we really be free?


Rafael November 1, 2007 12:49 PM

Fight against terror. Noble reason. But why? Why they are terrorising us? Why they are not terrorising other countries? We should change ourselves, and the terror disappears itself. The more energy we put into “fighting against”, “holding position”, the more reaction we will get. It’s impossible to win such a game, because we’re se few, and with every action “against” we create new opposition.

Steven Christenson November 1, 2007 12:53 PM

I thought the war on electronics had been lost years ago. Just try to find a local place to sell you a transister or whatever.

I’m older. Real diners and clock radios with real clocks are two things I think were done better in the old days. Somebody gave me a c. ’68 clock radio that cut out after 20-30 minutes of playing. Obvious symptom that some component had thermal issues. Simple to get a can of spray coolant and selectively spray things until I found the one where it started playing again. And ten years ago there was still one place in our metro where a retail customer could walk in and find a generic replacement audio output transistor.

I don’t make a living having anything to do with electronics. And I think you will agree that methodically spraying a can of coolant around a chassis and noting what component was bad on the schematic inside the box honest to God ain’t rocket science.

But anyone I tell about the repair looks at me like I’m Einstein or something. And that’s what I hate. The way everything from appliances to philosophies are packaged today to promote helplessness, kill curiosity and foster dependency on “experts”.

YouHateMe November 1, 2007 12:59 PM

Please explain to us why being good with some mathematical algorithms qualifies you to speak authoritatively on terrorism. I’ve never understood why you think understanding one niche of security makes you an expert on the whole wide-ranging subject.

abb3w November 1, 2007 1:04 PM

YouHateMe: he’s not just an expert in mathematical algorithms, but in their real-world implementation… which is a lot hairier.

Mark November 1, 2007 1:06 PM

Keith said: “You’re wrong. The security professionals failed completely on 9/11” blah blah blah… “We’re all going to have to put up with some false alarms. Better than the alternative.”

Dear Keith,

Thanks for being part of the problem.


Doug-N6TQS November 1, 2007 1:18 PM

“She said officers believed de Menezes was suspicious because he constantly texted or >talked on his cell phone and got off and then back on a bus.”

Posted by: Bil Corry at November 1, 2007 12:39 PM

And the police were too stupid to notice that there was a good reason for this behavior- the tube station was closed.

Charlie November 1, 2007 1:29 PM

Bruce, I respect your work, but you are misidentifying the true source of the problem.

It’s not that “amateurs” suck at identifying threats – we can easily prove empirically that this is false, and several comments here do so. That’s not a problem. Nearly everyone is better at identifying threats than the “professionals” in Boston!

It’s true that rewarding police for fucking up is a huge part of the problem, but it’s derived from and symptomatic of another root problem.

No, the real problem is that everyone – police and “amateur” informants alike – is being held to a ludicrously low standard of individual behaviour.

We’ve never accepted or condoned people taking off their pants in the subway. Our culture regards people who do that as being ill or damaged. We used to similarly regard people who lived in a state of total cowardice – you were expected to seek professional help if you panicked over strange smells or scary-looking people. Now, though, our government and society actively encourage the most egregious sorts of cowardice!

If I smelled the chilis burning, I would feel obliged to either track the smell to its source and identify it, or move on blithely. My 70+ year old, 96 pound mother would certainly do the same, or ask my (older) father to do so. Because they aren’t sniveling cowards crippled by unrealistic fears of terrorism.

Calling police in such situations is rank cowardice, and I certainly hope my my friends, family, and employer would tell me so in clear terms. If I were brutally mocked by children and pundits for being such a coward, I should accept that I deserved it. It’s not OK to be a coward, just like it’s not OK to refuse to wear pants on the subway.

Why are we as a society suddenly accepting a culture of cowardice, and a government based on spreading fear and weakness?

The human race has large problems, and cowards aren’t going to solve them. People need to hold their heads up, and have some self-respect, if they are going to accomplish anything meaningful.

Anonymous November 1, 2007 1:29 PM

Can somebody please show an example
where this kind of panic/be_really_afraid_and_take_care_of_what_you do_not_know,
was endeed usefull, and prevented something?

monopole November 1, 2007 1:31 PM

@Vin Diesel:
As a direct descendant of Salem Witches I can assure you that you don’t have to look back to the Inquisition. Just look at the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunts of the ’80s.

So holy men of the wrong religion practicing required and well prescribed rituals are terrorists now? Have you reported your local rabbis to HSA for making matzohs from the blood of Christian babies or poisoning wells? They might not be, but as you note with the imams “they were attempting to precipitate the very treatment they then decried”.

mycroftxxx November 1, 2007 1:36 PM

If escalation is good then simply shoot the guy that scares you. “He was a terrorist.” That is enough to defend yourself. Hell Shoot the guy that disagrees with you and say he was plotting…

Jackstraw November 1, 2007 1:45 PM

D said:

(beginning quote)

I think you really need to omit the imams and the musicians as misunderstandings. While it is possible that those events were nothing but misunderstandings I think it is equally possible that there was no misunderstanding of the events at all and highly suspicious behavior did occur.

(end of quote)

Does this also explain why the TSA has stopped, searched and questioned the UK’s minister for international development – coincidentally the only Muslim in the Cabinet at the moment – twice in the last six months? I find it hard to believe that government ministers of the US’s only remaining ally in Western Europe, traveling on diplomatic passports, routinely engage in “highly suspicious behavior” and have to be detained on a regular basis.

George November 1, 2007 1:55 PM

Many people want to do their part to keep America safe, secure, and free. So they’re signing up to join the War on Terror as a full-time career. The unfortunate problem is that, despite the horrible damage terrorists inflict, and despite the widespread Fear that permeates every nook and cranny of American society, there really aren’t many terrorists in the world. There certainly aren’t enough to provide all the well-meaning Terror Warriors with full-time employment and guaranteed career advancement.

So what’s a Terror Warrior supposed to do? Well, their colleagues who devote themselves to protecting us from child pornography have pretty much the same problem. Everyone agrees that child pornography is a horrible scourge for which any society that values its children can have zero tolerance, but there’s not quite enough of it to provide full-time employment for everyone who selflessly dedicates their lives to eliminating it. Fortunately, they can solve the problem by going into the child pornography business themselves. The distribution businesses they set up to support the sting operations that produce their impressive numbers of arrests make them by far the nation’s largest distributor of child pornography. But it’s all justified by the large numbers of dangerous sexual predators their enterprises put behind bars every year. You can’t argue with numbers that prove the success of their strategy beyond any doubt. And anyone who does raise objections clearly merits investigation as a likely child pornographer.

The very same strategy has produced spectacular success in the Drug War. Undercover agents who daily sell drugs as part of sweeping up dangerous criminals produce spectacular numbers of arrests and convictions, putting hundreds of thousands of major drug kingpins in prison for decades where they can no longer harm our children. Again, the numbers speak for themselves, as incontrovertible proof that the Drug War has made America a safer place for our precious children. Victory will soon be ours! And anyone who objects is at best soft on drugs, and at worst a criminal no different from the kingpins they support.

