My Second CNN.com Essay on the Underwear Bomber

This one is about our tendency to overreact to rare risks, and is an update of this 2007 essay.

I think we should start calling them the "underpants of mass destruction."

Posted on January 11, 2010 at 1:46 PM • 41 Comments

Comments

Fraud GuyJanuary 11, 2010 1:54 PM

"I think we should start calling them the 'underpants of mass destruction.' "

That would be my nephew of a few years ago.

RHJanuary 11, 2010 2:06 PM

I wonder if the oddness of the sound makes things more scary. PETN sounds so unfamiliar... so alien... so dangerous.

From now on, let us refer to terrorist attacks on airplanes as "carebear stares!" If we're still afraid of them, then we're hosed.

Though I suppose, by corollary, we would end up turning "nuclear war" into "my little pony rides," which could end badly for the whole species

wiredogJanuary 11, 2010 2:19 PM

"underpants of mass destruction" wbagnfarb. Also, it sounds like some of my college experiences.

John HardinJanuary 11, 2010 2:23 PM

No.

The term "weapon of mass destruction" is being diluted enough already by overeager prosecuting attorneys. The bomber was _not_ using nuclear, biological or chemical munitions and thus should _not_ be charged with attempting to use a Weapon of Mass Destruction. An amount of PETN sufficient to qualify as a WMD would outweigh the aircraft itself by at least an order of magnitude.

kogJanuary 11, 2010 2:39 PM

I bet the terrorist planning session went something like this.

Step 1: Steal Underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Profit Muhammad

ChrisJanuary 11, 2010 2:45 PM

"Fruit of the Boom" is being suggested by Xeni of BoingBoing.net and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

It's got a nice ring to it

jgrecoJanuary 11, 2010 2:54 PM

@John Hardin

You mean we can ridicule this attack, AND dilute scare tactic terms like "WMDs" at the same time?

Win-win if you ask me.

PaulJanuary 11, 2010 3:05 PM

"The term "weapon of mass destruction" is being diluted enough already by overeager prosecuting attorneys."

It's diluted in law. A hand grenade qualifies as a WMD. It's a meaningless term, it should be diluted until people stop thinking of it as a meaningful term.

Eric GagnonJanuary 11, 2010 3:53 PM

If a suicide bomber detonated his bomb before getting to the security controls, do you think DHS would propose moving all the screening eqiupement into the parking lot? I think they would.

mcbJanuary 11, 2010 3:55 PM

@ John Hardin

"The bomber was _not_ using nuclear, biological or chemical munitions and thus should _not_ be charged with attempting to use a Weapon of Mass Destruction."

"Undies of Local Disruption" maybe?

RoxanneJanuary 11, 2010 4:31 PM

I've been wondering why they don't call him "Captain Underpants," except that Dav Pilkey might get upset.

John HardinJanuary 11, 2010 4:35 PM

@Paul: I wasn't aware that the dilution had been codified into law already. :(

By that logic there's no excuse for the left to vilify GWB for lying because he used WMD as an excuse to invade Iraq - there sure as hell were hand grenades in Iraq!

(And oops, I praised Eric before @Chris's post registered - sorry.)

HJohnJanuary 11, 2010 4:41 PM

@John Hardin: "By that logic there's no excuse for the left to vilify GWB for lying because he used WMD as an excuse to invade Iraq - there sure as hell were hand grenades in Iraq!"
_____________

And that wasn't exactly what Saddam used to gas entire Kurdish cities, and it wasn't exactly what he was threatening Iran with.

That said, there isn't really anything I think that can be placed in ones tighty whities that could possibly be considered a weapon of mass destruction (no matter how flatulent they are). :)

Ron SalviJanuary 11, 2010 5:25 PM

There has been a lot of news regarding the terrorist with a bomb in his underwear in the news media recently. Also, the man who went under the barrier at Newark Airport in New Jersey. His mission was to go to the plane to accompany his girlfriend to the plane. Both are violations of homeland security.

