Lessons from Mumbai

I’m still reading about the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and I expect it’ll be a long time before we get a lot of the details. What we know is horrific, and my sympathy goes out to the survivors of the dead (and the injured, who often seem to get ignored as people focus on death tolls). Without discounting the awfulness of the events, I have some initial observations:

  • Low-tech is very effective. Movie-plot threats—terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists with biological agents, terrorists targeting our water supplies—might be what people worry about, but a bunch of trained (we don’t really know yet what sort of training they had, but it’s clear that they had some) men with guns and grenades is all they needed.
  • At the same time, the attacks were surprisingly ineffective. I can’t find exact numbers, but it seems there were about 18 terrorists. The latest toll is 195 dead, 235 wounded. That’s 11 dead, 13 wounded, per terrorist. As horrible as the reality is, that’s much less than you might have thought if you imagined the movie in your head. Reality is different from the movies.
  • Even so, terrorism is rare. If a bunch of men with guns and grenades is all they really need, then why isn’t this sort of terrorism more common? Why not in the U.S., where it’s easy to get hold of weapons? It’s because terrorism is very, very rare.
  • Specific countermeasures don’t help against these attacks. None of the high-priced countermeasures that defend against specific tactics and specific targets made, or would have made, any difference: photo ID checks, confiscating liquids at airports, fingerprinting foreigners at the border, bag screening on public transportation, anything. Even metal detectors and threat warnings didn’t do any good:

    “If I look at what we had, which all of us complained about, it could not have stopped what took place,” he told CNN. “It’s ironic that we did have such a warning, and we did have some measures.”

    He said people were told to park away from the entrance and had to go through a metal detector. But he said the attackers came through a back entrance.

    “They knew what they were doing, and they did not go through the front. All of our arrangements are in the front,” he said.

If there’s any lesson in these attacks, it’s not to focus too much on the specifics of the attacks. Of course, that’s not the way we’re programmed to think. We respond to stories, not analysis. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic; this tendency is human and these deaths are really tragic. But 18 armed people intent on killing lots of innocents will be able to do just that, and last-line-of-defense countermeasures won’t be able to stop them. Intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. We have to find and stop the terrorists before they attack, and deal with the aftermath of the attacks we don’t stop. There really is no other way, and I hope that we don’t let the tragedy lead us into unwise decisions about how to deal with terrorism.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Two interesting essays.

Posted on December 1, 2008 at 8:03 AM149 Comments


Peter Hentges December 1, 2008 8:45 AM

Further on the ineffectiveness: reports I’ve seen said their plan was to kill 5,000.

Greg December 1, 2008 8:49 AM

“Even so, terrorism is rare. If a bunch of men with guns and grenades is all they really need, then why isn’t this sort of terrorism more common? Why not in the U.S., where it’s easy to get hold of weapons? It’s because terrorism is very, very rare.”

I believe the proposition, but the argument is circular. Terrorism is not common because terrorism is rare. Why do you suppose it is that, even in a coutnry with relatively easy access to weapons, terrorism is so rare?

RocketScientist December 1, 2008 8:55 AM

“the attacks were surprisingly ineffective” They were however remarkably effective at generating newspaper column inches and breathless broadcast minutes on all the tv news channels. From that point of view they have succeeded beyond their dreams.

Mailman December 1, 2008 8:55 AM

“They knew what they were doing,
and they did not go through the front.
All of our arrangements are in the
front,” he said.

If you set up all your security in the front only, of course they’re gonna come in through the back.
Maginot line, anyone?

Richard December 1, 2008 9:09 AM

One reason they didn’t manage to kill more people was the solidity of the Taj Hotel. Good old fashioned construction resisted all attempts to make it collapse or burn.

sbr December 1, 2008 9:09 AM

There seems to only one effective countermeasure: Arming the general populace. The resulting firefights would have killed a lot of people as well, but the terrorism effect would have been a lot smaller.

Yosi December 1, 2008 9:11 AM

“the attacks were surprisingly ineffective” – wrong. Purpose of terrorism is not to kill people. It’s to inspire “terror”, as the name suggests.
As such, they were extremely effective.
“terrorism is rare” – yet another nonsense. That depends what you count as terrorism.

Larry Seltzer December 1, 2008 9:11 AM

If the goal was to kill 5000 then certainly the attacks were relatively ineffective. What if the goal was also to crush the business climate in Mumbai? It’s too soon to tell if they’ve succeeded at that.

There are other report, BTW, that claim alternately that there were only 10 or 11 attackers or that several may still be at large.

Mostly I agree with Bruce that this sort of thing is very rare in most places. In other places, like Israel, it’s relatively common and would be even more so if not for pervasive security measures.

Ben December 1, 2008 9:12 AM


I believe Bruce is saying that terrorist acts are not rare because effective countermeasures prevent them, they are rare because of the rarity of people who want to carry them out.

Kieran December 1, 2008 9:17 AM

I’ve heard, but have not found a decent source to confirm, that the police took 20-30 minutes to show up and didn’t know what to do when they did.

If that is true, it highlights a deficiency in the one area that really can help defend against a wide variety of threats: emergency response.

Arkh December 1, 2008 9:22 AM

“Why not in the U.S., where it’s easy to get hold of weapons?”
Another answer is contained in the question : because law abidding citizen can get hold of a gun and protect themselves.

Clive Robinson December 1, 2008 9:23 AM

@ Greg,

“I believe the proposition, but the argument is circular. Terrorism is not common because terrorism is rare. Why do you suppose it is that, even in a coutnry with relatively easy access to weapons, terrorism is so rare?”

Even in countries where weapons are even more available than the US terrorism is still rare.

Oddly the level of terrorism (of this sort) in any particular place appears unrelated to the general availability of weapons.

I think you need to split terrorism into at least two basic types befor trying to reason things out. That is there are those who intend to survive the acts and those who are effectivly commited to becoming marters for the cause.

In the latter group they tend to be young of no particular educational background but self worth lacking, but crucialy not realy involved in the planning of the acts or of the cause. From this point of view they are mearly bit part actors with only one walk on part, almost picked up and disgarded like prostituts.

The planning and security is carried out by others who are more akin to other more traditional terrorists effectivly fighting from their home country against those they see as oppressors or invaders first hand and not through the spectacles of propergander.

Yosi December 1, 2008 9:25 AM

because law abidding citizen can get hold of a gun and protect themselves.

I really want to see you “protecting yourself” from TNT loaded truck. Good luck with that.

nobody December 1, 2008 9:25 AM

The goal of terrorism is to make the people feel helpless and lose confidence in the ability of the authorities to protect them. This succeeded in that respect. In many ways, by disarming the populous and convincing them that the government are the “only ones” who can be trusted to protect also makes the government complicit.

The only way to protect against these kinds of attacks is to have trained and armed civilians who carry concealed . I seriously doubt that there would be as many casualties, well maybe excerpt for the terrorists.

Chris Finch December 1, 2008 9:25 AM

I found Sky News coverage of the “Indian Security Lapses” quite strange. They talk as if there is a reality that if you build enough defences, that terrorists will suddenly think “oh no, we won’t bother then”. It doesnt matter what security India did or didn’t have on waterways, water channels and rivers, the terrorists will always find a way.

If somebody is willing to kill and also die for their cause, you cannot defeat them.

kangaroo December 1, 2008 9:33 AM

“We respond to stories and not analysis.”

Bruce, you’re making a mistake in applying that principle: of course our (humans in general) natural style of analysis is story-telling, but that doesn’t imply that our (specifically modern/contemporary) rage to pretend that strangers are local is “natural”.

The former — “Let me tell ya a story” — is a human universal. The latter — “Feel for person X you’ve never met” — is not a human universal. You’re right that it distorts our analysis of situations, but it’s a creation of our recent history where we have replaced natural relationships with media relationships.

It’s important to recognize this cultural artifact — but it’s just as important to recognize that it’s just a cultural fad, and not something inherent in human nature. It’s often why we don’t understand folks who aren’t fully enculturated with modern mores — they really don’t feel emotionally tied to some pictures on the TV.

Daryll Strauss December 1, 2008 9:42 AM

How effective was the terrorism? It depends on what you mean by by effective.

Did they kill a lot of people? No. And kills per terrorist were low.

Did they get lots of international headline news? Yes. Did they do significant damage to Mumbai/India? Yes if you consider the damage to the economy and reputation.

An individual act of terrorism is most effective if it has a force multiplier. The DC sniper had significantly mre impact than the number of people he killed. By randomly moving around and killing individuals he caused people all over the region to be fearful for a long period of time.

This assault was a single incident. It will have an impact, but if it is perceived as an isolated incident people will move on and the scope and duration of its impact will be limited.

Arkh December 1, 2008 9:51 AM

“I really want to see you “protecting yourself” from TNT loaded truck. Good luck with that.”
I didn’t read anything about TNT loaded truck. Just AK47 equiped terrorists vs unarmed citizen.

mark December 1, 2008 9:59 AM

Surely one aspect of terrorism being rare is that it is an extremely rubbish way of achieving anything – to achieve change involvement in the political process, either via activism or joining in, is normally far more effective. I would guess that most terrorists come from groups for whom that is a problem or for those who are not capable of taking part in that process for whatever reason.

Carlo Graziani December 1, 2008 10:06 AM

In my opinion, people who claim that an armed populace (a) can defend against criminals/terrorists/armed psychotics in schools, and (b) deter same, are starring in a Bruce Willis movie that plays in their heads.

This is a fantasy with little correspondence to reality. The reality is that if you fill a Hotel (say) with armed civilians and then panic them with a terrorist attack, the net result is that those civilians will fire at anything that scares them irrespective of actual threat, and react inappropriately to real threats, harming each other a great deal more than they do the terrorists. For attackers bent on mayhem, arming the victims an amplifying term, not a suppressing term.

There’s a reason it takes a long time to train cops to deal with their firearms. It’s more than how to shoot straight — anyone can do that. It’s knowing when, and when not to shoot, and being able to make that judgment correctly on extremely short timescales, that matters more than anything else. Even with that training, cops screw this up all the time. The idea that an armed mob could do better, or for that matter do anything but snatch calamity from the jaws of disaster, is not to be taken seriously.

Richard December 1, 2008 10:09 AM

because law abidding citizen can get hold of a gun and protect themselves.

The problem with this is that trigger happy – “law abiding citizens” will also have guns and will randomly kill innocent people by mistake.

Also the children of law abiding citizens will get hold of the guns and shoot each other accidentally.

Low level (and not so low level) criminals will also be able to get guns to defend themselves against the “law abiding citizens” (and against the – presumably armed – police)

The sum total of this extra collateral-carnage will greatly exceed any reduction in the death toll of terrorism.

rip December 1, 2008 10:14 AM

I’ve seen commentary that called this a new kind of terrorism, but its in india, where a billion people live, where life is cheap, and the terrorists are a goup of people with simple small arms. The terrorism was particularily indian, people were the cheapest resource and used as such. Still Im amazed that only 18 of them kept the indian commandos busy for as long as they did.

Rev Matt December 1, 2008 10:20 AM

To take Carlo’s point further, I think that the heavily armed utopia of the gun nuts would be a dream situation for terrorism. It would allow fewer terrorists to cause more havoc. Two or three starting a firefight would lead to dozens or hundreds of well armed citizens shooting each other because they have no idea who the ‘bad guys’ are or aren’t.

Richard December 1, 2008 10:23 AM

According to the statistics on Wikipedia if India had the same gun crime rate as the US it would have an extra 20000 gun deaths per annum – far beyond the dreams of any terrorist!

kdt December 1, 2008 10:33 AM

Bruce, I think your analysis is overly technical in this case and ignores the non-lethal effect that multiple crisis points had on India’s economic capital. While the city clearly was not brought to a standstill, much of its daily routine was significantly distrupted; its citizens felt unprotected and insecure; and the world focused on the bad that was happening there.