Unfortunately, even if the Terror Warriors set up undercover terrorist operations meant to recruit dangerous terrorists, there still aren’t enough terrorists around to provide Numbers comparable to what their drug and child pornography colleagues produce every month. Thus, the only way to produce that sort of success is to redefine terrorist to include a wide variety of suspicious activities including photography, possession of electronic devices, foreign language conversations, and non-Christian prayer. Better safe than sorry, and if the people who are arrested or detained are truly innocent they should have no difficulty proving their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. If that’s what it takes to keep America safe from terrorism in all its insidious forms, everyone will agree it’s a price well worth paying. Once the Numbers get publicized, we will have proof that the War on Terror is every bit as effective as the concurrent Wars on Drugs and Child Pornography.

God bless America and Viva Bush!

chris November 1, 2007 1:56 PM

I think the real problem in this scenario is that the government uses the fears of people to install a system of pseudo-democracy (check the patriot act law…the government can do whatever it wants).

It s even worse: the government creates that atmosphere of fear and cultivates it by making people believe that everything is a potential threat.

People are not able to differentiate anymore between real threat and just being different (also in a good way!).

Brad Templeton November 1, 2007 2:02 PM

Do we have any way to assess how often they are deciding not to escalate? Perhaps they are escalating almost everything right now, and people just aren’t reporting that much? Or are people giving them tips 10 times a day and we’re only seeing a crazy ass response once a week?

It would be very useful to know.

zooloo November 1, 2007 2:07 PM

@meerling: Even with all the stupid annoying “security” at airports, any reasonably intelligent person can get all kinds of dangerous materials onto the planes. The only real effect all this is having is annoying the customers, and making the dumb have warm fuzzies.

Actually, I’m increasingly inclined to believe that the intent is not “warm fuzzies.” Rather, it’s the exact opposite. You would think that the administration would be embarrassed to have such visible evidence of terrorist success on open display at every airport. But the only thing that embarrasses this administration is the truth, which is why they value secrecy above all else. But I digress.

The real purpose of the stupid annoying “security” is to continually remind large numbers of people to be afraid, very afraid, very very afraid. It’s an inoculation of Fear every time we travel. Fear is the Loyal Bushie’s addictive drug, doled out in ever-increasing doses to the cowering masses. Its main effect is to neutralize dissenting thought and speech, and to encourage the public to accept and even welcome the Unitary Executive’s demolition of any constitutional constraints to grabbing power and transforming the former United States of America into a fascist dictatorship.

Yes, a few people may feel reassurance that the Government is protecting them. But Bush and Rove really don’t care about them; they’re the 25% of voters who give Bush a favorable approval rating because of his “Christian family values.” They’re no threat. They’re actually targeting the other 75% of Americans who need to be terrorized into submission. And what better way to do that than through an intrusive annoying “security” apparatus that’s a continuing reminder of 9/11? November 1, 2007 2:10 PM

First, it is important to remember that there are no such thing as “real” terrorists. All “terrorists” are agents working for one of the government secret police organizations, such as CIA, MI6, Mossad, etc.

Second, encourage the officials to watch everyone. If they watch everyone, they are watching no one. If they suspect everyone, they suspect no one.

Escalate every little thing into the largest possible response. Force them to squander their resources so they become less efficient and so their arrests become more random.

WEGW November 1, 2007 2:25 PM

In reference to this quote: “What follows is the parade of police and elected officials praising each other for doing a great job, and prosecuting the poor victim — the person who was different in the first place — for having the temerity to try to trick them.” In what cases of missunderstanding or the cases already cited by the article has anyone been prosecuted?

abb3w November 1, 2007 2:32 PM

The problem is there are two types that Don’t Fit; extreme Reactionaries and extreme Progressives. Both disturb the Conservative masses. However, the progressives (especially the freakish techno-geeks) make things more difficult for the reactionaries, by making the world harder and harder even for them to understand, let alone attack… and the threat today is from violent Reactionary radicals.

Perhaps Homeland Security should start recruiting at SF, Anime, and comic book conventions. Or perhaps Burning Man. Anyone that pegs the weirdometer on their typical attendees deserves attention. Pair a Conservative guard with a Progressive-Weird partner, and if they don’t kill each other, the Reactionaries will get highly focused attention from both of them.

Chance of the current administration buying this idea…. somewhere between slim and fat.

And, speaking of cool progressive geek weirdos, words evidently from the brilliant Brad Templeton: “The real purpose of the stupid annoying “security” is to continually remind large numbers of people to be afraid, very afraid, very very afraid.”

Probably the main motivation. However, it’s not impossible that someone in DHS has a subtle and twisted mind, and the point of security theater is just that: theater, like a Magician rolling up his sleeves. “Observe the blundering Guardsman, ladies and gentlebombs. Nothing in his skull. Pay no attention to the man in the Grateful Dead tie dye using his laptop over at the coffee counter….”

Mind you, I don’t think DHS is that creative. Government tends to regard creativity as a last resort, even in times of war.

darkfish November 1, 2007 2:55 PM

They have not won yet.
Some of the comments sound fatalistic as if the 1984 police state is inevitable. The US (and other countries with similar tendencies) are still mostly democracies. Governments depend on the opinions of the people.

So: use your rights while you still have them! Especially the right to vote, the right of free speech, the right to collaborate and organize with others.

This may sound like some leftist propaganda but in the end the only weapon against stupidity is your voice, your ability to think clearly and to act together with like minded individuals. You must ask yourself what kind of a society you want to live in and try to achieve it. No other way, sorry.

(and it’s “Weimar” not “Wiemar”.)

David F. Skoll November 1, 2007 2:56 PM

I don’t think public awareness campaigns are necessarily a bad idea as long as they impart good advice without causing a sense of panic. So, for example, I think it’s just fine to have signs at airports that say “Did you pack your own luggage?” and “Are you aware of the contents of all your bags?”. I think it’s a good idea to have signs on buses and trains that encourage people to report bags or containers that have been left unattended. These are sensible things that can do a lot of good.

Encouraging people to report “suspicious” behaviour of their neighbours, however, is going beyond reasonable. What does “suspicious” mean, anyway?

Anonymous November 1, 2007 3:09 PM

It is a shame that we live in a time of fear. And we must all accept the fact that security and freedom is a zero-sum equation. I do think “we” as the american people have created an enviroment that requires administrations and institutions to take an “over-reaction” stance. Perhaps it derives from our over-letigious society, but if one more bomb went off… if one more leeve breaks… if one more incident occurs that there was even a 1% chance that the government could have prevented it heads are going to roll and whoever is in opposition of which ever administration is in office will start the investigation off quick. I think we expect way to damn much from the government. We want to believe that they know everything… what every bad guy is doing. We think that they can save every last one of us… we know that they watch and hear everything…right? American expectations and of course paranoia has forced the government to assume those expectations. In order to live up to those expectations the government has to over compensate on all fronts. It has to overreact because frankly it has to be lucky 100% of the time. And we will have to admit even if the government did everything reasonably in its power to prevent a terrorist attack per se we would still wants heads to roll on capitol hill. I don’t feel terrified. I honestly feel motivated. I don’t expect the government to protect me from anything. I appreciate it when they do and I pay my taxes but at the end of the day I have to cover my own butt and let the government be back up.
I may not be a bomb expert or a terrorist profiler, but when i see something that seems off to me on my next flight or trip to a major location I will report it. Better safe than sorry. I can live down making a mistake and causing everyone some trouble and a bit of there time. I cannot live down knowing i could have done something if it turned out to be a real threat, and that goes for our administration aswell.