The question people are asking is, what can we do to make sure this never happens again?

I have a few more questions to add to that list.

1. What can we do to make sure there are no more murders committed?

2. What can we do to make sure no more children are kiddnapped, molested on killed?

3. What can we do to make sure no more women are raped?

4. What can we do to make sure there are no more illegal drugs sold in our country?

5. What can we do to sure sure there are no more robberies?

6. What can we do to make sure no one else is injured or killed by a drunk driver?

And on and on and on.

Seems we get obsessed with one thing and take for granted the fact the in other areas of crime all we can expect is that law enforcement does its best.

Regarding homeland security we even have to rely on other countries to do the right thing.

No system regarding crime or homeland security is ever going to be perfect. People will screw up or terrorists will figure out how to beat the system. All we can expect is that law enforcement does its best. Regarding the terrorist on the plance to Detroit an individual became part of security by subduing the terrorist. In the end we are all part of homeland security. Even in our own neighborhoods law enforcement can't be everywhere.

When you consider all the risks, what are your chances of falling victim to a terrorist act as opposed to becoming a victim of other types of crime?

PaulJanuary 11, 2010 5:28 PM

It occurs to me that I hate it when people say things that aren't exactly common knowledge without citation, so I'll give one.

USC Title 18 Part 1 Chapter 113B Section 2332a
http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/uscode18/...

"(a) Offense Against a National of the United States or Within the United States.— A person who, without lawful authority, uses, threatens, or attempts or conspires to use, a weapon of mass destruction—
...
(c) Definitions.— For purposes of this section—
(1) the term “national of the United States” has the meaning given in section 101(a)(22) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101 (a)(22));

(2) the term “weapon of mass destruction” means—
(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life; and "

Section 921:
"(4) The term “destructive device” means—
(A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—
(i) bomb,
(ii) grenade,
(iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
(iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
(v) mine, or
(vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;
(B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter; and
(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled. "


So in addition to the grenade I mentioned earlier, the anthrax attacks several years ago were WMD, as is the occasional loony making ricin in his hotel room.

And I don't think the argument against GWB focuses on the WMD claim being demonstrably false; the point is he used discredited intel in order to manipulate people into signing on to a war. At least, that is the part that bothers me. But that's even further afield than the WMD tangent, and should probably be discussed elsewhere if at all.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 11, 2010 5:42 PM

@ John Hardin,

"The term "weapon of mass destruction" is being diluted enough already by overeager prosecuting attorneys."

WMD is a term I wish they would drop altogether.

In theory any weapon "concivably designed" to kill more than a single person is a WMD under the various definitions the US uses.

However it is a very iffy definition because the "conceavably designed" asspect is what US investigators/prosecuters think.

Thus a white phosphorus signal grenade hurled by a US LEO into a room and causes the death of one or more people in a room is not a WMD. However a child's prank with a firecracker held to a wall or door with a couple of paperclips is "conceivably designed" as a fragmentation device...

Also there is the issue of not what it is designed to do but what it can do. I think you will find a greater number of people have died questionable deaths by the "hands/feet of LEO's" than have ever been killed or seriously physicaly effected by biological weapons used by terrorists.

Likewise I think you will find more people in the US die every year from "industrial chemical loss" related deaths than have died by terrorist poisoning plots (that have made it into the public knowledge domain).

And well alcohol and cars... How many people die in the US every month in auto accidents? Something like 40% involve alcohol (80% no seat belts)...

So lets charge over the limit drivers with use of WMD and get them off of the streets for the rest of their natural lives.

Chances are we would save a lot more lives than all the little "eger beaver" "making a political name for myself" prosecuters will in their entire lives with other WMD charges (in fact probably locking them up would save more lives judging by the stats on alcohol related problems per head in the legal brethrin).