This, then, was perhaps the other side of “Security Theater.” Calling it “Terror Theater” demeans the hundreds who died and were injured in the attacks, but the general concept is similar: to create an impression on people that is out of proportion with what is actually happening. In that sense, perhaps all terror activity is “Terror Theater.” The problem is that in either case, we’re the ones who are distributing the playbills and serving as the audience.

Hardafar December 1, 2008 10:38 AM

I’ve been reading Mike Ruppert’s work for a few years, and his blog comments are well worth reading.

CGomez December 1, 2008 10:38 AM

Agreed… focusing on the specific attack and how to prevent “it” is not useful. However, I know you are not saying the answer is to throw up your hands and give up.

9/11 was pulled off by an unknown number of planners and attackers. Maybe it was a couple dozen. Maybe it was more. I don’t know and I don’t think anyone really knows. How much did it cost? We have some guesses as to training to fly planes, but it doesn’t seem that expensive. And the number of casualties was high… worth it for terrorists if you ask me.

What a movie plot that was. So movie plots can be carried out. I imagine it’s just hard to do frequently.

I wonder where all these motivated terrorists are. The DC sniper case demonstrated that you only need a few people and a van to completely terrorize a large region. Why don’t random (and even ineffective) attacks happen more often? That’s all it would take to keep everyone to scared to go outside.

Either they are dead (in which case the US deserves the lion’s share or praise), didn’t exist (we’re hunting ghosts), or are stupid (possible). I don’t know which it is and I don’t think anyone else knows either.

CGomez December 1, 2008 10:46 AM


You brought up the circular connection that terrorism is rare because it is rare. Why indeed?

–It’s an easy country to get into, supposedly (I’ve never tried nor had reason to try to enter illegally).

–Guns are supposedly everywhere (probably an exaggeration, but surely with a little cash you can get one outside of the legal purchase channels).

–The society is fairly open. I can’t recall the last time I was asked for any form of identification outside of an airport or making a retail purchase, or what I was doing, what my business was, etc. There is hardly any security anywhere, and a relatively low police presence in the overwhelming majority of the country.

It should be simple to make a low scale attack that kills a small number of people and makes national headlines. I mean, you don’t even have to kill anyone. Just a homemade explosive going off in a schoolyard while the children were safely tucked indoors with no casualties or anyone seeing anything would lead the nightly news.

And it would scare the daylights out of people.

So the terrorists are either stupid, dead, or don’t exist.

Moshe Yudkowsky December 1, 2008 10:46 AM

@Carlo and @Rev Matt: In practice, in places such as Israel which suffer from terrorism and have an armed populace, the population responds appropriately and effectively to terrorist attacks, aside from the deterrent effect.

In other words, your prejudices about “gun nuts” are not supported by the facts as shown in Israel, the US, and elsewhere.

pscott December 1, 2008 10:47 AM

The problem with this is that trigger happy – “law abiding citizens” will also have guns and will randomly kill innocent people by mistake.
Also the children of law abiding citizens will get hold of the guns and shoot each other accidentally.
Low level (and not so low level) criminals will also be able to get guns to defend themselves against the “law abiding citizens” (and against the – presumably armed – police)

There are many regions in the US where obtaining and carrying guns is (relatively) free and legal, and yet these occurrences are not epidemic.

Accidental death by gun, including death of children, is very rare.

Crime rate in general is made up by so many different social factors that you can’t make simplistic assumptions. However, that said, in the US, use of guns in self-defense (which does not always result in death or even shots fired, mind you) is more frequent than criminal homicide by gun. And of course the vast majority of guns/gun owners are never criminal.

Even in areas of gun freedom, not everyone chooses to arm themselves. Most who do so (legally) take the time to train. They are not “trigger happy” because they know they are responsible for where every bullet goes. So in a terrorist attack of this sort, I am really not seeing the downside of having a handful of trained armed civilians in the crowd.

foo December 1, 2008 11:00 AM

I’ve seen commentary that called this a new kind of terrorism, but its in india, where a billion people live, where life is cheap, and the terrorists are a goup of people with simple small arms. The terrorism was particularily indian, people were the cheapest resource and used as such.

True. India (and generally South Asia) scales up everything population-related by about an order of magnitude: there are apparently several thousand villages in India with populations over 10,000, which would be small cities by US standards. A typical train crash in India might kill about 150 people, and that would not even be in the news beyond a few days. The California Metrolink train crash from September this year killed 25 people and it’s ranked one of the deadliest ones in US history. Don’t get spooked by big numbers – they need to be compared with the population baseline.

David December 1, 2008 11:15 AM


It’s true that when I visited Israel the (surprising, to me) number of people wielding guns made me feel safer. But that was because

(a) it was more or less clear what sort of threat these guns were intended to deter, and

(b) everybody who carried one was trained in their use.

In Israel you have compulsory military training and service. That makes a huge difference. And these guns weren’t meant to stop pickpockets but to protect public safety in general. Whereas if every American had a gun on the street, the general attitude would be “well, in case some shit goes down, at least I’LL be able to lay down some lead.”

shanks December 1, 2008 11:16 AM

Couple of points.

  1. Given the terrorist ops style, the police would have been slaughtered.

  2. One police officer realising that something was up, simply kept firing his service revolver in the air. The terrorists thought re-inforcements had come and rushed to secure their posts; abandoning a line up of people to be shot. where in some escaped.

  3. The speed of the floor by floor, room by room search forced them to kill the hostages when things got sticky and engage in firefights with the commandos.

  4. Chabad house was a goner on day 1 with all the hostages probably killed on the first day. And the ops were in confined spaces, so movement was restricted for the special forces. And like Bruce weighing in on the numbers, a call was made; hostage numbers in Trident, Taj versus Chabad house. 10 people versus a few hundred trapped….

partdavid December 1, 2008 11:22 AM

Of course the gun advocates like sbr and Arkh will come out of the woodwork and point out that if everyone had a gun, terror attacks like this would be less effective.

I’ll grant that, but it’s one of the irrational unthinking reactions Bruce is cautioning against. It’s a countermeasure against something vanishingly rare which increases the likelihood of something very common.

Gun ownership is a response to a movie-plot threat on a personal level. Gun owners fantasize about defending a hotel against terrorists or stopping street crime like a superhero. The kind of thing that actually happens is that their guns are taken by petty criminals and used on others, they shoot someone in what would otherwise have been a brawl, or kill someone they know in a fit of anger.

Trading an increased likelihood of being able to deal with negligibly likely events like a terrorist attack for a hundreds-of-times increase in the likelihood of getting shot is irrational.

reinkefj December 1, 2008 11:23 AM

It’s apparent that “victim disarmament” and a culture of being disarmed allowed this massacre. Some reports has the armed police not firing. “Crack commandos” were more like the Keystone Kops. Desparados were allowed to kill at will while the “authorities” dithered. Unfortunately, only an armed poplace can’t mitigate these type of attacks. Look at the difference between the VT and the Appalachian Law School shootings. I think we need MORE concealed carry. Make terrorists and criminals guess who is a sheep and who is a sheep dog. Seems simple to me. Florida’s experience seems on point (i.e., Near zero problems with wide spread concealed carry. Problems were more administrative than the feared road rage shoot outs.)

ice weasel December 1, 2008 11:26 AM

I love the idea that some spud with a Glock 19 is going to go against a terrorist, trained and hell bent on killing innocent people and do more than die. A gallant death I suppose but pointless and it doesn’t support the idea that if everyone in Mumbai had a gun, this would have gone down differently.

Brian December 1, 2008 11:30 AM

There’s also an article at Information Week about how amateur reporters using twitter and flickr provided much better information in the first hours of the attacks than the traditional media:


“Mumbai is likely to be viewed in hindsight as the first instance of the paradigmatic shift in crisis coverage: namely, journalists will henceforth no longer be the first to bring us information. Rather, they will be a conduit for the stream of images and video shot by a mix of amateurs and professionals on scene.”

not quite anon December 1, 2008 11:32 AM

A lot of misinformation and misunderstandings abound. I reason Bruce’s post was written conservatively to reflect that. I’ll deal with two that seem to apply more to this discussion.

The terrorist’s aims are not entirely clear. Until we know their objectives, we can not make judgments on how effective they were at meeting their goals. There was an interview with one of the terrorists during the attack. A translation can be found at http://www.docstrangelove.com/2008/11/28/interview-with-mumbai-terrorist-translated/. From the interview it seems they sought vengeance over past conflicts.

Secondly, they were armed with automatic weapons and grenades. I think the grenades made it a lot harder to deal with them. While they didn’t cause any structural collapse ala WTC, they did set the buildings on fire early on which alone caused several casualties.

Spider December 1, 2008 11:34 AM

The obsession with movie plot terrorism is due to the nature of Sept 11, and the subsequent unsuccessful attempts using planes. Those were movie plot’s. One of them worked, maybe 1 or 2 lessor funded and organized plans failed. If you look at the victim per terrorist ratio, you’d see that the movie plot success of sept 11 was much more successful.

Rare December 1, 2008 11:38 AM

terrorism is rare mainly because of social and psychological factors. The motivation behind these attacks is not mainly political. Those who actually carry out the attacks are motivated by self-image, by social status, etc. As a result, they do not carry out small attacks on soft targets (which they could do almost anywhere at any time). They limit themselves to attempts at big attacks, which give them, in their minds, a certain grandiose self-image and social status. They probably would not have carried out the Mumbai attacks if they thought they could only kill 2 or 3 hundred, rather than thousands. This is to our advantage, since the more planning that is used, the more likely the plan will be discovered; it also makes attacks rare, not common.

xd0s December 1, 2008 11:38 AM


“We have to find and stop the terrorists before they attack, and deal with the aftermath of the attacks we don’t stop.”

I believe that one other step is missing; reduce or eliminate the social, educational, and financial sources of terrorist recruiting. If they can’t recruit more suicide bombers (or even get less) then the other tactics will suffice.

If however we encourage economic and social disparity that creates the grounds where recruiting deparate under-educated “soldiers” then law enforcement and response will be too little too late.

not quite anon December 1, 2008 11:39 AM

Regarding the ‘armed populace’ thing. These attacks occurred in India where people have violent riots over elections. An armed populace would quickly produce massive massacres every year. No thank you.

Brandioch Conner December 1, 2008 11:43 AM

Let’s cut through some of this.


There. State by state stats on murder. Showing what weapon was used.

Personally, I am with the group that believes that trigger happy citizens would be the best thing that terrorists could have. Once the shooting starts, there is no way for any citizen to tell who the bad guys are from who the other armed citizens are.

IF they shoot, they’ll most likely shoot another citizen. In which case they become the bad guy.

The reason you do not see more terrorism such as this IN THE USofA is that there are very few terrorists here.

No, it is NOT easy to get a foreign terrorist into this country to commit an act of terrorism. They simply do not have the language skills or the social knowledge to handle it.

Charles Decker December 1, 2008 11:51 AM

“No, it is NOT easy to get a foreign terrorist into this country to commit an act of terrorism. They simply do not have the language skills or the social knowledge to handle it.”

Who needs foriegners? McVeigh, anyone?

We’ve got plenty of nutjobs born and bred here at home. It’s odd that we still pigeonhole terrorists as “foriegners” who are fresh off the boat. It didn’t appear the WTC perps had too much trouble fitting in here prior to their attack. Same goes for the perps in the earlier pretty-much-failed bombing attempt in NYC.

We have plenty of terrorists here. The ELF is branded as terrorists, for starters.

Brandioch Conner December 1, 2008 12:03 PM

@Charles Decker
“We’ve got plenty of nutjobs born and bred here at home.”