3-D November 1, 2007 3:31 PM

Stories like this emphasize what I thought a couple months after 9/11 when the knee jerk reactions and fear mongering for political (and financial) profit took over:

The terrorists have won. We live in a society of absolute fear now.

Sviergn Jiernsen November 1, 2007 3:44 PM

Aren’t you missing the point? — That this is exactly what those fomenting fear and encouraging this behavior desire and expect from us? That the whole point of a 9/11 (as ranking Bush neocon Richard Perle evangelized quite plainly) is to ensure that the population acquires this attitude so that relinquishment of personal liberty will be considered an inevitable positive step in ensuring security. (Paging Ben Franklin…)


intr November 1, 2007 3:45 PM

Re: Nathan T. Freeman
“Keith, did the passengers on Flight 93 need a “if you see something suspicious campaign?” ”
Do you want to say they survived? They are all gone. They only reacted to what has already happened which is the hijackers taking over the plane. They did not detect before hand the situation that was looming in front of them.
Well yours was a nice try.

jt November 1, 2007 3:48 PM

Escalate is right. Just look at how the Brittish Metropolitan police escalated a threat and shot Brazilian guy De Menezes in the head 5 times without warning.

And all this why? Because the surveillance dude went to take a piss and wasn’t sure about anything. How pathetic Met acted – it is beyond reason.

And I read that in U.S. airport they have people examining people for “evil intent.” LOL. I bet I’m full of “evil intent” – in particular when I’ve been made to wait and have been patted down. Plus, I’m without my quota of roasted peanuts. Then I’m looking evil alright.

This whole thing is getting to a level that is just ridiculous. Either the consequence will be that nobody will take them seriously anymore, or that you’ll have a sort of police state in place and now and then police in the US will taser students who ask question or blow up more working people’s head. And in the evenings, we get to get brainwashed by 24 Hours on how all these acts are “a necessary evil.”

Andy Welch November 1, 2007 4:07 PM

The Culture of Fear is now a key ideological framework, well established and effective, reinforced at every turn. Interpretting science and politics through this lens produces a conservative, nervous world-view which tends to self-reinforce and increase official control of power. Contesting it is now the key intellectual task of those opposed to this dark epoch.Global Warming, environmentalism, the war on terror, avian flu, y2k are all examples of it ability to enhance an irrational world-view.
Thanks Bruce.

Anthony Kuhn November 1, 2007 4:24 PM


I’ve followed your work for many years, previously as an IT worker, and currently, as an innovation consultant. I think your articles are valuable enough that I wanted to share them with my readership, so I cross-posted on your piece, along with a few comments of my own at The Innovators Network is a non-profit dedicated to bringing technology to startups, small businesses, non-profits, venture capitalists and intellectual property experts. Please visit us and help grow our community!

Best wishes for continued success,

Anthony Kuhn
Innovators Network

Richard Steven Hack November 1, 2007 4:59 PM

“For some reason, governments are encouraging this kind of behavior.”

Of course they are.

What did Chancellor Sutler say in “V”:

I want EVERYONE to remember WHY THEY NEED US!

Summed up the nature of the state in one sentence. The Wachovski brothers are geniuses.

Joyful Alternative November 1, 2007 5:06 PM

Funny, I’m reading a history of the home front in World War I, and much of it is interchangeable with the anecdotes here. I’d cast T.R. as Rudy, the German-speaking Midwestern Mennonites and Muslims and anyone else “unusual,” etc.

antimedia November 1, 2007 5:37 PM

You say we shouldn’t trust amateurs to get security right, yet you point out that the first reaction of the professionals is to escalate rather than investigate.

How is that better?

ISTM if the authorities were handling the issues correctly, they would investigate reports before escalating them. Furthermore, while the professional might be better at separating real threats from false ones, they can’t possible be in every place at every time. Amateurs can and are.

The real problem here isn’t involving amateurs. It’s a failure of process flow on the part of the professionals as well as a failure on the part of professionals to communicate to the amateurs what it is they should be looking for. “Anything suspicious” is so vague it can’t possibly lead to anything but overreaction. “Unattended packages” is much more specific and much more likely to lead to the discovery of badness.

cynic2(also) November 1, 2007 5:48 PM

@cynic “Demoralized, terrified people are easier to manipulate than people who are relaxed, at ease, and happy. A wise man once said, “Refuse to be terrorized, people!” ”

Check out A Brave New World Revisited. Huxley writes a follow up book (really a series of essays) post Orwell (1958) I believe. A very small amount is a bit dated, but a large part reads like a manual for the current political (power) elite. Really amazing stuff, considering how far it pre-dates us.

Also, “The Book of Lord Shang” – Lord Shang, written around the time of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Pretty much a handbook for controlling the masses. Has some interesting parallels (and diversions) with today’s world.

Sometimes the old tricks work the best.

Ryan November 1, 2007 5:51 PM

You really hit the nail on the head with this essay. Weird that the police officials in Boston, after they embarrassed themselves by arresting Star Simpson at gunpoint outside Boston Logan airport, held a press conference to tell the world how “lucky” she was that she hadn’t been shot and killed. Of course, it was the cops who were lucky they hadn’t killed an innocent person. But we’re working on an inverted system in which anyone can be guilty of terrorism until proven innocent (hopefully not at the morgue).

xoc November 1, 2007 6:06 PM

Beautifully expressed. Its a shame people with your intelligence seem to be becoming a rare breed.

Chui November 1, 2007 7:07 PM

It is said that the righteous do not fear death, but it crooked, the evil fear death in every step they take, because they know that there is no after life for them.

Rant aside, wanton escalation of suspicions is pretty common in totalitarian societies. There is not that much one living in there can do. Count yourself lucky U.S. is not as bad as USSR or North Korea. Hope your country recovers from it’s madness eventually. In the meantime, just laugh at the mania around you. And don’t blog too much. You can be held accountable for your past views in the future.

Gideon November 1, 2007 7:09 PM

WEGW: i think that’s entirely the point. In how many of these cases were people prosecuted after the fact? Conversely, how many people were compensated for their lost time, health, privacy, etc? How many people were killed in error because someone thought they might be a danger to ‘us’?

Jess November 1, 2007 7:26 PM

“And we must all accept the fact that security and freedom is a zero-sum equation.”

I don’t accept this, even though some in law enforcement appear to believe it. The system is too complex to have only one axis of control. If the FBI had more creativity, better recruiting, better infrastructure, etc. it would be a more effective organization.