For those wondering about the 3oz of PETN Capt. Underpants used. If it had gone off. I have been doing a little digging around in public domain info and speaking to a few "independent people" who have domain knowledge...

Almost the first point that comes up is unless it caused solid objects to get kinetic energy (which would realy have to have happened within a foot or so) from the unconstrained explosion epicenter it is doubtfull it would have caused much harm other than his own death (and possibly not even that either).

For those that know how to do the calculation to convert the expected yield and from "perfect" PETN, and if you have access put the yeild converted amount of comercial explosive onto the top of a rock in a wide open field of long grass etc. Detonate and go back and look at the damage to the grass and for what radius (less than an itsy bitsy "crop circle").

The next thing that comes up about very much all the videos the public get to see of "prosecution experts" blowing things up. Is the experts ensure better than ideal conditions for even the most knowledgable of terrorist...

That is the "experts" spend ages getting access to just the best place they can on an "Arizona moth ball". They make a "laboratory mix" that is designed to give maximum yield. then they put in safety equipment such as blast screens that can (and do) focus the blast wave back etc...

The videos looks realy good in court and up on TV but there are seriously doubts that even one in a million people would know how to do it to get the same effect. And importantly it is very very unlikley that a terrorist could get access to the same points the "prosecution experts" use for their demonstrations...

The reality videos are of Capt Underpants and Cpl Hotfoot being draged away by LEO's...

We have seen prosecution demonstrations in the UK which have had serious doubt put on them (for very good reason).

Most home brew explosives using readily available no questions asked components such as solid organic fuels have an increadably short half life. They are increadably sensitive to damp, temprature, etc and you can calculate the yield loss with a stop watch...

For instance a fine flour and H2O2 bomb will be nearly usless after a few hours of just being left around after mixing.

Also you realy have to dry the flour in a special way and prevent it caking etc otherwise very low yeild thus little or no bang just lots of smoke if you are lucky...

None of this is "impossible" for a very knowledgable terrorist under 100% ideal conditions but to be honest it is never likley to happen that way now or even prior to 9/11.

Arguably somebody involved in the planning of 9/11 was very aware of the deficiencies of explosives (Syria's armed forces/Intel Services have been sugested as being the knowledge base by some western war hawks). Which is why explosives where ruled out early on in 9/11 plans as there use would almost certainly have failed...

It is interesting to note publicaly available information about the UK 7/7 bombs and what actually happened in almost "gun barrel" conditions in the underground tunnels and in an ordinary bus and the expected original yield of the size bombs involved...

Again in UK history look back at the results of various "Irish conflict" bombs and the kill to energy yield ratios.

And you start to understand why a knowledgable person with a metal comb and a box of matches is actually more dangerous than 3oz of PETN in almost any pasenger seat...

Bruce ClementJanuary 11, 2010 6:16 PM

@Eric Gagnon "If a suicide bomber detonated his bomb before getting to the security controls, do you think DHS would propose moving all the screening eqiupement into the parking lot? I think they would."

Really? Based on the general ineptness and lack of relevance of their past performance I think they would be much more likely to do something useless like banning in-flight carbonated drinks and increasing the length of time passengers have to remain seated at the end of flights.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 12, 2010 5:22 AM

@ Ron Salvi,

"Seems we get obsessed with one thing and take for granted the fact the in other areas of crime all we can expect is that law enforcement does its best."

Hmm I think it is the fear of "rare spectacular events" or whatever else people want to call it.

Look at it this way,

1, Somebody is killed or injured no mater how it's "news worthy".

2, The more people effected etc the more news worthy it becomes.

3, For natural events or accidents people say "they come in three's"

Why would (3) that be?

The simple answer is as an event happens more frequently (especialy in a short time period) the less newsworthy it becomes.

The thing about (3) is "Act of God" (AOG) for natural events. For instance a mud slide that kills very many people may not even get mentioned if one preceading it was more "news worthy" for some reason.

Thus for AOG events that happen close together each one only gets news prominance if it was bigger or better than the last one...