You might want to look at statistics sometime. They show that you are wrong.

Oh, this is your personal opinion of what “plenty” is, right? Too bad.

“We have plenty of terrorists here. The ELF is branded as terrorists, for starters.”

And the last ELF attack that killed someone was … ?

Without looking it up.

Yeah, “plenty”. Meanwhile the statistics show that you are more likely to be killed by someone in your family than by a terrorist in the USofA.

“It didn’t appear the WTC perps had too much trouble fitting in here prior to their attack. Same goes for the perps in the earlier pretty-much-failed bombing attempt in NYC.”

Maybe you’d better learn what “suicide” means, also. Here’s a hint. It means that the person with those skills is no longer available to carry out an attack.

There is a limited pool of people with the mindset to become terrorists.

Within that pool there is an even more limited pool of people with the skills to carry out an attack in the USofA.

Within that second pool, there is an even more limited pool of people who could do it without giving themselves away.

That is why there are more “terrorist” attacks in Iraq than in the USofA. It’s all about the availability of people with the correct skills.

Suhas December 1, 2008 12:18 PM

There are 2 aspects beyond body count: a long running hostage drama played out live on TV, fire, explosions, shootouts, commandos and all, is infinitely more terrorizing than a larger but instantaneous blow. It seems clear that the attackers tried to extend the duration of the siege as long as they could – they lay low at the Taj most of Friday, and resumed on Saturday after the attacks at other locations were over.

Second, new and unforeseen attack vectors – (planes as missiles in the case of 9/11 or sea attack + hotel hostages in this case) are always unsettling to everyone, including the public, responders, victims, media, etc. There would not be this amount of panic and outrage even if twice the number of people had died with the usual attack vector of anonymously placed bombs in crowded places which, sadly, we Indians are all too used to.

Finally, the real impact of the attacks goes beyond the incidents. It is quite likely that these attacks will help bring down the current central government in the general elections due in 4-6 months, and the hawks will return to power.

And in economic terms, the attack causes losses in the billions of dollars due to lost productivity, increased spending on troops and arms, etc. Not bad return for the attackers on an investment of probably a few 100Ks of dollars and 10 men.

Pat Cahalan December 1, 2008 12:18 PM

As Moshe (tangentially) pointed out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an armed populace, provided they’re adequately trained and responsible.

As other people have pointed out, this is not (generally) the U.S. populace… I have no experience with India, so can’t comment there. Having a significant increase in CCW license holders is not a good idea without making the licensing process extremely rigorous.

Most people that I know that own guns would be people that I would trust to carry a concealed weapon. They don’t represent a major segment of either the general populace or (statistically speaking) the subpopulation of gun owners. On the other hand, “gun nuts” are often dragged out to explain why an armed populace is a bad idea, but it is an over-generalization.

Brad Hicks December 1, 2008 12:19 PM

Yesterday I read that some Indian politician said something like, “This is to India what 9/11 was to America, and we need to respond to it the way America responded to 9/11.” I had to get up and go bang my head against the wall. The way we responded to 9/11 should go down in history as the canonical example of how NOT to respond to a terrorist attack, not how TO respond.

not quite anon December 1, 2008 12:27 PM

@Brad Hicks

The general idea is that Pakistan’s government is ultimately behind these attacks. It would not be very difficult to get India’s populace to back an invasion. But unlike the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the goal would probably be to disarm and generally de-claw Pakistan and the terrorist groups there. Of course, they would need support from the international community and of course, nukes may prove to be a useful deterrent.

Brett December 1, 2008 12:31 PM


One problem with using the FBI stats to look at gun ownership and arming the population. The FBI stats are for crimes (read in criminals) which would have the guns anyway. I live in a conceal carry state. The “shooting the wrong” person is very rare, the child getting hurt is very rare. Both still make the news. I don’t remember the last “shooting the wrong” person story, unfortunatly I do remember the story of a hurt child. For the most part I think people that carry (lawfully) are very aware of the penilties (jail) and have training to deal with the normal day-to-day events without shooting someone. Just because we can get a license to carry gun does not make us trigger happy, just the opposite.

legume December 1, 2008 12:32 PM


Your post is a good example of how to lie with statstics. The US has a high rate of violent crime even without counting incidents involving guns.


Gun owners aren’t the delusional idiots you imagine them to be. A firearm enables someone to defend a position or pin down an attacker. Whatever fantasies someone might have about offensive manuevers tend to be corrected in the process of learning to shoot straight.

Steven Hoober December 1, 2008 12:34 PM

I really want to see you “protecting yourself” from TNT loaded truck. Good luck with that.

One of my favorite lost-in-the-shuffle counter-terror successes was with this. Though a professional, it’s still valid for security analysis.

A few days (I forget exactly when) the Beirut Embassy bombing, a similar attack occurred at an adjacent U.S. target (again, it’s been so long, I forget what). Truck comes roaring up, overtly up to no good. US security has the same failures as a couple days later, but a UK official is visiting, and his security detail shoots the driver in the head (with an MP5 as I recall, which is pretty good with windscreen glass). The truck veers off course and explodes outside the blast barricades, causing I am sure some mayhem, but zero damage to the target.

Rifle vs. truckbomb can be an even fight.

dan December 1, 2008 12:37 PM

I would be VERY wary of asserting that the attack was “surprisingly ineffective” by reducing the event to a crude bodycount.

There are strategic, political, cultural and economic dimensions that need to be examined in this as well.

If you cast your mind back to the assault on the Indian parliament in 2001, you’ll note that some 13 people were killed. The Indian army moved to the border, the Pakistani army responed, resulting in a year of serious tension and a lot of cross-border shelling/military activity. IF one of the “purposes” of that attack was to exacerbate tensions and conflict between India and Pakistan it was VERY successful. If you put it in the context of the early days of GWOT, AQ and Taliban elements were able to take refuge in FATA via a weakly defended Pakistan border ( the local Pakistani troops that might have been available for a cordon operation were elsewhere ).

In contrast the Mumbai train bombings of 1993 and 2006 both claimed more than 200 fatalities – but these were essentially “local” events. Bombay commuters ( ie the poor and lower middle class ) don’t generate the same degree of political and media heat that a sustained assault on the “psychogeography of elite Bombay” does.

David W December 1, 2008 12:39 PM

At the same time, the attacks were surprisingly ineffective. I can’t find exact numbers, but it seems there were about 18 terrorists. The latest toll is 195 dead, 235 wounded. That’s 11 dead, 13 wounded, per terrorist. As horrible as the reality is, that’s much less than you might have thought if you imagined the movie in your head. Reality is different from the movies.

This is flawed: if each terrorist were seen to be trying to efficiently annihilate as many victims as possible, then the security forces would have went in guns full ablaze, and so the terrorists’ mission would have ended much sooner.

I guess until more of the motives of the attack are understood, we cannot make any guesses about efficacy.

Jeff Dege December 1, 2008 1:02 PM

One essential fact about armed civilians – they’re unpredictable.

I think that’s the primary reason the law enforcement professionals hate having them around. When the SHTF, they may do something wise, they may do something heroic, they may do something fundamentally stupid. That makes the folks whose job it is to figure out how to plan effective responses to situations very nervous.

That said, I’d not be at all surprised if that very unpredictability is a large part of their deterrent effect. Someone who is planning a terrorist attack knows how unarmed civilians are going to respond, and he knows how the police and military are going to respond. He hasn’t a clue what some armed but untrained civilian yahoo might do. He can’t know whether they are there, he can’t predict what they might do, so he sticks to attacking places where he’s pretty sure they won’t be.

Seth Breidbart December 1, 2008 1:06 PM

Carlo Graziani, the reality is that if you fill a shopping mall or church with people of whom maybe 2% have permits to carry concealed (and are carrying), and a terrorist shows up shooting people, the terrorist gets killed much sooner than the police show up.

Of course, my reality is based on actual events.

Brandioch Conner December 1, 2008 1:28 PM

“Gun owners aren’t the delusional idiots you imagine them to be.”
“Whatever fantasies someone might have about offensive manuevers tend to be corrected in the process of learning to shoot straight.”
“A firearm enables someone to defend a position or pin down an attacker.”

Nice work. You’ve managed to contradict yourself. Your fantasy of “defend a position” and “pin down an attacker” is a fantasy.

@Seth Breidbart
“Of course, my reality is based on actual events.”

Wouldn’t that also apply to any criminal shooting? Not just a terrorist?

Yet there have been mall shootings where such did not happen. In very recent memory. Like, say, last week. Search google for “seattle mall shooting” without the quotes.

Charles Decker December 1, 2008 1:29 PM


Not sure what your defination of nutjob is, but I certainly don’t limit it to foreign-born radical extremists bent on martyrdom.

As for the rest, you can toss numbers and statistics without qualification around as much as you want. I don’t understand what set you off on me, but try some decaf. I was just making a general point.

WarLord December 1, 2008 1:38 PM


The threat if an AK toting terrorist becomes far less when the targets get to shoot back. The India tactics depended on “clay pigeons” unarmed civilians with no possible defense.

Of course the current USA climate of fear assumes that no defense is possible so we might as well line up and get shot in alphabetical order make a cleaner body count

TSA has made us SHEEP!

BF Skinner December 1, 2008 1:44 PM

Bruce add to your shopping list willingness (eagerness) to kill and die.

Regarding effectiveness…certainly what’s effective is acomplishing the intent for the attack not just the attack itself.

If they wanted to “spread terror” they could be said to accomplish a short term goal. I don’t think this is a logical goal.

If a political change is what was desired…what was that change? I speculate a disruption in the relationship between Pakistan and India. If Pakistan is less concerned (or horrors settles about Kashmir) with India they can focus more resources on other irritants. Ditto for India.

Cui bono if India and Pakistan fights?

Rolf December 1, 2008 1:46 PM

We went into the Taj Mahal Hotel Sunday before the attacks with a big back packs on our shoulders. The metal detector went red, but nobody stopped us or ask questions. So it wouldn’t have made a difference if they came in the front door. The second question is, if it would have made a difference if they tried to stop the terrorists, who could have just shot the security guards, which were unarmed, afair.

not quite anon December 1, 2008 1:56 PM

India is least likely to allow concealed weapons. People there prefer to carry out justice themselves which includes a lack of due process.

India has a very strict security environment. They have metal detectors at the entrance of temples. Passengers go through multiple screenings at the airport. It’s probably very surprising to them to see their system fail.

Brian December 1, 2008 2:10 PM

All of the anti-gunners on this thread, seem to be stating that:
1. A citizen carrying a gun couldn’t hope to fend off a terrorist attack, so:
2. The same citizen shouldn’t even try, and:
3. Everyone except the police and military should be disarmed.

What a bunch of pathetic sheep you all have become.

Yes, your chances against 10+ armed killers are small, but they’re better than nothing if you’re armed and trained to use lethal force to try to stop a threat.

Sometimes you get put into an untenable situation, but that’s no reason to roll over and die.

Arnold D'Souza December 1, 2008 2:28 PM

Terrorism is indeed fairly rare in most parts of the world, but some regions seem to be breeding grounds and fertile ones at that. Pakistan seems to have no end of willing agents who are ready to sacrifice life and limb in order to wreak destruction upon either Western (read: U.S. or British) or Indian targets. The only way to reduce this threat is a change in the government policies of these states. India needs to figure out why it is so easy for certain people within Pakistan to spread anti-Indian propaganda among the youth there and brainwash them into perpetrating such acts.

Kashmir would certainly be one such issue – and I believe the Indian government needs to let go of the state completely. Let the Kashmiris decide what they want to do with their state. There have been other atrocities within India, against the Muslim community – some even orchestra, or at least assisted, by the State. These have helped fuel anti-Indian sentiments in Pakistan even further.