Of course, that’s always true; any organization could do better. The point is that the burden of proof should be on those who claim that the only way to improve security is to trample the Constitution. To my mind, they have yet to even make an argument for that.

E.Goldstein November 1, 2007 10:21 PM


When a man walks around now without underpants, I’m sure we will nail him to the wall for pedophilia via indecent exposure.

Gestapo Agent #13

WHS November 1, 2007 11:49 PM

Why can’t anyone accept that the terrorist attacks, and not the government, have made it more difficult for Muslims in America?

We only need to examine the treatment of Muslims in America before 9/11.

Anti-fear propaganda November 2, 2007 12:01 AM

I think it’s important to note the relative threat of ‘terrorism’ and the scare campaigns that have been used to excuse the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to invade yet another country for purely financial reasons.

What’s more likely? Suffering death or injury in the US at the hands of a ‘terrorist’ (0.00001083% fatalities per capita from 1968-2006. As has been previously pointed out, you stand a much better chance of being struck by lightning); or dying as a direct result of obesity – or worse, as being a soldier sent to unjustly overthrow a country?

What’s worse? The threat of a religious fanatic damaging a Government building; or the Government removing all civil liberties and human rights by announcing a ‘war on terror’, and renaming enemy soldiers as ‘insurgents’ and ‘military non-combatants’ (which is a legal loophole, allowing the US to throw out all human rights along with the Geneva Convention – being able to ‘disappear’, hold, torture, and kill anyone they deem is a threat to national security – kind of like what they claim was so terrible under Communist regimes)?

natch November 2, 2007 12:08 AM

Maybe trained professionals are not good enough. When trained professionals saw hinky and shot Jean Charles de Menezes in the head seven times, they did so after a chain of events precipitated, in part, by the fact that one of the trained professionals had to take a leak.

Robots don’t take leaks. Maybe we should have robot profilers watching us, looking for hinky behavior.

Like my oh-so-hinky behavior last week when I walked back and forth three times on the same street. For that, I should at least have my name flagged in a database somewhere, a very small step that would not necessarily lead to any endangerment of me whatsoever, probably, or at least within government-published minimum levels of risk for people of my average hinkiness level.

We could also equip these robot hinky watchers with restraint devices, tasers, firearms, passport collection receptacles, tracking bracelet emplacement devices, non-repudiation mechanisms for all actions taken other than the ones we say must be deniable, executive override channels and evidence-burning containers. And of course the software would be upgradeable over the air, not for the express reason of making it convenient for new regimes to roll out their new policies (though that would be a side bnefit), but for the very obvious reason of being able to install smarter algorithms and better hinky detection models.

Sure, why not? I don’t see a problem, since the metric-to-optimize-of-the-week here is the reliability of the hinky watchers.

av November 2, 2007 12:44 AM

Writing from new delhi, india. we got tons of similar campaigns. nothing happens. no airports are evacuated [not as often as yours] no police resources are wasted.
why ? 2 reasons.

1)the people are more poor. no one bothers to report about terrorists much.

2) we dont have the resources to waste. we are poor. and that helps big time. even if i called the police station, and said ‘terrorist attacking my house’ not much happens.

You folks with tons of cheap energy will soon find that much of this false alarm activity will come to an end very soon, just wait for oil to hit 150.
the after effects of power down will save you and your society from this manianc madness of security theater.

bob November 2, 2007 7:11 AM

Re: the added link about reporting pedophiles – if you are a male in the US over the age of 12 do not EVER allow yourself to be in the presence of a child under the age of 16 without at least 2 witnesses (that you trust, and it does NOT include the parents of said child), even if it means the poor lost child freezes to death outdoors (unless you consider forfeiting your life to save theirs a fair trade, in which case good luck with that) And no male should ever consider being a teacher at less than college level.

mommy50 November 2, 2007 9:38 AM

I totally agree with your statements this is a war on the different. I’ve moved to Europe 15 years ago and boy do I see, feel and hear the difference each time I return to the USA and that’s 4x a year. The DDR like conformism, the utterly complete success of the Bush reign of ‘fear’ has penetrated the lot making them run scared of anything that reeks of dare I say, an opinion. You cannot speak to people about your own ideas or opinions because a)they refuse to hear anything that is different, b)they are defensive without facts, c)they are unable to have a good debate without making every statement a personal vendetta, i.e. Fox Newscasters and lastly, d)do not understand at all that there is indeed a ‘rest of the world’ that is pacifist, or at least in Europe, appeasing.

Jardinero1 November 2, 2007 12:07 PM

I wonder when the mainstream will finally acknowledge that the whole “war” is a massive farce. That for the last six years we have wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, wrecked the constitution,and weakened faith in the executive branch(wait, that’s not such a bad thing)to essentially, joust windmills.

We are battling something that is an insignificant threat in our daily lives. We are fighting something less dangerous than driving a car or walking on a sidewalk. We are fighting something that poses no existential threat to the USA.

I have to say I wish we had stuck to the Clinton approach to terrorism: ignore it, treat it as a one-off event when it happens and then prosecute the perps if and when you catch them. If more Americans would say what I just said we might be able to roll back the insanity.

Eric J November 2, 2007 2:50 PM

So what works about this kind of thing in Israel? Is it the higher level of actual terrorism, that’s given people better instincts? Is it the fact that most of the adult population has been in the military? Is it the fact that they’ve had 40 years to get used to the idea that if you’re careless with your bag it’s going to get blown up by the bomb squad – so they’d no sooner leave their bags on the street than you’d leave your keys in your ignition?

markm November 2, 2007 2:58 PM

Eric: Not having been there, I suspect that the difference is that in Israel security is viewed as an important job, and it attracts the best people. Over here, quite the opposite.

Brit In Exile November 2, 2007 3:22 PM

Enough “shoe bomber” nonsense already. He is not a dangerous international terrorist, he is a mental patient who was in and out of hospitals for years before he became a star.

So is the wretch banged up forever for planning to build an atom bomb out of old smoke detectors. Think about it – if atom bombs could be built out of old smoke detectors by lonely nutters in their basements, why is North Korea making such a song and dance about it?

Ditto the alleged plot to set off a ton of fertilizer in the Ministry of Sound nightclub. How did they plan to deliver it, assuming Sven Vath wasn’t in on it? (Sven Vath can drop a ton of shite on the floor of the Ministry with no problem.) It’s not as if you can park outside – were they going to use special trousers with drawstrings in the pockets like in “The Great Escape”? They’d need a lot of jihadis to get it all delivered in one night, ‘cos the cleaners come round once a day. Then the place is filled with crazed jihadis wearing baggy trousers, not the alleged victims.

Deadly ricin gas? There was a Bulgarian defector murdered in London by injecting him with ricin back in the day, and the BBC even once broadcast a programme about how you have to cook red beans carefully or the ricin in them will give you a tummy ache. But there is no such thing as “deadly ricin gas”, and (for once) the man charged with making it was acquitted. But later another man was convicted of being his accomplice in the impossible and non-existent crime. And let us not forget that a report from Porton Down saying “no poisons found”, had mysteriously changed to “deadly ricin gas found”, by the time it left 10 Downing Street.