The rule of "three's" is actually a reflection of the boredom threshold of humans as seen by those reporting the news...

With Acts of Man (AOM) a similar rule applies if they are perceived as "Accidents". Or they are carried out by many ordinary people (drink driving etc). This is because there is realy no one person or group to blaim.

The more events of this type the less they get reported. Thus even minor but very rare events get reported initialy, whilst almost every day events don't (drink drive road fatalities).

Likewise there appears to be rules about "perceived distance". That is a serious road accident in your town will get reported on the local news and maybe in news services adjacent to the "event area", but it has to be particularly spectacular (or nasty) for it to make National news coverage. To be international there is 1st/3rd world bias.

All these effects can be considered the "curse of the familier" and can have important consiquences for PR types looking to get rid of a story (hence the outrage in the UK when a Government Ministers Advisor explicitly said in an E-Mail that it was a good day fore releasing bad news due to a particular news story occuping the news headlines.

"Familiarity Breads Contempt" and unless there is a single focus point for AOM events they just become one and the same. Hence the "Need for Osama Bin Laden" or "Sadam Hussain" by the GWB administration to keep otherwise un-newsworthy events in the spot light.

As an example for motoring there have been a couple of occasions when normaly un-newsworthy stories became newsworthy, one involved cars suffering problems with gas tanks in rear end shunts, another in cornering involving particular tyres etc. The reason there was a "target" to go after and people could say "Oh My God not another XXX, for Gods sake don't get in an XXX" to those they know and love.

Believe it or not even terrorisum becomes un-newsworthy after a while. In Europe in the late 60's through to the late 80's various political or extrimest organisations where blowing up things and people, kidnapping others and holding them to ransom.

During the 80's the PIRA had a "mainland bombing" campain simply because their NI bombs where not getting much attention in NI and none at all in the UK Mainland.

I happened to live and work on the outskirts of London but in different quadrants so had to "go in and come out" of central London by public transport. The first couple of "PIRA transport inferstructure bombs" caused chaos and fear. However within a month people where being told off by their employers for being late to work simply because of a "bomb scare"...

I knew the world had gone compleatly mad when I was told off buy my boss of the time (Mr Chris Patel) because when one part of the network was closed by the authorities I took positive action by using a much more circuitous route and was half an hour late. Apparently it was my fault because he as a car driver living in another part of London had an "easier" journey in that day thus it must have been my fault...

schlongJanuary 12, 2010 7:22 AM

just seen on slashdot:
"Personally, I'm waiting for the schlong-bomb. Some poor schlub gets castrated and then fitted with a horse-sized prosthetic full of bomb, detonators in the balls of course. The TSA will just let him pass as they will be shocked and awed by the size of his tool, not realizing who he's really going to use that tool to fuck over."

someone should inform TSA and demand a policy for preventing this scenario.. ;-)

ApalledJanuary 12, 2010 8:51 AM

And yet, I heard yesterday that 3/4 of people polled thought the full body scanners were a good idea.

I still find it crazy that they are charging him with something related to WMDs, since we didn't find any WMDs in Iraq, and we have IEDs killing soldiers that are likely as potent as this PETN bomb, it makes no sense that this guys bomb counts as a WMD.

D0RJanuary 12, 2010 9:26 AM

I just wait for the joke to come: "Do you have explosive in your underpants or are just happy to see me?"

Chris SchmidtJanuary 12, 2010 5:50 PM

In this day and age you should give everyone even children full body cavity searches at our airports and that's just the price you have to pay for going up. LOL!!!!

DavidJanuary 12, 2010 7:52 PM

We're having double meaning problems here, and I rather suspect it's intentional on some people's part.

Legally, a weapon of mass destruction is something I can use to kill multiple people at once. It also refers to military use of nuclear, toxic, and biological agents. Similarly, if I threaten to kill Bruce that's a terroristic threat, which even on this blog has frequently been confused with terrorism.