The West is hated for its – as perceived by a lot of Pakistani Muslims – anti-Muslim stance on various issues in the Middle East. This would also include its war and occupation of Iraq. As long as such things occur, it will be only too easy for Muslim extremists – not just in Pakistan – to find a seemingly unending supply of infantry to carry out their dastardly deeds.

Like you said, security measures can them only do so much.

Arkh December 1, 2008 2:38 PM

@Carlo Graziani, Richard, Rev Matt

You should reread what you just wrote. Then read anything on this blog about fear and security theatre.
And I hope that the irony will hit you hard.

If you’re ready then to try to inform yourself about gun ownership consequences, I can’t point you to a better book than “More guns, less crime” by John Lott.

Nyah December 1, 2008 2:42 PM

All of the pro-gunners on this thread, seem to be stating that:
1. The attacks in Mumbai would have been far less effective if the victims had been carrying guns, so:
2. People should be allowed to carry guns, in case this happens again, and:
3. We should trust that people will be extremely responsible in the way they carry and use their guns.

What a bunch of delusional wannabe Rambos you have all become.

Nearly all mall shootings, school shootings and family massacres are caused by people who have no criminal record and legally own a gun, but who happen to just completely lose it one day and decide to make a grand exit.

For every terrorist who will be killed in self-defense in the USA by a gun-carrying citizen, there will be dozens of kids killed in schools or in their homes because of a gun or bullets not stored safely by its owner.

Davi Ottenheimer December 1, 2008 2:51 PM

Just wanted to add two things:

The Mumbai incident will almost certainly help shift (the already moving) focus more to problems of maritime security. Although the issue of policing international waterways is ancient, the presence of incidents in the daily news is increasing for a reason.

Although terrorism is an appropriate term for many reasons, it also runs the risk of detracting from regional conflict analysis. Should every rogue military operation be labeled a terrorist faction? Perhaps, but the tragedy of civilian casualties also should not completely obscure underlying regional tensions (as it often has with Kurds/Turks, Congolese/Rwandans, etc.)

Andrew December 1, 2008 2:54 PM

With respect, this was NOT a “low tech” attack. Reminder: technology is defined as “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using . . . processes, methods, or knowledge.”

This was a VERY high tech attack. We are only now learning some of the most critical details. The processes and methods employed are strongly reminiscent of military special operations techniques.

Also with respect, this was NOT an “ineffective” attack. Note that we are all talking about it. Note further that it has markedly worsened India-Pakistan relations, which are already volatile with nuclear armed players. Pakistan has already diverted forces to the Indian border, taking the heat off the Northwest Territories.

Eighteen shooters is a small price to pay in the game of nations. Even non-state actors can play with only a nominal ante up. Body counts went out of style with the Vietnam War, by the way.

There are many last line of defense countermeasures that would have made a considerable difference in the outcome. Some of the first glance highlights include:

— check in protocols for Coast Guard inspectors boarding suspicious vessels
— realistic training for all armed Mumbai police including simulator time
— reserve sets of body armor, unmanned hose monitors and bomb disposal robots available to Mumbai fire brigade
— liaison protocols for obtaining emergency access to civilian (money transport) or military armored vehicles
— ability to selectively jam or turn off Blackberrys and satcom phones
— reaction team capability in Mumbai instead of waiting 4+ hours for the Black Cats to arrive
— central repository (or deployed CD-ROMs, or on-site locked safes) of critical site layouts for reaction team use
— alternate security operations centers in key facilities, and/or airlock design plus armoring if you must only have one
— emergency external (i.e. police) connectivity for security camera systems
— site-specific emergency response training for active shooters and building evacuations

Most critical and useful would have been some variant of the Incident Command System or the FEMA-ized version NIMS. If you’re reading this and you have any emergency responsibilities, and you haven’t taken NIMS or ICS-100, you should go do that.


This is a classical ‘arms race’ of measure versus counter-measure, and while some may bemoan the wasted time and effort, others would rather be ready for the potential bad day out.

The point of security checkpoints, etc. is not to stop the terrorists. It’s to force them to go overt earlier. No TSA checkpoint in the country is going to stop a Mumbai style attack, despite the presence of armed police officers. However, no plane is going to get airborne either.

As for armed shooters disputing with terrorists, a lot depends on attitude and skill. Plenty of Mumbai police (line officers, not Black Cats etc.) were set up for failure by routinized range training and strong public opinion against use of deadly force by police. This caused a lot of frozen trigger fingers and some police fatalities.

I will add that most armed security guards are lucky to be operating at the Mumbai police level, regardless of hyperbole from would-be “Mall Ninjas”. The state of California training curriculum for handguns is only 14 hours.

A lot of American CCW holders have better handgun skills than most of the world’s police officers. Are they going to stop a terrorist attack? No. Are they going to disrupt it and make a mess of it, quite possibly at the cost of their own lives? Absolutely. Is this special case generalizable around the world? Probably not.

Jeff Dege December 1, 2008 2:57 PM

“Nearly all mall shootings, school shootings and family massacres are caused by people who have no criminal record and legally own a gun, but who happen to just completely lose it one day and decide to make a grand exit.”

That is factually false. I won’t accuse of lying, but you’ve been lied to.

Roxanne December 1, 2008 2:59 PM

Crime 101: If Door A is locked, or guarded, find Door B. It’s why insiders should get extra scrutiny, not less.

I think that The Authorities will learn a lot from this, but so will any Bad Guys out there.

Mr. Joe December 1, 2008 3:01 PM

Take a look at the U of Texas tower sniper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman

Armed civilians definitely had an impact. “Ramiro Martinez, an officer who confronted Whitman, later stated in his book that the civilian shooters should be credited, as they made it difficult for Whitman to take careful aim without being hit.”

Davi Ottenheimer December 1, 2008 3:08 PM

@ Arkh

The “more guns” theory has really worked well in Somalia, eh?

No crime there. What a fine model of safe and secure living as just about anyone can grab an AK47 and dispense justice…

The fundamental problem of your more-guns theory is that it fails to account for essential concepts of reason, rational thinking and justice among those civilians armed.

When you read “Wild West” history in depth you may find that whenever an official could not be found a woman, armed or not, was asked to stand as a “rational” party and dispense justice among quarreling and irrational men with guns.

Unlike the lobotomized Hollywood version we often see, which hides behind many romanticized American visions of gun-toting cartoons, living actually was not just decided by a shootout. It was increasingly decided by forms of common law.

So advocating for a bunch of lone rangers with guns and no control is like saying that shooting without aiming will hit a target…yeah, with enough bullets flying it probably will, but at what real cost? What kind of economy is that?

Bob December 1, 2008 3:12 PM

I’d be interested in having more info regarding the law enforcement people who were allegedly present but failed to act. That I cannot imagine happening in the US. We also know that with our increasing numbers of carry permits in those states where it is allowed there will be ordinary citizens reacting. We are vulnerable in locations that inhibit the legal carrying of weapons by law-abiding citizens.

bob December 1, 2008 3:23 PM

I live in Ohio. I have traveled to other states/countries on TDY but really only have day-to-day, in-depth knowledge of the state where I spend my time.

We passed “concealed carry” 5 years ago (44th state out of 50 to do so). They went to EXTREME lengths in the law to make sure that journalists would be able to identify who had a Concealed Handgun License (CHL) and who did not.

Even if you don’t believe the conventional wisdom that most newspapers are biased against firearms ownership (Dayton Daily News absolutely positively is – as well as several Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo newspapers), its a statistical certainty that if someone involved in a shooting held a CHL it would be reported someplace.

The anti-gun nuts fought this law tooth and nail. All they could talk about was how every traffic accident was going to be a wild-west shootout and the pile of bodies at the border was going to be so large as to impede access to the state (although its not clear whether their invective was directed at Ohio-generated bodies or neighboring state’s bodies, since almost all bordering states had had CC long before we did).

In five years there have been several shootouts (in OH), similar to the shootouts that occurred PRIOR to CC being passed. However, as far as I can tell, not ONE SINGLE PERSON involved in these shootings had a CHL (out of approximately 200,000 people so far who hold such), although at least one CHL holder was preemptively shot to death after the newspapers published lists of all CHL holders (in direct violation of the stated spirit of the law, if not the actual letter).

So while there might be carnage involved in an armed populace, it is not the legal carriers of firearms who are the problem, its the ones who were carrying before it was legal (ie criminals). And I suspect that the people who intentionally violate the laws while carrying (ie criminals) don’t care what you think.

As far as terrorists not being defeatable by handguns, If enough people in the crowd have a concealed firearm, the odds that one of them is behind a given terrorist should be good.

And as far as being able to tell the good guy from the bad guy; in OH at least, the law states that you can only shoot to defend your own life or that of a family member, and that if you involve yourself in a 3rd party shooting, you will be held liable for murder if you backed the wrong horse (ie you shot Fred because you saw Fred shooting at Sally, but Sally actually was committing a felony at the time).

For those of you who believe the “gun nuts kill crowds” theory, feel free to show some examples; since there are waay over 1 Million CHL holders in the US, it should be easy to find one if you are correct. But this means an example of someone legally licensed that UNLAWFULLY shoots someone, not a homeowner defending himself, a police officer shooting a criminal or a criminal committing a crime.

Kevin December 1, 2008 3:31 PM

As mentioned in an early comment, a goal of terrorism is for the people to feel helpless, to lose confidence in the ability of the state to protect them. Mumbai succeeded in that respect.

Teaching the populace to look to the government for everything makes this sort of terrorism that much more effective. A lesson for the USA.

As far as an “armed populace” goes, the American anti-gun groups trot out their “Dodge City” argument each time a relaxation is proposed in the “Conceal and Carry” laws, but that is not the reality. Each US state has their own system for CHL, from “Any non-criminal adult citizen” (in Vermont and Alaska) to “Nobody but cops and politicians can carry a handgun” (Illinois). Neither extreme seems to make a significant difference — the “gun crime” rate by citizens carrying lawfully is close to zero across the board.

Terrorism, also a vanishingly rare event, is no more an argument for carry permits than permitholder crime or “massive shootouts and crossfire” is legitimate argument against.

Attempt at Rationality December 1, 2008 3:41 PM

In one way or another, this blog often discusses the tension between what I’ll call Actual Security (say, the likelihood of living through the next year without being deprived of your rights, or having them violated); and Emotional Security (feeling safe). Bruce has written many times, about how our brains are structured in such a way that these two kinds of security are often badly misaligned.

One of my favorite examples: for years, many people have “felt safer” in SUVs than in ordinary passenger cars, though SUV death rates have been higher.

In this light, my $.02 on some of the debates among the commenters:


Bruce wrote that the Mumbai attacks weren’t very effective, hotly disputed by some of the commenters. I define effectiveness not in terms of accomplishing whatever the attackers intended, but rather in terms of effect on security (this is a blog about security – isn’t it?)

In Emotional Security terms, the attacks seem to have been very effective: lots of people are feeling less safe. How lasting this effect will be, too soon to tell.

In Actual Security terms, the attacks seem to come out to (very roughly) 20 killed and 20 wounded per attacker. So how effective is this really? Suppose that enough of these “commandos” were recruited to carry out such an attack every week. The increase in death and injury rates in a large country (especially as large and poor as India) would be minute.

If you also take into account that by repetition, such attacks would likely become less effective (the population and emergency responders learning what to do), you might reasonably conclude that attacks along the lines of what just occurred in Mumbai would have a very weak effect on Actual Security.


If you look at total terrorism deaths and injuries worldwide, they don’t even merit listing on a ranking of causes, unless it is extremely comprehensive. The effect of terrorism is overwhelmed by many very mundane causes. In the USA, the 9/11 death toll was equivalent to 3-4 days of tobacco deaths.