Liquid explosive binary agents? Not possible to combine them without a rigourously temperature controlled lab. But people who didn’t even have passports are now banged up for such a “plot”, and thousands of travellers are harrassed and humiliated every day on these ridiculous grounds. On and on.

This nonsense only benefits fear-mongering politicians, their corporate accomplices, and morbidly obese, socially inadequate thugs who wear sunglasses indoors and would be wholly unemployable otherwise.

An American funded (Noraid) IRA bomb once exploded about 100 yards from where I was working in London. If it wasn’t for the blast curtains me and my colleauges would have been converted to pink mist by the flying glass. I did not stop working in London, mainly because I was so cross with the bombers. Ditto MILLIONS of other Londoners.

I am ashamed of my country. A nation which once coped with the horrible sight of Mrs. Thatcher being dragged from the rubble with her knickers round her ankles (American funded IRA again), and where John Major earned points by adjourning his Cabinet Meeting with such dignity when they came under mortar attack (more American funded IRA), now has “terror-fear” over breast milk.

My advice:

1) Blast curtains really work. Canvas strips with weights in the bottom, catch the glass and deposit it neatly where it can be swept up with a dustpan and brush. But they must be kept closed – there is no point closing them afterwards.

2) Mainland Europe is a nice place to live right now. The people are still sane, and contrary to the “terror-fear” propaganda, it is wholly untrue that “millions in Europe now live under Muslim domination”. If anyone thinks the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Nederlands scales to a global indicator, I can assure you that in Roosendaal (a town I know well), it is Americans who are seen as capable of nothing but unprovoked, murderous violence – even the anti-war protesters:,2933,296566,00.html

3) Grow up and get a life. Jack Bauer is a fictional character.

Dirty Davey November 2, 2007 7:49 PM

“Bin Laden attacked the U.S. to gain attention for a specific cause – that the U.S. should abandon bases in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islamic sacred sites. We didn’t get the message. The attack was horrific, but it didn’t accomplish its goal. It didn’t work.”

Ummm…. Yes it DID. Bush took all the American troops out of Saudi Arabia after invading Iraq.

Bin Laden’s two goals were to get the US troops out of Saudi Arabia and to foment worldwide conflict between Islam and the West. Bush already gave him the first and is working real hard now on the second.

billy November 2, 2007 10:17 PM

This is inevitable because:
People are stupid.
They have been deliberately fightened (by Bush).
The have no education.
They cannot reason.
They have seen too many films.

It will continue.

As a student I was examining an electric motor while in a university cafeteria 15 years ago. The waitress checked in a friendly way to make sure that I wasn’t going to ‘blow us all up’.

It will continue

Grubert November 2, 2007 10:28 PM

Bruce Schnier, being a guy who sells computer security expertise, seems exactly the right kind of fellow to comment on terrorism.

I sold a few customers on a simple setup of SSL certs for their Apache servers. The cost was quite high, but the sale was almost weirdly easy.
No haggling, no questions asked, just “do it!”

I learned that Fear is the best tool in the salesman’s arsenal.

But I, for one, am sick of all the “OOOGA-BOOGA” and “be afraid!” in America, and have been since the 70’s “Committee on the Present Danger.”

I’m not terrorized yet.

LandruBek November 3, 2007 1:41 AM

@Charlie: “We’ve never accepted or condoned people taking off their pants* in the subway.”

I suspect Charlie is referring to a street theater troupe that actually does this. Last year some of them got arrested — read about it here:
. . . whereas this year they got police protection:
I was pleased to read that the police acted with restraint and tolerance. Kudos to our public servants! As an avowed booster of loopy behavior I accept and condone these stunts, as do many others, but not everyone does.

  • In American parlance, “pants” and “trousers” are synonyms.

NoeValleyJim November 3, 2007 12:09 PM

The sad part is that most people can’t do risk analysis and politicians know this and exploit people’s fear for political and economic gain. The entire “War on Terror” is a fiction the GOP invented to allow them to funnel taxpayer dollars to favored constituencies. America is finally waking up to this fact. Better late than never I guess. Imagine what spending $2T would have done for transportation infrastructure. We would have saved far more lives than we have saved in this phony “War on Terror.”

grumpyoldlady November 3, 2007 12:33 PM

All of which only goes to show, REAL terrorists will do everything they can to blend in perfectly. Look at the 9/11 hijackers – they were clean-shaven, wore Western clothing, did not attend a mosque, drank beer, ate pizza – no member of the general public would have regarded them as anything more than a bunch of immigrant guys like thousands of other immigrant guys. I’m sure that REAL terrorists are perfectly aware that they stand a better chance of achieving their objective if they do nothing to attract anyone’s notice, and train in exactly how to do that.

What everybody seems to forget is that the world is a very big place and terrorist groups are very small in comparison. They have to pick their targets very, very carefully. The real impact of 9/11 is that it was SO spectacularly successful, from Al-Qaeda’s point of view, that it has given them credibility for years if not decades to come – they did it once so they can do it again. Everything they have done since then has been a few foiled plots (that may well have been MEANT to fail, just to keep their cred up) and a lot of chatter, and we all know how cheap talk is.

Meanwhile, we’re chasing lost iPods and blinky-lights and burning hot sauce, detaining toddlers and U.S. senators at airports, and generally making asses of ourselves – thereby diminishing our OWN credibility.

And let’s not forget our own domestic nutjobs. Everybody should remember that prior to 9/11, the worst terrorist act on American soil was committed by a homegrown anti-government activist. And the more our own government erodes our liberties, the more Americans will be pushed into the anti-government camp.

Doc November 3, 2007 8:34 PM

There are plenty of comments either way here. Mine got too long to really call a comment. It became a full blog post. Short version, as many people have already pointed out, Mr. Schneier is whining about the wrong things.

Al November 3, 2007 9:23 PM

Richard needs to get his facts straight,
“Remember: more people in the USA are killed per year by lightening than by terrorism (that includes 911, when averaged over a decade)”
Per there were 3239 deaths from lightning in the USA – from 1959 until 1995 – that’s less than 100 per year.
As for the great security expert Schneier, what is he really suggesting? That governments say, “Amateurs stay out – if you see something, shut up? How does he define amateurs? There are plenty of civilians that have had some training, but are not considered professionals. Does this mean they are not qualified to observe and report if something is suspicious? Or does Schneier suggest that we need to expand the government by about 5000% or more to get enough professionals? Schneier’s a real expert all right…on horse manure.

Crimson November 3, 2007 9:47 PM

Seems to me this article aims at two extremes; the police state (let the pro’s do it for you) and the fascist “report on your neighbor” tactic. Neither of which we yet have in America, although, with-out due vigilance either can be brought about. What we really have is business as usual.

Democracy and the people who practice it will never have a “perfect” answer, only because there are none to be had. Democracy is controlled chaos and so is our “security”. We will never be able to catch every bad guy, nor dismiss every false alarm.