And, like Roxanne, I refuse to refer to a terrorist by the name of a fictional character that drew my child into reading books for fun. Tra-la-la!

Clive RobinsonJanuary 13, 2010 5:19 AM

@ Apalled,

"And yet, I heard yesterday that 3/4 of people polled thought the full body scanners were a good idea."

The trouble with these "polls" like referendms is the "question" you are asked to answer yes or no to and in what "choice pre-forming" context...

For example, if I asked a person in the street,

"Madam, have you heard about the 200 people on an aircraft who only escaped death when a man with a bomb in his underpants was stoped from detonating it by the chance action of another passanger... Can I ask you do you think a full body search which would have stoped the bomber getting on the flight, Is a good idea for passangers to prevent being killed by terrorists on your flight?"

Would get a "yes" response close to (the desired) 100%

However if the question was,

"Madam have you heard that the screening procedures for those who are to use full body scanners that produce near naked pictures of you.. does not rule out them being opporated remotely by peadophiles.. Would you alow such people to scan you or your children at the airport and produce a near naked picture that can be easily enhanced and made available on the Internet?"

Would get a yes response close to (the desired) 0%.

You don't need to be as obvious as this, there is the old sales mans "ask yes questions first" trick that works plus many more.

Thus it is not the question, but the way you ask it and in what "choice preforming" context the questioner decides...

Which brings us around to,

@ Chris Schmidt,

"In this day and age you should give everyone even children full body cavity searches at our airports and that's just the price you have to pay for going up. LOL!!!!"

Which would prevent terrorists using "prefrence profiling" to avoid having their weapon of choice being discovered...

However the question is would the "airlines" alow it..

The airline sales model is kind of,

1, Economy covers the flight cost.
2, Business makes the profit.
3, First class makes a loss but justifies Business prices and gives frequent flyer incentives to get customer loyalty.

If familes etc stoped flying then the important "economy travelers" would nolonger cover the flight costs which would push Business flight costs up when business flights are already falling due to economic presures...

Untill recently the airlines have been pro many TSA procedures as it externalises their risk and thus saves money whilst also increases their profits by stoping private ticket transfers (from which they do not profit) thus getting a cancalation fee and seat re-sale at much higher price. It also stoping "carry ons" of food and fluids and thus alows the airline to charge significantly more for drinks etc to be sold to pasangers...

PaulJanuary 13, 2010 11:18 AM

"Legally, a weapon of mass destruction is something I can use to kill multiple people at once. It also refers to military use of nuclear, toxic, and biological agents."

Even you're defining "weapon of mass destruction" in a more limited sense than the law does. As I cited above, legally (in the US anyway, according to the USC) ANY use of nuclear, toxic, or biological agents against a national of the United States or within the United States makes that agent a weapon of mass destruction. There are no "military" stipulations.

DavidJanuary 13, 2010 12:52 PM

@Paul: No, I'm contrasting two different definitions of "WMD", apparently not very clearly. If I've got a grenade or an anti-tank rocket, I've got a WMD according to the US statutory definition. The allegations of Iraqi WMDs in 2003 were not meant to imply standard military weapons, but rather toxic and nuclear weapons.


John HardinJanuary 13, 2010 3:21 PM

The point is, the term "WMD" has been devalued to the degree that all it means now is "you should be very scared"; it is typically used in the contexts of "because you are very scared you should let the government do whatever it wants to make it look like you are being protected", and "because this person did (or attempted to do) something very scary, he should be very severely punished".

Not only is there a tendency to overreact to rare risks, there is an intentional effort to overstate those risks.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 13, 2010 4:08 PM

@ Paul,

"ANY use of nuclear, toxic, or biological agents against a national of the United States or within the United States"

Err no you are making the same "you're defining "weapon of mass destruction" in a more limited sense than the law" if you go back and read what you posted again.

Basicaly there are those "reasonable opinion weasle words" tucked away in there of,

"921(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled. "
"(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector..."