To find an actual risk comparable to terrorism, it is necessary to consider causes such as lightning strikes on persons, fatal bee stings, shark attacks on persons, etc. – events most people think of as quite rare.

Of course, the distribution of terrorism is very uneven. Consider Israel, a relatively small country where terrorist attacks are relatively very frequent. There, terrorist attacks are a significant cause of death. Proportionally, less than 0.5% of deaths in Israel are caused by terrorism (average for decade ended 2006), and traffic-related fatalities and injury rates are at least three times as great as those from terrorism.

Even in Israel, then, public roads are a much greater actual risk than terrorist attacks.

So from the perspective of Actual Security, it makes sense to me to say that terrorist attacks are rare. Through the lens of Emotional Security, they are not!


The wonderfully emotional debate about arming citizens shows up from time to time in the comments of this blog – one side confident that an armed populace is the answer to a host of problems, the other that arming civilians won’t improve anything.

Because most people’s thinking is set in concrete around this issue, I don’t expect comments here to change anyone’s views… but I make a couple of observations.

If carrying of guns by civilians were much more common in India, (a) armed civilians likely would have played some role in the Mumbai attacks, and (b) these guns would from time to time be used in situations not connected with any terrorist attack originating (apparently) from outside India.

Neither of these effects can be known with precision. We can say that in case (a), the maximum of lives saved would have been about 200 (however many actually died), and the maximum number of prevented injuries would be similar.

Having a substantial percentage of Indian civilians carrying guns with them at all times might well enhance Emotional Security, at least at the present moment. How well this would work in aggregate would depend on the attitudes of the Indian populace to this practice.

To assess the effect on Actual Security, it would be necessary to compare lives and injuries caused/prevented by the addition of many millions of guns in civilian hands, as compared to estimated prevention in terrorism incidents.

If you could extrapolate from experience in the USA, where household guns are discharged against members of the household many times, for each time they are discharged to defend against an intruder, you might reasonably conclude that in India, the general increase in deaths and injuries could greatly outstrip any preventive effect for terrorist incidents.

(See http://www.jtrauma.com/pt/re/jtrauma/abstract.00005373-199808000-00010.htm )

Another consideration may be of much more importance than the arguable projections above: India is still quite a poor country. I don’t know how many civilians need to be armed to obtain the protection that some commenters presume; if it needs (say) 1 adult in 50 to go around armed, we’re talking roughly 10 million guns here. Adding the costs of initial and recurrent training, this would be an investment of (at least) hundreds of millions of dollars.

Suppose that this armed populace would prevent dozens or even hundreds of terrorism casualties per year. What if the same amount of money were instead invested toward remedying some of India’s more pressing public health problems?


@ Moshe Yudkowsky, “In practice, in places such as Israel which suffer from terrorism and have an armed populace, the population responds appropriately and effectively to terrorist attacks, aside from the deterrent effect.”

This raises an interesting point. In a country where it is common for members of the public to carry weapons, and are well trained in their use, successful terrorist attacks are relatively very frequent. It may be that they would be more frequent, and/or more deadly, with a less armed populace. This can be projected, but is perhaps impossible to determine.

In practice, the favored means by which terrorists murder civilians in Israel has been suicide bombing. With this tactic (1) several victims can be killed or maimed per attack, (2) guns are useless to prevent the attack, if the attacker is not identified before carrying it out, and (3) guns are useless as a deterrent.

Accordingly, I suggest that in Israel, having lots of people walking about armed adds to Emotional Security (people feel safer), but may have little effect on Actual Security against terrorist attack.

Brandioch Conner December 1, 2008 3:43 PM

@Charles Decker
“As for the rest, you can toss numbers and statistics without qualification around as much as you want.”
“I was just making a general point.”

That has been addressed here time and time again.

People (such as yourself) are more influenced by a story than by statistics.

When the statistics contradict your stories … you get upset.

Don’t blame me. Blame the 300 million other people in the USofA who form the statistics.

Terrorism here is rare because terrorists who can carry out terrorist attacks here are rare. Claiming otherwise just shows that you do not understand the statistics.

Ian December 1, 2008 3:48 PM


“…we don’t really know yet what sort of training they had, but it’s clear that they had some.”

The first thing I noticed when I saw the initial pictures of the attackers is that they carried their weapons like people who were completely comfortable with them, like they handled them day in, day out.

@Carlo Graziani

“There’s a reason it takes a long time to train cops …”

Moveover, cops train largely to deal with situations which they plan to resolve peacefully if they can, and typically expect to face opponents who are using firearms to aid escape, not to kill as the primary aim of their use. Basically they train to get control of a situation, not to win a close quarters battle. If you took an infantry unit from any half decent army, pointed then at a section of armed police officers and said “destroy them”, that’s exactly what would happen.

@Moshe Yudkowsky
“In other words, your prejudices about “gun nuts” are not supported by the facts as shown in Israel, the US, and elsewhere.”

Israel is a special case. In the “US, and elsewhere” people are not conscripted into the army where they are given specific training in armed response to terrorist attacks. Many American gun owners have not even received formal basic firearms safety training, let alone “how to handle a firefight on your way to the shops”.

@not quite anon
“Until we know their objectives, we can not make judgments on how effective they were at meeting their goals.”

One possible measure of their success is that the whole world is talking about it. I’m sure that worldwide on the same day more innocent civilians where killed by irregular forces in the many conflicts extant in the world today and none of them made worldwide headlines.

@Brandioch Conner
“There is a limited pool of people with the mindset to become terrorists.”

I think it’s more that there’s a limited pool of people with the resources to act. If you go to Iraq I suspect you can now find several million civilians who, having seen their friends and family die, would, if they had the resources turn America and Britain into charnel houses. But they are currently fighting to find safety, shelter, water and food, and therefore don’t have the necessary resources to mount an offensive.

Nyah December 1, 2008 4:13 PM

“this means an example of someone legally licensed that UNLAWFULLY shoots someone”

The shooter at Virginia Tech got his weapons and ammo legally, and I don’t believe he was authorized to shoot any of the people who fell victim to his rampage.

not quite anon December 1, 2008 4:25 PM

Few are talking about their demands. The media focuses on the fact that they killed people but not on why they attacked or their message to the world. They have a cause and it is their cause that they probably wished to see spoken about everywhere. Unless their ultimate goal was to incite tension between India and Pakistan, it is hard to tell if they succeeded or not.

@bob, Attempt at Rationality, and others
While arming citizens may work in the U.S. or EU, it will probably be a very bad idea in India. You can not assume that individuals in India will treat a gun with responsibility. A small argument starts a large fight in which people indiscriminately throw stones at one another. Similar situations do not happen in the U.S. even though our political environment is more contentious. Certainly, some individuals would be capable of being trusted with concealed weapons but it is impossible to guarantee that only they would receive licenses thanks to widespread corruption at all levels of government.

Pat Cahalan December 1, 2008 4:33 PM

@ Attempt at Rationality

That’s far too well-reasoned an approach for the gun debate. Please discard 89% of your rationality to continue.

[ YES ] [ NO ]

Jim December 1, 2008 4:39 PM

“Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”


SumDumGuy December 1, 2008 5:30 PM

“The shooter at Virginia Tech got his weapons and ammo legally, and I don’t believe he was authorized to shoot any of the people who fell victim to his rampage.”

No, he did not obtain them legally. He obtained them because of a reporting failure between systems. In 2005 he was determined by court to be a danger to himself. Under VA law at the time, that made it illegal for him to purchase firearms. The problem was that enforcement was left up to NICS and the court’s ruling never made it into NICS.

Mike Lambrellis December 1, 2008 5:56 PM

At the risk of upsetting people, I would hazard to suggest that what Israel is experiencing at the hands of Hamas and Hizbollah is less terrorism and more low-level guerilla warfare (even though the modus operandi of some incidents are the same as other “terrorist” incidents).

“Acts of terror” occur in a context devoid of expectation that such things are around the corner (which adds to the terror). Guerilla warfare is an ongoing thing that waxes and wanes yet all sides expect events to happen at any moment precisely because the events aren’t uncommon.

David Keech December 1, 2008 6:03 PM

A couple of comments on the “armed populace” idea.

Places like Israel (where apparently the armed populace respond “appropriately and effectively to terrorist attacks”) have some of the highest rates of terrorism in the world. In fact, they are simply terrifying places to be for a majority of the people who live there.

If an armed populace were an effective deterrent then Israel would have a low terrorism rate.

The “appropriate response” that most Israelis display is running away and avoiding the terrorists. Arming yourself and responding to terrorism attacks by returning fire simply makes you a target yourself. Running away and keeping out of sight makes you less likely to be targeted.

Israel makes a very poor example for the argument for an armed populace. They already have an armed populace and it has not stopped terrorism. The majority of the populace do not do anything with the arms they have anyway – they don’t want to shoot people, they just want to get on with their lives.

Nyah December 1, 2008 6:07 PM

“No, he did not obtain them legally. He obtained them because of a reporting failure between systems. ”

I had read about that NICS failure. That’s a technicality and it actually makes it even worse. What I meant was that the guy did not buy his arms on a shady street corner or through illegal vendors. He tried buying them in the most legal manner possible, and succeeded. He was not supposed to get those firearms, but he was able to get them anyway because the background checking system doesn’t work well. That would not make me feel safer now if I lived in that state, knowing that deranged people can get weapons because the background checks are not performed correctly.

ice weasel December 1, 2008 6:19 PM

As someone with a CCL it’s nice to see the gun nuts that I avoid at firearms sites here now. All the typical fervor and none of the judgment.

Moderator December 1, 2008 8:07 PM

As usual, the subject of guns has led to a few thoughtful posts, a lot of repetitions of the same pro and con arguments that everyone has heard before, and plenty of witty insults like “Rambo,” “gun nut,” and “sheep.” Please don’t dig the thread any further into this rut. Bring it back to the points that Bruce raised.

James D. Macdonald December 1, 2008 11:05 PM

@ la bete

“does that mean you would advocate no security measures be put in place?”

No, it means that terrorists adapt their plans to the facts on the ground. If the front door is guarded, they come in the back door. If the population is armed, they don’t launch armed assaults.

They’re as smart as we are, and have as much time as they want to select their targets and their tactics.

The keys are a) detection in advance, and b) reaction afterwards. Security needs to be concentrated in those two areas.

wsinda December 2, 2008 2:59 AM

@ All the people who jumped in on the gun-control debate:

It’s useless to discuss whether armed civilians would have improved or worsened the outcome. If the Indian populace had been armed (and trained), the attackers would have chosen targets where the victims don’t carry guns. Like schools, hospitals or theatres. (Chechnya, anyone?)

Stop preparing for the previous war.

dog December 2, 2008 3:05 AM

“the attackers would have chosen targets where the victims don’t carry guns”

So, excluding 9 out of 10 possible targets would not be a very positive thing?

The less the targets to control, the less intrusive (and more efficient) the antiterrorism can be, the less psicological side effects terrorists can hope.

dog December 2, 2008 3:27 AM

@David Keech
“If an armed populace were an effective deterrent then Israel would have a low terrorism rate”

Let alone the gun control debate for a while, I would just like to point out a logical fallacy here; I beg your pardon: “low” compared to what?

To a nation in a completely different scenario? You can’t compare apples and oranges.

To an unarmed Israel? It was born because armed citizens built it, and was never unarmed, so you cannot make a comparison on “what if…”

wsinda December 2, 2008 4:15 AM

“So, excluding 9 out of 10 possible targets would not be a very positive thing?”

Indeed. Securing 9 out of 10 targets is a futile effort if there are still 1000s of targets left. There is a primary school in every neighbourhood. A single successful attack is enough to instill terror. Do you want to turn all schools into fortresses?