Awareness is what most of the “you can help” campaigns are (hopefully) aimed at. Americans spend a lot of time with their heads in the clouds, some times we need a reminder to look around even if we have no idea what we are looking at.

-learn to swim.

Terry Cloth November 3, 2007 10:21 PM

I’ve just come across a new book titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The blurb on the cover sounded intriguing, so I checked it out of the library.

I’m only up to page xxii (i.e., not even out of the prologue), and I’ve come across

“Think of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001: had the risk been reasonably conceivable on September 10, it would not have happened. If such a possibility were deemed worthy of attention, fighter planes would have circled the sky above the twin towers, airplanes would have had locked bulletproof doors, and the attack would not have taken place, period. Something else might have taken place. What? I don’t know.”


“What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic prototerrorists and tall buildings.”

Sound familiar? His brief is much broader than security, though; it’s how to think about and react to true surprises (i.e., not those events we didn’t know about and suddenly discovered, but rather those we couldn’t have known about).

He proposes to investigate and display the foundation of the human fallacy of prediction: that despite our beliefs, we can’t predict anything truly meaningful. Further, he claims such knowledge will give us a better, more general, understanding of ways to reduce the results of such fallacies, thus how to better prepare for dealing with the unknown.

I suspect it will be worth reading by anyone, to help deal with pretty much any aspect of life, but may in particular make it very useful to security investigators, since, once you’ve got a defense against everything you can think of, all that can happen is something you can’t think of.

NOTE: My first impression, described above, may be (completely?) mistaken. Barnes & Noble has seven reviewers giving it only 3/5, and some trash it completely. YMMV.

Robbie November 4, 2007 9:54 AM

Purely anecdotal, but I feel that this is somewhat relevant to the discussion at hand…

I’m an artist. I take photographs and video to use in my art. I know the laws about what I can and can’t photograph and I carry them with me now, because I have been so consistently hassled by John Q. Alarmist Everybody in the last couple of years.
I don’t look all the different from anybody else. I’m a short, chubby white dude with short hair, no tattoos, boring clothing.
But the instant I take out my camera? I stampede the herd, apparently. People With Cameras who are too intent on their subjects or linger too long in a single place are now cause for alarm. If I took one shot and then moved along, I’d probably be dubbed just a “tourist” but for my art, I often require multiple shots from multiple perspectives or over time.

This has gotten me hassled by officious managers, police officers, building security, parking lot security, city offiicals, transit authority officials (because I was “facing” a bus too much…seriously). I’ve had my camera demanded, blocked, attempted to be seized. I’ve had to show total strangers my work and waste my valuable time to explain to them what it is that I’m doing. Often, when I’ve been initially approached, it has been in an extremely aggressive and confrontational manner. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” “This is private property!” Actually, it’s not. And I think I’m taking pictures of a lunar eclipse, which is in the sky, and has no relevance to your concerns about security.

I’ve spoken with other photographers, video artists, performance artists etc. and it seems that there’s been a pretty powerful uptick in the harassment of all of us…because artists do the unexpected more often than “normal” folks do. Sometimes we “look weird” too.
And these days, that seems to be all it takes.

Michael Alexander November 4, 2007 10:10 AM

Mr. Schneier,

  I just want to say thank you for telling it how it is.  I have the "Schneier on Security" module on my "My Yahoo" page.  I just read your article, "The War on the Unexpected."  I could not agree

with you more as we have become a nation of “sheeple” rather than people. We have let our democracy become a large dictatorship. For years the government has inconspicuously tried
to take away certain liberties and rights from the people in a way that most wouldn’t notice. After 9/11, the government, namely the Bush Administration, has taken away many of our liberties in one large, in-your-face, sweep. It seems as though the American
people, I mean sheeple, have come to live their lives under theimpression that whatever the government decides, must be right.

  I served our country and my beloved Marine Corps from 1994 to 1998.  I was a part of the war on terror long before it was a household term.  There are countless lies behind the so-called "war

on terror.” I won’t even try to get started on that subject. We’ve been at war against terrorism since before I was
born (I’m 32). The government has used 9/11 as an excuse to get away with anything and everything in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. If our forefathers were here, they’d be pissed!!

  Anyway, I appreciate your perspective on the over-reaction and I hope you at least reach a few people to change their way of thinking.  We have allowed fear to take away many of our

freedoms. Personally, I’d rather live in true freedom, in fear, rather than safely in a dictatorship. We, the people, should be in control of the government, not the other way around.

 I had a free thinking website at one time where people could freely exchange ideas and thoughts in an open forum.  It was neither democratic, or republican.  It was for all Americans, of any belief, to come together and express their point of view.  It also contained links to different government agencies and institutions and contact info for congressmen, senators, etc.  It was a great site, but it never took off.  I didn't then and still don't know  how to spread the word and advertise a website.  I look forward to trying again as soon as I can afford to.

  Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughts openly with the rest of the world.

Michael L. Alexander

I have no yesterdays; Time took them away.
Tomorrow may not come,
But I have today.

Magenta November 4, 2007 2:57 PM

Terrorism is a technique, not a political philosophy or ideology, which has been used by a variety of groups over the years. It is not an ideology itself. As a number of people have pointed it, it has been used by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in the UK for quite some time. Like guerilla warfare, these are techniques of a small group fighting a large one. I really wish that the news media talked about the groups rather than the techniques. But then it would be more obvious that they are either lone nuts, very small groups of lone nuts, or small groups with specific politics.

And I am surprised no one has mentioned the premise of the recent 3-part episodes on “South Park”: terrorists have captured our imaginations. Ridiculous, of course, but in a twisted way, true. We are being harmed more by our imaginations, fueled by Fox News and its ilk, than any actual attack.

AxelDC November 4, 2007 7:41 PM

At what point do we become like those during the Reign of Terror, who were supposed to rat out their neighbors for being counterrevolutionaries, or like Soviet citizens, who were expected to uncover anticommunist plots? People are supposed to use their instincts when something seems amiss, but too often those instincts are triggered by things that are “foreign” rather than “awry”. When we encourage people to hypervigilance, we may be encouraging the worst insticts in people.

Scott November 6, 2007 9:57 AM

“We need to spend our resources on things that actually make us safer, not on chasing down and trumpeting every paranoid threat anyone can come up with.”

People, people, people……OF COURSE we are squandering resources on “false alarms.” That’s the way the Powers-that-be WANT IT TO BE. If we were to knock off the alarmism, exercise common sense, and focus resources sensibly on “terrorism” where it really existed, we would need far fewer “law enforcement” resources than we are currently saddled with, thus putting hordes of otherwise unemployable people out of work and depriving the security-industrial complex of revenue. After all, “terrorism” is, as others have noted here, a phenomenon so rare as to be almost non-existent, the odds of anyone suffering from it being so remote as to be almost unmeasurable in terms of statistical probability. Furthermore, were we to focus “law enforcement” resources sensibly, we would see the return of “keeping the peace” rather than “enforcing the law” (the root cause of the current growing Police State). The State’s power over us mere citizen vermin would diminish to an unacceptably small level, individual liberties would once again be respected, and that pesky document called “the Constitution of the United States” would again reign supreme. We couldn’t have that, now could we?

cdmiller November 6, 2007 12:30 PM

Heh, some interesting naysayer responses to your post. There are a lot of problems with the official account of events, and strange happenings with regards to investigating the events of 9/11. One example, Building 7 is not mentioned in the 9/11 committee report. I would concentrate on “Freefall”, “Building 7”, and “support columns”.