The important bit is,

"921(C) any combination of parts... ...(B) any weapon that... ...through the release, dissemination, or... ...their precursors;"

With,

"921(A)(vi) device SIMILAR TO ANY of the devices described in the preceding clauses;"

That is an eger beaver just has to argue "SIMILAR TO" which is a very very subjective starting point. Then winding it back trough "any combination of parts" to "their precursors"

Thus putining it the other way around,

If you have a jar of home made meat paste, it can be argued that it is actualy for the hidden production of botulinus toxin (the toxins "precursor"). And that a jar has been used for easy weaponisation (you just need to drop it to break it after all) thus it can easily be used as a component "part" in a weapon "similar" to those in 921(A).

Or as the jar has a diameter of more than 1/2 inch he could argue under

"921(B) any type of weapon... ...which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter"

Is the "projectile" to be "expeled" "by the action of an explosive or other propellant". The "propellant" is that bottle of camping gas (propane) or petrol/gas, the igniter is that peizo device in the pocket lighter and the gun "barrel" made from the plastic water pipe from the roof guttering and the propellant burn/expansion chamber is one of the 1/2 gallon paint tins under your stairs you have left over from decorating.

Then just to add the icing to the cake they just have to find a few potatos that have gone green and your store of tabaco to say you where also going to make "Green Potato and Nicotien poison" oh and that bag of raw kidney/chillie beans you have in the cupboard along with one or two bits under your kitchin sink are to get another poison...

That is you don't have to have that much around your house to be capable making and thus chargable of posession of WMD.

Oh and if you think I'm making this up, some of it (potatos kiddney beans) where the reason used to arrest and detain for long periods some people in the UK under anti-terror laws...

Clive RobinsonJanuary 13, 2010 4:41 PM

@ Paul,

Oh and I forgot to mention don't have "castor beans" (used to grow animal feed) and carbon tetracloride (a once common household cleaning solvent) around.

Otherwise somebody is going to start making "ricin factory" alegations against you.

The stupidity of the US WMD deffinition is that it is an ill defined "catch all".

And in reality that is exactly what it can be used for, to "catch all unsuspecting people".

That is all some LEA & prosecutor who want's a "tough on terrorism" reputation need to add "Jo/Joe Average" to their list of "scalpes" that have "gone through the wringer" and not come out.

And it's not just the US in the UK we had "Guilty of writting bad poetry" under the Terrorism Act of 2000.

And the LEA's want yet more draconian legislation to make keeping their arrest / conviction rate of the inocent on target for those nice little earners

In the UK under the Proceads of Crime act you can be stripped defensless prosecuted and sent down by people who know they are going to get 20% of all your assets just to encorage them to lie to juries.

Yes it's already happened to an inocent business man from Maiden Head who was trying to keep employing people by his selling assets and transfering the proceads within his small group of companies to prevent losses leading to redundancies. The UK tax man decided to try it on and after dening the man the resources (money and acces to his company books) to get proper leagle assistance and the services of a forensic accountant he was found guilty. A firm of forensic accountants have since examined his books and the court transcripts and shown that infact the tax man actually owed his companies money. And worse the tax mans legal representatives had told untruths to the jury about what was and was not leagal with regards to what the man had done.

It will be interesting to see what happens because the "opinion" offered by the forensic accountants being "chartered accountants" and the opinion being about "accounting practice" carries very very special legal weight in the UK and the judge has no choice but to accept it as is and thus is compelled to forward it on. Thus a can of worms has been opened which potentialy could result in members of HM Revenue and Customs doing a lot of kow-towing or jail time.

PaulJanuary 14, 2010 12:05 PM

Thanks, Clive.

I always love to see your posts. I always learn something. I am sometimes not cynical enough by half. That "similar to" clause should have set off bells (I see that sort of thing used as a weasel word enoguh), but somehow my eyes passed right over it.

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