With terrorism, defending targets is a hopeless undertaking anyhow. The attacker’s aim is to create fear by random killing. His choice of weapons and targets is enormous.

dog December 2, 2008 4:26 AM

“Securing 9 out of 10 targets is a futile effort if there are still 1000s of targets left.”

I don’t get how 10k targets could be easier to defend than 1k

“With terrorism, defending targets is a hopeless undertaking anyhow. The attacker’s aim is to create fear by random killing.”

The attacker’s aim is to tell people that targeted governament cannot protect them effciently.
Wrong or right, unarming people and multiplying good targets are not the sort of thing that inspire (at least in a seizeable part of the population) a security feeling.
Since inspire unsecutity is the primary target of terrorists, it could be instead a big present to help them accomplishing the primary goal, regardless the effciency and cost of the operation.

Brandioch Conner December 2, 2008 5:10 AM

“I don’t get how 10k targets could be easier to defend than 1k”

By taking the money spent on “securing” those 10,000 possible targets and putting it into processes that work preventing the attacks in the first place.

Bruce has gone over this time and time again.

If you spend $X protecting 10,000 possible targets, that just means you have spent $zero protecting the other thousand. In essence, you’re surrendering those thousand targets to the terrorists.

“Wrong or right, unarming people and multiplying good targets are not the sort of thing that inspire (at least in a seizeable part of the population) a security feeling.”

That has also been discussed here. It’s referred to as “Security Theatre”. It’s even worse than your original idea of surrendering 1,000 targets to the terrorists. It means money spent without any real security improvements. It means surrendering even more targets to the terrorists.

Ron December 2, 2008 5:19 AM

@David Leech

In fact, they are simply terrifying places to be
for a majority of the people who live there.

As someone living in Israel for many years, I have the distinct feeling you’re projecting your own feelings or have taken an unrepresentative sample.

There are a very few places in Israel, like Shderot, which are subject to repetitive shelling attacks, for which I cannot speak. The majority of Israelis do not live in such areas.

dog December 2, 2008 5:35 AM

@Brandioch Conner
“It means money spent without any real security improvements.”
??? My post was saying the contrary: in that way you could spend x/10 to protect 1k targets instead of 10k targets, if 9k targets are less attractive for terrorist goals.

Then you could spend other 9/10 fraction of x to (try to) change the politics that make that contry a target, which is more difficult but definitely more effective than any violent defense.

Ian December 2, 2008 5:56 AM

I think the point that’s being missed here is that there is no such thing as 100% security. No matter how big your budget, how many laws you pass, there will always be viable targets for terrorism and attacks on them.

What you have to do is use a reasonable budget and reasonable laws to mitigate that proportion of terrorist incidents that can be reasonably detected and prevented in advance. Those that can’t you plan reasonable emergency response to minimise the damage caused when they do happen.

Do this and some innocent people will unfortunately die. But living in a free society has a cost in lives, just as owning motor vehicles has a cost in lives and indeed does digging tunnels or having a construction industry. There seems to be some kind of “magical thinking” applied to political violence which says that it’s unacceptable to suffer casualties in the way that we accept casualties from more mundane causes.

Yes, we should mitigate casualties but not at any cost. Currently in the west we are throwing money at anti-terrorist measures and adopting authoritarian and intrusive laws in the name of anti-terrorism in a way that we would not find acceptable if the same was done to reduce casualties from motoring, building or any of the other many things that can get you killed.

shsilver December 2, 2008 7:00 AM

I had a couple of friends in the Taj Mahal Hotel and had lunch with them last night.

They said they first heard gun shots around 10:00. About an hour later, they received a phone call to stay in their rooms. No explanation given. Television transmissions to the room were cut, leaving them in the dark, however if they had had an internet capable phone, or even a wifi connected computer, they would have been able to connect to the internet. Eventually, the phones also went dead. The dead phones and the dead television were the work of the Taj management/police, apparently.

After they got tired of not knowing what was going on (and not knowing the attacks were on more than just their hotel), they left the hotel and made their way to a police station, where they were greeted by the Mumbai version of Sgt. Schultz.

Just a few more data points regarding what was happening on the ground. I hope to publish an article by them in Argentus next year.

not quite anon December 2, 2008 8:07 AM

In this gun debate, there’s one thing that doesn’t sit well with me. Part of the Mumbai attacks occurred in crowded places. Let us say that if a terrorist aims his gun at a civilian, fires and misses. There are three possible likelihoods. He hits another terrorist, but this is not quite that possible as they could be few and facing opposite directions. He hits infrastructure which causes some monetary damage. He hits another civilian. This is OK as it doesn’t matter which civilian he hits, as long as a civilian is hit. Now put an armed civilian in the same situation, shooting and missing. The onus is much higher as he can not hit another civilian or he can be charged afterwards for assault, murder, aiding the terrorists, whatever. Furthermore, the terrorists were most likely to be trained for fighting in the sort environment where the attacks occur. Civilians are not trained to fight in crowded urban areas. How can you guarantee that the armed civilians would not make things worse? Should everyone licensed to carry a concealed gun be given paramilitary training just in case they happen to be in the middle of a terrorist attack? (Wouldn’t this be the same as drafting everyone into the National Guard in the U.S.?)

“Stop preparing for the previous war.”

Granted. We’re interested in mitigating or preventing future attacks. At least I think we are.

Esurnir December 2, 2008 8:08 AM

@Attempt at Rationality: The problem is that some methods make arming citizen irrelevant, suicide bombers can’t be stopped by guns, they look harmless until you try to search them in which case they blow themselves up. Also, you don’t fight back against a wave of rockets. Those vectors of attack are orthogonal to the problem of arming / not arming your citizens, and most terrorist attack in israel didn’t used guns at all.

not quite anon December 2, 2008 8:09 AM

@not quite anon
“(Wouldn’t this be the same as drafting everyone into the National Guard in the U.S.?)”

I meant militia but I guess National Guard could work.

Sue Do Nym December 2, 2008 8:58 AM

If a civilian with, say, a six-shot revolver shoots at the terrorist with the AK, it’s likely that most of the civilian’s shots will miss and possible that one or more will hit innocent persons.

It is also possible that none of the civilian’s shots will hit and stop the terrorist.

That is the worst possible result in that situation, and it is break even with the terrorist continuing shooting civilians until there are none left.

The cost of allowing licensed civilians to be armed is the harm that licensed civilians will do in other circumstances: road rage shootings by licensed civilians, and such.

These are very, very rare, although not unknown.

Most Americans live more or less comfortably in states in which civilians are often licensed to be armed, and few (if any) are flocking to the two states which forbid that.

Doug December 2, 2008 9:56 AM

the attacks were surprisingly ineffective.

Were your son or daughter wounded or killed,

the attacks were surprisingly ineffective.

Would the head of the tourist department in Mumbai or the leader of the “chamber of commerce” agree with this assessment?

the attacks were surprisingly ineffective.

If war breaks out between India and Pakistan (which some assert was the true goal of the attacks), would you call the attacks ineffective?

Sue Do Nym December 2, 2008 11:18 AM

Schneier defines “effectiveness” in terms of real life bodycount vs. movie bodycount.

This is a calculus that is perhaps worth reconsidering, as it is a form of special pleading.

Schneier does not define “effectivness” in US military operations in terms of bodycount. (He is correct in this.)

omar ali December 2, 2008 11:21 AM

THIS kind of terrorism requires training, networks, planning. That is why it is rare. People with grievances are a dime a dozen. People with grievances (real or imagined) that have been armed, trained, indoctrinated and assisted by professionals are less common. …but keep in mind, there are (thanks in part to the US) about 50,000 or so of these people in Pakistan.

Sue Do Nym December 2, 2008 11:26 AM

Omar Ali: 50K Muslims with weapons and terrorist training and indoctrination in Pakistan? True. And to say that there are are three blondes in Sweden is equally true.

Jeff Dege December 2, 2008 12:40 PM

Esurnir :”most terrorist attack in israel didn’t used guns at all”

Actually, that’s better phrased as “most terrorist attacks in israel don’t used guns at all”.

The terrorists mostly gave up on trying mass shootings because they kept getting shot by armed civilians before they did significant damage.

Arming civilians won’t end terrorism. But it will end this type of terrorism.

Badtux December 2, 2008 6:52 PM

Indians are docile? In what universe?! At least the upper caste Indians that I deal with, they are incredibly arrogant and the complete opposite of docile. Reality is that Indians are just people like any other people, and respond in pretty much the same way as anybody else.

Regarding guns and responding to terrorist attacks, we had one of those at a megachurch in Colorado. Reality is that there were a large number of volunteer armed security guards there, and only one of them — an ex-police woman — even pulled her weapon and attempted to track down and kill the perp (and succeeded). The fact of the matter is that it takes a certain mentality to be able to willingly kill another human being, and most civilians — irregardless of nationality or weapons possession — do not have that mentality. It takes training, and it takes training in more than just how to shoot straight, it takes training in tactics and, for lack of a better word, mentality.

Reality is that there is no magic bullet for dealing with people who want to kill and are willing to kill in low-tech ways without regard for their own survival. All the security measures in the world, all the guns in private hands you’d ever want to have, will not prevent it. Luckily such people seem to be very rare, else given the number of low-tech weapons in American hands we’d have a bloodbath on our streets every day…

LnGrrrR December 2, 2008 6:55 PM

Security is so tough to enforce. Look at military bases. I could get through most of them by putting a Domino’s placard on the roof of my car.

herndongeezer December 2, 2008 8:49 PM

It seems as though some of the pro-2nd amendment arguments are missing a possible (likely?) scenario.

What I’m proposing is that, in part, the Indian Government believed that their gun laws reduced the possibility of guns being in the hands of criminals/terrorists in their land such that arming police officers was unnecessary. Remember the reports that many (number?) police officers responded armed with nothing more than a baton. It also appears that 16 (nearly 10%) of the death toll was police officers. That made them almost as ineffective as the civilians.

Also remember the report of Sebastian D’Souza who reported that police officers refused to return fire on at least one gunman. That speaks to a breath-taking lack of training.

Could any of our local police departments have been any more prepared to fend off such an attack? Reasonable people can argue that point. Would they refuse to shoot back? I sincerely doubt it. Would an armed citizenry make a significant impact on the outcome? Again, reasonable people can argue that.

Bruce is right to point out the pro-active security measures for movie-plot scenarios and their ineffectiveness. Where I think he misses the point, largely because he doesn’t discuss it, is the value or rapid, effective reponse. Of course it’s possible he doesn’t address it because it’s so obvious.


annoyed December 2, 2008 11:43 PM

The math applied here for the civilian use of a firearm here is fatally flawed. There are more outcomes than “shot a bad guy”, “shot and missed”, and “shot another civilian”.

Simply showing the gun, fired or not, changes the behavior of the terrorist. It’s either going to delay his actions, cause him to take cover, etc. There’s more to a gun’s impact than what it shoots.

Taking that one step further, knowledge by the terrorist that there are possibly guns present also changes their behavior, and likely reducing the damage, as their concerns are changed from killing to protecting themselves, and earlier on in the process than would happen with an unarmed populace.

Besides all the rest, which would you rather have – a terrorist shooting at civilians, or a civilian shooting at a terrorist. One has no positive outcomes, the other has some chance at a dead terrorist, no matter how slight.

Calum December 3, 2008 3:14 AM

Oh man, this is tedious, people. If you lock the front door, they come in by the back. If you arm the citizens, they’ll load up a lorry with fertiliser. You only have so many fingers and the dyke has too many leaks. The arming of citizens would have made no difference whatsoever, because they most likely wouldn’t have done it this way.