Anon Coward November 6, 2007 12:37 PM

The underlying problem is that People claim to want a ‘free’ society but are unwilling to accept the risks that come with that. So what has slowly happened since 9/11 is a gradual erosion of privacy, liberty, and expression, all in the name of the “terrorist threat.” And People are willing to allow that to happen because they think it all makes them safer.

If you’re reading this thread, you probably know that it all doesn’t make them safer. Sometimes it spreads fear, sometimes it creates an illusion (“security theater”), and very often it takes away some little liberty. The erosion may be gradual, but it’s no less real.

Am I the only one who is viewed as being some sort of traitor for holding these views? What is wrong with accepting the truth that a free society requires risk? That doesn’t mean you ignore the threats, or that you don’t think of some intelligent way of trying to detect and counter them. But it does mean that you hold some principles and freedoms to be inviolable, and build your countermeasures around them. Not the other way around.

I.M. Small November 7, 2007 10:08 AM


“If you see something, say something”
The subway advertisement
Cautions us–vigilance to bring
Paternal by apprisement–

So that the act of terrorist
May early be prevented,
The perpetrator caught, by wrist
Led handcuffed, in jail pented.

A bomb´s explosion leaves its mark–
Yet other threats remain
More dangerous if not so stark,
As harmful to the brain:

Acts of free speech oppressed or stifled
Occur without much notice,
Warrantless searches, sources rifled,
None saying, like the throat is
Ulcer´d, in need of poultice.

Anti-Terror November 9, 2007 8:06 AM

Dear Mr. Schneier,
without question you raise an issue that is partially valid. However, there is a combination of items that create the situation you describe.
Some of the things that are missing for example are the shortages of trained antiterrorism or assessment professionals. Because of the shortages, law enforcement and even trained volunteers, are not enough to cover the entire United States and its vulnerabilities. You also have to remember that since 9/11 there is been a wake-up call to the fact that we are dealing with an enemy that does not resemble historical war. Our current enemies, kill, maim, or wound innocent children women and men to ignite fear in the populace such as the recent thirdhand information regarding bombings potentially of shopping malls on the east and west coasts. Without a doubt that will have an effect unfortunately. I work on a daily basis 14 to 16 hours a day with emergency management and other entities charged with the responsibility of protecting the public or responding to an incident natural or man-made should it occur. We have had discussions over the last few years off and on about the participation of the public and the overreaction of the first responders. Almost all of the individuals I have talked with about this that are in this industry still agree that the only way to get a higher percentage of these incidents reduced is by public education, participation of every single individual in the United States. Sure there will be a lot of incidents that turn out to be false, and there is without question in this current political theater a problem that has created the “CYA” issue. As a rough around the edges as this may seem it still better than the populace becoming complacent and just watching the incidents start rolling in. Will it happen, to me unfortunately without a doubt. How bad will it be? That will depend upon if somebody has recognized and turned in what they know to assist in the prevention of the actual act. I don’t think anybody can sit back in a chair and Monday night quarterback this problem. My hopes are that everyone in the United States participates in protecting this wonderful country. I hope the readers of this column agree, and do turn in or report suspicious activity. I encourage everyone to visit the Department of Homeland Security’s website or the website to get familiar with the types of things to look for.
God bless America, and all its people.

Clive Robinson November 11, 2007 3:17 PM

@ Jered,

With hindsight yes it does appear to be an over reaction (and in a car park in a shopping area doubly so).

However seeing piles of a white powder around an area without knowledge of what it is does unfortunatly give rise to the questions,

1, “How did it get there”
2, “What is it”
3, “Is it dangerous”

And if it does not look like an accidental spill it would take a brave person in this day and age to go up lick their finger stick it in and have a taste and say “it’s OK folks”. Not that most people know what raw flour tastes like any way (and belive me you will not particularly like it).

The real problem with it as in so many other of these “Idiot Security Scares” is that the initial cause of the problem (flour trail) appears rational to the person doing it (custom and practice, view point etc).

But to the person who finds/deals with it, it is “odd/suspect behaviour” and they are in an awakward position of “Going out on a limb” to say “no worries folks” or taking the CYA route and push it up the “chain of authority”.

As we know the CYA route is expensive in terms of man hours and other resources and in times past would not have happened. Now however there are to many vested interests in going to the max (boys and their toys etc). Then the top of the chain effectivly has to exact revenge on the initiator to avoid looking “dumb in front of the camera”.

The result is often disproportianate to the “offence” but not to the cost of “resources” utilised.

It would be better if those at the top of the chain told the truth and said “We have to react the way we do for two reasons, to protect the public just in case and because you the public expect us to”.

Elias November 12, 2007 9:20 AM

It is funny how many commentators above subscribe to the most outrageous conspiracy theory of the century, the one peddled by the US administration regarding Osama bin Laden and his 19 playboys. When will you guys wake up to the fact that the US government orchestrated 9/11 and notice that the war on terrorism is a skillful fraud on us all. There are more people dying from lighting strikes in the US than from terrorism. Take a look at:

Bruce Blitch November 15, 2007 3:48 PM


I read your subject article with interest, but was curious about your omission of recent & related events. Although you choose to refer to “…a new law protecting people who turn in their travel mates based on some undefined “objectively reasonable suspicion,” whatever that is…???, you don’t make mention of what precipitated the passage of the law.

Surely you’re aware of the so called ‘Flying Imams controversy’ (, but perhaps you did miss a somewhat similar more recent event. ( Reading the copies of the police reports available for these events seems to support the notion that the reactions of these ‘ordinary citizens’ were appropriate.

Not providing information to your readers about what is in a manner of speaking, the ‘other side of the coin’ from encouragement to report suspicious activity – IE: what can only be categorized as ‘punishment by lawsuit’ for reporting suspicious activity, doesn’t seem to accurately represent the reality of this complex situation.

If these events were infrequent I’d be more inclined to agree with your suggestion to de-escalate, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of suspicious activity to be reported.(

Steve H. November 15, 2007 5:03 PM


Thanks for your well-written and thought-provoking discussions.

>For some reason, governments are encouraging this kind of behavior.

In my opinion, the reason is simple and sobering: declaring a crisis or war has a distinct advantage for those wielding power. It keeps political opponents and the public off balance and on the defensive, suppressing dissent. The absence of effective opposition in turn gives those in power more or less free reign to pursue their own agenda.

I think it’s useful to think of terrorists as termites. You don’t typically tear down a structure or make it uninhabitable to deal with termites; you treat the infestation and fortify the structure in ways that stop or inhibit future termites. You can’t ignore termites or you will loose the structure. You certainly can’t eliminate all termites. You manage them and keep them from creating bigger problems than necessary.