Jabez December 3, 2008 5:42 AM

Pakistan is the hot bed of Jihadi Terror. Whether it was 9/11, or Nuclear leak to Iran, war in Afghanisatan, it has been aiding and abetting terrorism. The world has been fooled by the double speak of its government and Miltary. ISI is the root of global terrorism. When will the world see the truth and get rid off the root cause of terrorism! These people also killed Daniel Pearl a guy who was also on the trail of terrorists who were plotting 9/11!

Henry Bowman December 3, 2008 10:15 AM

You state ‘Many American gun owners have not even received formal basic firearms safety training, let alone “how to handle a firefight on your way to the shops”.’

That may be true, but doesn’t seem relevant, as what really counts are not “gun owners” per se, but “people carrying guns”, as these are the folks who would be on site. And, in the U.S. “people carrying guns” almost always means people legally carrying concealed firearms. In almost all cases, such people have undergone a substantial amount of training, both safety and legal, to get their carry permit.

Pat Cahalan December 3, 2008 11:45 AM

@ Henry

Read your link a little more carefully:

“The rating is not a matter of how likely it is for a particular car model to be involved in a crash. Rather, the rating is a measure of the likelihood of a driver being killed or seriously injured once a crash has occurred.”

That’s a pretty big exception to not include in a safety evaluation. If you’re much more likely to get in a crash in an SUV, it can easily offset the advantage you may have in the crash scenario.

Pat Cahalan December 3, 2008 11:59 AM

@ annoyed

Simply showing the gun, fired or not, changes the behavior of the
terrorist. It’s either going to delay his actions, cause him to take cover, etc.

I’d say it’s most likely to cause him to hose down the gun waver with automatic weapon fire if they’re undisciplined terrorists, and if they’re disciplined terrorists they already have small unit tactics training on how to deal with one-off armed opponents.

This might be a beneficial result for the crowd in question, if the terrorist uses up ammo or allows some people to escape, but it’s not a great way to increase your own survival chance, I’m thinking.

I’m not personally for “disarming the populace”, but I doubt that carrying a weapon is going to increase your survival chances much… unless (again), you’ve trained rigorously in its use in hostile scenarios. The cold fact of the matter is that this is not likely to represent a significant percentage of the armed populace (at least, in the US, where there is no mandatory military service).

While I won’t begrudge any responsible individual the opportunity to defend his- or herself, the “arming the populace is going to deter terrorism” argument simply lacks rigor.

tortoise December 3, 2008 2:15 PM

@ Pat C: I think you’re right; I seem to recall that you are considerably more likely to crash an SUV (IIRC that’s because they roll over more easily due to the higher center of gravity, but maybe there’s more to it). So, even if you’re more likely to survive an SUV crash than a crash in another sort of automobile, you’re more likely to die if you drive an SUV–simply because you’re that much more likely to crash.

@ the whole gun debate: the stats I’ve seen, from this comment thread and elsewhere, seem to indicate that a gun that resides in my house is more likely to kill someone in my family than to save the life of someone in my family. That’s all I need to know, folks. I’m sure a lot of people are really good about gun locks, locked cabinets, etc., but the two people I know who carry concealed keep their weapons handy and loaded with a round in the chamber. A kid could get hold of that and accidentally shoot himself or someone else–which may be unlikely, but is apparently statistically more likely than either of these guys using their guns to be heroes. So it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I’m not trying to take your gun away–I’m just explaining my calculus.

annoyed December 3, 2008 3:27 PM

@ tortoise: the stats I’ve seen, from this comment thread and elsewhere, seem to indicate that a gun that resides in my house is more likely to kill someone in my family than to save the life of someone in my family.

A completely fallacious assertion. There are some that would like you to believe this, but it ain’t true.

If you have a specific study, that would actually give something to refute, but on the face of it… no.

bob December 3, 2008 3:59 PM

@tortoise: You need to get your stats someplace else. The study which puts forth the “you are more likely to shoot your child than a home invader” premise was done 20+ years ago by a guy named Kellerman. He wasnt a researcher, rather he was an anti-gunner who set out to prove a point. He went to several locations (Cleveland, I think) where gangs had held shootouts. Almost all of the dead bodies were carrying guns, and almost all of them were below the legal age of owning a handgun (mostly 16-20).

He then made the intuitive leap that since all these corpses had guns, and being in a gang is just like being a family, why then obviously if you have a gun you are likely to get your own family members killed. Obviously stupid beyond belief to draw THAT conclusion from the “evidence”.

Fall back to “If it happened very often, it wouldn’t make news.” Children are more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a firearm. And people say “yes, but even 1 death prevented is worth it”. No, because the banning of guns (what they are usually putting forth as a solution) may prevent that 1 accident but then allows a further 5-10 people to be killed by NOT being able to thwart an attack.

Scenario – you hear the noise of glass breaking and see a young thin sweaty guy with a crazy look on his face walking into your daughters bedroom. You have within reach both a phone and a handgun (and presumably you learned ahead of time how to operate whichever you choose). Which will you choose?

Allowing the populous to arm itself (not issue a weapon to everyone, a lot of people would not kill even in self-defense and a gun possessed by someone who isnt willing to use it is a liability not an asset) is similar to Bruce’s “prepare for any kind of disaster and you prepare for terrorism as well” philosophy (at least it seems such to me).

If you dont want one, fine, dont get one. But I want one, I train with it, carry it and as a result I statistically will keep all of us safer because of it. In 27 years of owning handgun(s) I have never shot anyone, accidentally or otherwise (although I did draw in deterrence once) even though I have worn guns out in practice.

Comparisons to other countries are pointless because every culture is different.
-Israel is safer with guns; they caused terrorists to move to a higher level of complexity for attacks that happen less often.
-Canada has fewer gun deaths and they also have gun control, true. But they also have fewer KNIFE deaths, yet their knife control is about the same as ours so draws into serious question the causality relationship for the gun control.
-Switzerland has 4x the firearms possession per capita that we do (every adult male has a full-auto actual “assault rifle” at home), yet violence is practically unheard of (as are “family shootings”).
-India on the other hand has strict gun control.

In the US from a safety perspective would you rather work in a gun shop (where the employees carry guns) or a liquor store (where guns are prohibited)?

Bear in mind as you pick your side that the media in the US misrepresents firearms issues with about a 10-1 bias. So you have (essentially) never heard the good stuff and only heard the bad. For example, how often have you heard a news report about some violent crime happening other than with a firearm, such as a knife, yet the background image behind the news reader shows a firearm? They want you to subliminally associate firearms with “bad” your mind at a level below conscious thought.

Pat Cahalan December 3, 2008 5:35 PM

@ Bob

While I agree with your overall point that one must be very careful when trying to generalize across social populations, I felt compelled to point out…

For example, how often have you heard a news report about some
violent crime happening other than with a firearm, such as a knife,
yet the background image behind the news reader shows a firearm?
They want you to subliminally associate firearms with “bad” your
mind at a level below conscious thought.

Choosing default clipart for your news graphic is hardly an indicator of a vast media conspiracy to defame guns.

While I absolutely agree that private gun ownership is generally presented in a negative light that does not always represent statistical reality, there is a big difference between bad reporting and a conspiracy.

tortise December 3, 2008 5:55 PM

No, I’m not referencing the Kellerman crap you mention. A good example of the type of statistic that I am talking about is in the 1998 Journal of Trauma study linked above 🙁http://www.jtrauma.com/pt/re/jtrauma/abstract.00005373-199808000-00010.htm;jsessionid=J3XGL4qKTRCVQyxnkvQtYr12f2hlFPmNPZ2JygvPb3L6TcG7FMrZ!976670012!181195629!8091!-1)

I’m not at all concerned about the likelihood of me shooting a family member. At this point in my life, I’m somewhat concerned about my young son or one of his friends getting hold of a gun and having an accident. The people I know who regularly carry guns are quite safety-conscious, but I’m aware of times when each has left a loaded gun (e.g. in a jacket pocket) briefly unattended in a house with children. One little lapse like that combined with a kid’s curiosity could turn tragic too easily for me.

Our viewpoints might be reconcilable by considering the fact that it’s really hard to quantify how much good guns do. The Jtrauma research indicates that when guns are fired, it’s more often to bad effect. But as you point out, the gun need not be fired to have a good effect on the outcome. However, it’s tough to say how often this happens–not just because it’s under-reported, as I suspect you would argue, but also because it’s not possible to know the outcomes of these situations had guns not been present. You can cook up examples where it seems obvious that showing a gun prevented a problem, but for most real-world incidents, it’s just not possible to know. Again, I’m not trying to argue that your gun should be taken away (just never left unattended if unsecured). But my sources of info do tend to be better (read: more scientific) than you gave me credit for.

tortise December 3, 2008 6:07 PM

PS In case it wasn’t clear, by saying our points of view may be reconcilable (probably not the best word choice) I just meant they could be different opinions legitimately drawn from the same set of facts. The literature to which I refer necessarily leaves unanswered the question of how much positive impact is effected by the display of guns without firing them. So if you suspect that a lot of good is done this way, I can certainly see why you would hold the opinion you’ve expressed. I simply suspect that the amount of benefit I (and many other people) would gain from the ability to display (or fire) a gun is not enough to justify the risk associated with having one around in a loaded and ready condition, and hopefully you can understand that, too. (BTW I actually do have guns, but I store them secured so they’re not really relevant to the conversation about concealed carry or whipping one out on an intruder)

annoyed December 3, 2008 7:07 PM


A nice article, if only it were readable without paying $35, I might care. Have you actually paid the money and read the content, or just are aping the conclusion?

Anonymous December 4, 2008 6:45 AM

@Clive Robinson
Apparently the EU Commission has signed off on this plan to tackle hi-tech crime, because they belive,

“half of all internet crime involves the production, distribution and sale of child pornography”

The five year plan will,

1, Alow EU Forces to take part in “remote computer searches” to track down criminals.

2, Encorage information sharing between police forces in EU/EEA member nations and private companies.

3, Create “cross-border investigation teams” and “virtual force patrols” to “police the net”.

Have the Commission been reading to much Tom Clancy…

The thing is that there probably is a need for something along these lines.
But more targeted at spammers, botnets, people who bug credit card terminals, 419ers, etc
Where complex international criminal conspiracies actually exist they are most likely to involve fraudsters.

Mark December 4, 2008 8:59 AM

@David Keech
Israel makes a very poor example for the argument for an armed populace. They already have an armed populace and it has not stopped terrorism.

It’s a very poor example for another couple of reasons. One is that it is very subjective what is “terrorism” and what is “war”. Much the same applies to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The other one is that the Israeli state was founded on terrorism with terrorists being well represented amongst Israeli poltical leaders.

Attempt at Rationality December 4, 2008 11:19 AM

@Henry Bowman:

Thanks for posting the link ( http://www.safecarguide.com/exp/deathrate/idx.htm ) on comparative SUV risk, I had not seen this before. The article is rather curious. For example, the numerical table and bar chart seem to use the same color-coding for vehicle weight range; but where the table shows total deaths about equal between passenger cars and SUVs for the small (yellow) weight range, the bar chart shows SUV deaths to be dramatically greater for yellow.

At any rate, the article is based on rather old data (1990-95), from a time when SUVs were much rarer than today, and perhaps had different patterns of use (I suspect that the early SUV buyers were less likely to use them for commuting, buying groceries, and shuttling kids to soccer practice, than is normal today).

Patterns of use are especially relevant to these comparative measures, because the article from the link claims to show deaths per vehicle per year. If in the early 90s, SUVs were driven less miles per year than passenger cars, the per vehicle statistics would understate that vehicle risk. (When a vehicle is parked, the likelihood of occupant death is probably reduced!) Nowadays, a consumer choosing a vehicle is probably going to drive about the same number of miles whether they drive an SUV or a passenger car, so a better indicator is deaths per vehicle mile.

For anyone who takes a half hour or so to do a web search, there is quite a lot of data indicating that:

1) a driver or passenger in an SUV is significantly more likely to die, than a driver or passenger in an ordinary passenger car, traveling the same number of miles

2) an SUV on the road is much more likely to kill people in other vehicles, than a passenger car

Here is a chosen-at-random article I found from a 1-minute search:


But if you want a better picture, I recommend taking some time to look at tables from the US NHTSA website.

In practice, SUVs are not hugely more lethal to their occupants than passenger cars; it is a matter of percentage points, and the death rates are probably converging as SUV designs improve.

My reason for citing SUVs in my previous comment, was to make the point that while SUVs apparently enhance Emotional Security (reportedly, many buyers say that “feeling safer” is one reason for their choice), they reduce Actual Security.

P.S. Working from the NHTSA statistics, it is possible to make a “thought experiment”: what if the passenger cars had been substituted for the SUVs in the USA during, say 1998-2008. Such projections are tricky, and at best very approximate, but I think a reasonable case could be made that more Americans have been killed by SUVs during this period, than terrorism and the disastrous occupation of Iraq, combined. Which are the true weapons of mass destruction?

greg December 9, 2008 4:16 AM

@the gun debate.

Perhaps this is a little late. But this point seems to have been missed.

If you are trained in the military, you are trained with the expectation of a well armed and trained enemy. Casualties, even if mission is successful, are expected.

A population with a mixture of training and side arms would be described as lightly armed at best. Any well armed group could and would be capable of capturing a building…. I mean its not like you don’t do that sort of thing in a “war”, where the buildings are properly defended against that type of threat (aka–military trained groups with ak47s ). And who said they couldn’t also bring C9 etc if the mission objectives required it?

The other thing that has been mentioned only in passing is the problem of escalation.

If you choose inaction without a gun, you will not likely do any better with one.

I am in fact a gun owner. I like to hunt. But guns and sidearms in particular make little difference to individual safety, if any.

Also the deaths from gun accidents seem to have been left out. A lot of people get killed just by plain accident. Note that drowning is probably more likely, but then what are the chances that a sidearm will save you? Thats the real problem, not much chance that something negative will happen and even less chance of something positive vers no gun….

Hank December 15, 2008 2:06 PM

What I haven’t seen mentioned in all of this with one exception is that it seems that the City of Mumbai doesn’t have a SWAT team in their police department. It took hours for the Army to mobilize their commando units in Delhi, organize transport to fly them to Mumbai, load them on a bus to the hotels. Fortunately for them by the time they arrived the attackers were holed up in three locations. If they had still been moving around the Commandos would have been useless.

To me it is astounding that a city the size of Mumbai with a history of violent attacks does not have any elite police unit capable of answering this threat. While it may be true that there aren’t many terrorists and that pro-active measures are ineffective it seems criminal to me that the police haven’t developed any strategy to address this sort of attack in a city where similar things have happened before.

My sense from visiting India was that there was no shortage of police but that they would not be competent if faced with this sort of threat.

Lisa December 15, 2008 3:08 PM

Hi Bruce!

In your article about the Mumbai business you remark “Even so, terrorism is rare.”, and you do, I think, a good and important job of supporting that fact. Terrorism of the sort we see in Mumbai is indeed rare. However the (implied) reason it’s worth making the point about the rarity is, generally, that people over-value or over-react to these rare events. Why?

In part, of course, people just are wired so as to fear and panic, but, as was well-explained long ago by Lippmann in “Public Opinion” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/CDFinal/Lippman/cover.html , governments can (and do!) capitalize on these rare events. Media tends to act as part of government in coordination – adding additional “gain” to a natural process. Thus a cynic might opine that governments often “exploit” terrorism, and perhaps even that government sometimes (secretly) desires small “attacks”, and even that, sometimes, when no suitable attack is available, actually foster or consider fostering one (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Northwoods ). Our cynic would be correct.

However valuable your observations about terrorism are, they are also, I think, flawed by being incomplete. If one refers back to the original definitions of “Terrorism” – (and these have been revised and the history somewhat obscured (by governments!)) one will discover that “Terrorism is illegal violence or the threat of illegal violence for political purpose”. Torture, something that seems to be in vogue to-day and which some states embrace as a standard method, is obviously a specific application within the rubric of terrorism.

If one experiments with fitting this basic definition against the various templates of violence which we have seen in recent times, against, for example, the submarine campaign against Japan in WW2, or against the events in Indo-China, the bombing campaign in Cambodia for example, under the Nixon-Kissinger regime, or against the Iraq campaign with “shock and awe” (the term itself a mere euphemism for terror), and the fact that the US attack was not sanctioned under the UN Charter and was thus prohibited by both US and International Law), then one begins to suspect that terrorism is not rare at all. Indeed it is common and very nearly ubiquitous to-day.

What’s rare is non-state terrorism. What’s ordinary and common is State Terrorism. Indeed, it is generally forgotten that terrorism is the invention of states. Small groups that adopt the techniques of states, so far as terror goes, are merely imitating and replying in-kind the lessons and methods developed and taught by states. This is not to applaud them of course. Terrorism is a mean, unjust, and criminal way of doing things, but to apply the concept incompletely is a kind of self-deception.

To countenance this open and obvious fact violates the narrative mythos that governments promote and find so very useful – which of course includes the idea that non-state terrorism is a serious and material individual threat. As you point out, it isn’t. And to fail to countenance the corollary fact, also obvious, that terrorism in primarily an instrument of states, is a service to terrorism itself as a method; something no decent man wishes to do.

I would add that an Nth state or potentate might possibly make an ethical argument in favor of some specific act of terror – the destruction in 1945 of Dresden perhaps, or (Dershowitz) the water-boarding of people. Although in a few cases such an argument might hold sway, the general principle that law is better than no law is based on arguments that strongly run the other way. More interestingly, the metaphysics of conflict makes a logical case against violence insofar as demonstrating the long-term unpredictability and counter-productivity of violence. By implication then, because violence is generally intrinsic to terrorism , terrorism itself, whether by an Nth state or an Nth non-state group or individual, is a long-term failure.

Terrorism may, however, have a rare practical application, of which it remains to be seen whether or not it may be both productive and moral. It may perhaps occasionally and with great cunning and understanding be used to trigger the incipient self-destructive forces of a corrupt criminal enterprise. To-day such understanding is either rare or non-existent.

As our times mature and develop a new history we may see the evolution of terror-as-a-method into a rare but legitimate method. To whatever extent this occurs, of course, it would also become legal, and therefore not terrorism, but mere terror. But such a possibility is far from the topic you broached, so I’ll leave it for now.

Farnzule December 15, 2008 6:55 PM

Going after their source of money helps. It’s amazing how influential
money is in supporting (or restricting)
terrorism and more generally anti-social behavior.

Lisa December 16, 2008 5:27 PM

To repeat: Terrorism is primarily an invention of and a tool of states, not of individuals or small groups. States issue the money. If one wishes to “go after their source of money” one is going to have a very rough time of it, my friend.

GerryM December 17, 2008 9:18 AM


I wanted to comment on your idea in the latest Cryptogram…

” Low-tech is very effective. Movie-plot threats — terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists with biological agents, terrorists targeting our water supplies — might be what people worry about, but a bunch of trained (we don’t really know yet what sort of training they had, but it’s clear that they had some) men with guns and grenades is all they needed.”

We in the US are spending considerable time and treasure on detection systems and responses to terrorist nuclear, chemical, biological, etc type of attacks. I really think we under-estimate (for lack of a better term) the native intelligence and talent of these groups for observing common items, situations, and conditions and seeing that some of this can be used in new ways to achieve their goals ….

Google Earth + GPS + Twitter + leaky boat or two + AK47s and ammo + explosives + Grenades + will to use them + Media = An international terrorist incident.

We need to learn how to think with the bad guy hat on.

How about an old beat up car cruising back roads in the southeast during a drought with bottles of gasoline and a book of matches.

Remember the DC snipers … A low body count with the probability of one person out of the millions actually being involved in as a victim….Paralyzed the Mid-Atlantic for weeks!

What if a terrorist group spent some time and effort on this and actually put it into practice over the entire East Coast. Couple of old cars, tank of gas, several decent high power rifle and a box of ammo each picking random victims over a wide area would stop us cold.

Perhaps low body counts but the stress on our first responders, the ability of our media to escalate such incidents into “every one within the sound of my voice is in imminent peril and is going to die because of this ….The entire southeast is ablaze … yada, yada, yada …. And the government appears helpless against this newest threat”

One of the easiest to use tools is the voracious appetite of the international media to blow stories out of proportion …. One does not need a high body count if the impression given by the news is that we could all be in peril. We, the public, no longer understand that the news is the NEWS because the incidents reported are by definition, rare and unusual. Instead we personalize it and apply it to our own lives … and then turn to our benefactor, the Government, to protect us and get concerned when we do not get a personal sense of safeety from an impersonal government bureaucracy.

Too much writing, not enough actual work.

Thanks for your ear.

Koperniuk December 17, 2008 10:49 AM

I agree the death toll in Mumbai was “Low” In fact one thing that you didnt mention that I feel contributed to the numbers being higher than they “should” have been was the relative lack of first response and emergency care available in India/Mubai. I have always been surprised by the somewhat higher death toll in India compared to a similar event in the West. Having been in India and witnessed the aftermath of a serious accident ( a coach crash with a rollover) I noticed that no-one helps the injured, no-one calls for help and at any rate little or no emergency service is available.
The accident I witnessed might have had 1- 5 deaths in Europe. In India around 15 + people died. Thus one could estimate that in the West the death toll from a similar attack to Mumbai could have been very much lower>

Further, some posts above suggest that terrorism is “rare” – I agree. The real chance of any particular person getting hit is tiny. More than 500 people a year die in swimming pool acccidents in USA each year ( I am led to believe) but terrorism which hits a tiny number gets headline news and causes the “ordinary people” to cancel holidays by the million. My buying opportunity! Furthermore, my proximity to the security services ( I cannot say too much!!) gives me an insight into our ( the West’s) capabilities. It is NOT as portrayed by “Spooks” a TV program in London England or by CSi – Fully funded, slick, hi tech with unlimited resources. Far from it. I am unable to give further detail but I can offer a point of view. The reason there are few terrorist attacks in the West is NOT due to our counter intelligence efforts – It is because there are VERY FEW TERRORISTS!!!
But where would the “War on Terror ” be without an enemy.
Finally, even the ordinary people can eventually work out the lies of politicians. As Iraq moves inexorably to a favorable conclusion a New enemy must be presented. Russia is now being re-introduced as that threat!

Lisa December 17, 2008 12:22 PM

Where indeed?

Most people are unaware that the largest “terrorist” attack in the US took place in 1916. The dead were never counted, as they were primarily poor people living on boats. see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Tom
The infernal device used to trigger the crime was a simple chemical gadget that any bright kid could make and for which material remains freely available. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the Germans financed an American “lab” located in Chevy Chase Md making – anthrax! Also in 1916.

There are two obvious implications. One is that the so-called “terrorists” are either very rare or pretty satisfied with things going as they are – which is of course, poorly for the US. The other is that these “terrorist acts” were the acts of a state. Again, terror is a weapon invented by and primarily used by, states – as our friend Koperniuk seems to imply. see also: http://www.amazon.com/Detonators-Secret-Destroy-America-Justice/dp/0316734969

I think it might be useful to make a distinction between state terrorism and “free-lance” terrorism, as the muddle we have now serves, well, terrorists!

Anthony April 24, 2010 9:26 PM

@ Arkh: if simply arming the populace would contribute to a safer climate, then how does the U.S. explain having one of the highest incidences of gun-related crime and fatalities, a number even higher than some war-torn nations?

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