John David Galt November 15, 2007 6:19 PM

The “war on the unexpected” is nothing new, and is a combination of two things.

1) America’s majority, and government, has always been at war against the culturally different. For instance, the War on Drugs, which began in 1911, was started for exactly that reason — hatred of immigrants because, in the view of proponents, they “wouldn’t assimilate” and therefore needed to be forced to live like Anglos did. Before that, the “Indians” were suppressed because they were culturally different and were a haven for malcontented Americans who wanted to run away from mainstream US culture.

Diversity of this sort really needs strong constitutional protections, not only here but throughout the world, because majorities will always want to impose conformity on whatever group they currently disfavor. Ironically, this especially goes for countries such as Canada, which has gotten an undeserved reputation for strongly protecting minority rights precisely by doing just the opposite to other minorities. (For instance, Canada’s French speaking minority is “protected” by making it illegal for Quebec’s English speaking minority to have their children educated in English.)

2) As you pointed out in an earlier article, “profiling” is necessary. Police can’t do their jobs effectively if they aren’t allowed to stop you for looking or sounding “hinky”, often in ways the cop can’t put into words if required to explain himself. But cops, like everyone else, have cultural prejudices, so members of cultural minorities have a much greater chance than the general population of looking “hinky” to a cop.

It seems to me that the right answer to this is to diversify the police force as much as possible. But before that can happen, laws against being culturally “unexpected” (in ways such as smoking marijuana) need to end so that those groups can be included in the diversified police force.

This is yet another way in which continuing the War on Drugs works to defeat the War on Terror. When will we get a President who has the brains to figure this out?

Fergie November 16, 2007 12:36 AM

Well, it gets worse:

“Artist Shirley Scheier drove to Snohomish to make the kind of picture you couldn’t get in a city — power lines against an unobstructed sky.

She wound up being patted down, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car on that day two years ago, in a detention that lasted 44 minutes.

The electrical substation she photographed had been identified by the Department of Homeland Security as a “critical infrastructure” target.

The longtime UW professor sued the city of Snohomish on Thursday, in what her lawyers say is an example of harassment toward photographers resulting from misplaced fears about terrorism.”


  • ferg

I.M.Small November 17, 2007 10:54 AM


There is no “war on terror” as
It is a frame of mind–
Destructive acts will come to pass,
Nor to them one be blind;

However best prevention is
Alert calm vigilance,
Concordance and analysis,
Careful not happenstance.

Criminals will commit their deeds
Nor none of you can stop them
Entirely; but are sown the seeds
Early–men unknown drop them–

When cruel indifference but they show
Unto a fellow mortal:
Proprietary weal one´s woe
Disdaining with a chortle.

Required is common striving toward
A peaceful understanding;
While here, some with their profits shored
All others keep on branding

As morally inferior,
Or otherwise defective,
Meanwhile another´s open door
To trespass sans directive.

Examine your past history
Of robbing from your peer,
Then suddenly the mystery
Must vanish crystal clear.

Articles November 18, 2007 10:34 AM

The problem is not just economic. We don’t have a choice but to take reports from uninformed people, but there are far too many law enforcement personnel who are not only uninformed, but culturally unable to make distinctions between ‘different’ and ‘threat’. This is an artifact of conformist culture that runs very deep in the authoritarian followers who choose to serve politicians, i.e. civil servants, and is promulgated by authoritarian leaders wherever they are. The economic conditions you describe only amplify the effects of this condition.

seksüel November 29, 2007 4:38 AM

Not providing information to your readers about what is in a manner of speaking, the ‘other side of the coin’ from encouragement to report suspicious activity – IE: what can only be categorized as ‘punishment by lawsuit’ for reporting suspicious activity, doesn’t seem to accurately represent the reality of this complex situation.

Eagle Eyes for Peace December 3, 2007 12:50 PM

I’ve known you for about 10 years now, and as the lead of a profiling team I’ve come to a razor sharp conclusion about you.

You must be a terrorist.


  1. The first time I met you was at the l0pht and you had a government
    crypto machine you had purchased at an auction. This was not a
    government certified auction; therefore it must have been black
    market. Only criminals buy crypto devices on the black market.

Why do you hate America, Bruce? Lose the crypto.

  1. Your hair length. Living in Texas all my life, culturally we
    don’t put up with long hair. Long hair leads to joblessness (no one can work a real manufacturing job with long hair it’s an OSHA hazard), joblessness leads to marijuana use which we all know is a gateway drug which leads to heroin addiction. 90% of the world’s heroin
    comes from Afghanistan and we know who grows that, don’t we?

Why do you hate America, Bruce? Cut your hair.

  1. Squid blogging. With your recent public interest in squids, I see
    it as it must be, a red herring. Sure, the government can monitor and
    watch your private life, so as an avid CSI fan I have seen enough real
    life murder investigations to understand what you are doing with your
    squid blog posts; throwing the government into a tail spin chasing
    down your coded messages to your ‘allies’ over in terrorist lands. Every squid post MUST have a coded message in it and I WILL crack that code, Bruce.

Why do you hate America, Bruce? Forget the squids.

I’m keeping an eye on you, mister.

Your vigilant personal American Eagle Watcheye

Doctor December 3, 2007 3:51 PM

Perhaps, instead, we should make paranoia a felony. That way, those who mistake a cellphone for a gun, or a circuit board for a bomb, could be put in their proper place. Perhaps the problem is not that the public in general is ignorant, but rather that law enforcement’s obsession with terrorism is giving credence to those mentally ill individuals who, in times past, would simply have been brushed off by the police.

Stephanie April 16, 2009 4:38 PM

This is a great article. Looks like we went from witch hunts to commie hunts to terrorist hunts. What’s the worst label in the US you can stick to someone without any more evidence than suspicion? Terrorist. Where do they end up if they get put in that database? An oubliette where the constitution, the rule of law, and all our beautiful values do not apply to a citizen.

John Gilmore August 14, 2009 9:48 PM

I got put off a plane for wearing a tiny button that said “Suspected Terrorist”. And it was just as Bruce said — one low level idiot, plus numerous supervising employees, each of whom couldn’t see what was in front of their face, and instead escalated rather than showing common sense. Including the captain of the plane.

Christie Mung May 22, 2012 1:22 AM

This piece brings attention to an issue that I and many of my students have sought answers for. I thank you for covering it with so much insight.

Mr unorthodox November 22, 2012 1:03 AM

I’m unorthodox in many ways and I am also law abiding mostly. Because of my unorthodox behaviour and interest in weird things like “security”. I get escalated all time and I have now achieved “threat status” not based on a criminal past but based on people’s fear and misinterpretation of my actions. if I so much as read a security article in the wrong place it gets flagged as a possible violation of someones right. The irony of it is that less unorthodox people commit all manner of criminal activities, theft, harassment, security violations but this go under the radar because they don’t look as unorthodox as I do. It’s the way of the world

Robert Boudrie November 22, 2023 7:22 PM

When we should he hardening the populace, the government seems heavily committed to the concept of “we will require you to be helpless to keep you safe”.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.