How Much Counterterrorism Can We Afford?

In an article on using terahertz rays (is that different from terahertz radar?) to detect biological agents, we find this quote:

“High-tech, low-tech, we can’t afford to overlook any possibility in dealing with mass casualty events,” according to center head Donald Sebastian. “You need multiple methods of detection and response. Terrorism comes in many forms; you have to see, smell, taste and analyze everything.”

He’s got it completely backwards. I think we can easily afford not to do what he’s saying, and can’t afford to do it.

The technology to detect traces of chemical and biological agents is neat, though. And I am very much in favor of research along these lines.

Posted on June 23, 2010 at 6:00 AM19 Comments


C D June 23, 2010 7:32 AM

Regarding the technology, they (Federici et al) are in the research area of terahertz spectroscopy (time-domain or otherwise), which is not very similar to radar. As a researcher in the millimeter-wave/terahertz field, I agree that it is indeed impressive and interesting work.

I also agree that he has it backward.

Nick June 23, 2010 7:41 AM

“I think we can easily afford not to do what he’s saying, and can’t afford to do it.”

Isn’t this conflating RISK (we can afford not to do it, because the risk of terrorists poisoning our steak is low) with COST (we can’t afford to pump billions of dollars into magic detection tech)?

BF Skinner June 23, 2010 7:59 AM

At least here we have the context. It’s being said by someone who is the head of a research group at an academic level.
In this context I don’t disagree with him.

Researchers should research everything if only to find out AND DOCUMENT what fails.

If it were being said to inform policy or by a policy maker –that would be a different story.

Stephen Morley June 23, 2010 8:12 AM

Nick: “Isn’t this conflating RISK (we can afford not to do it, because the risk of terrorists poisoning our steak is low) with COST (we can’t afford to pump billions of dollars into magic detection tech)?”

I think this is a deliberate rhetorical trick on Bruce’s part (it’s called antanaclasis).

john Campbell June 23, 2010 8:42 AM

Prevention only goes so far… and natural events are less susceptible to preventative measures.

Prevention also sells us a brittle “good” since there is no such thing as 100% (well, short of the Sun going nova).

Dom De Vitto June 23, 2010 9:17 AM

What about mind-reading technology? I read a book once where a government successfully reduced terrorism and other crimes using this kind of technology.

You’ve got to read everyone’s mind if you are serious about preventing terrorism.

Mind reading would have stopped the recent deaths in Cumbria, but Terahertz technology wouldn’t have helped at all.

Oh, I also stock a number of mind-reading devices (each specific to Terrorism, Pedophilia, Organised Crime) – all at very reasonable prices, but obviously you can’t put a price on saving people lives, so the prices are high too.

Oh, and if anyone criticizes my post, they must be North Korean mafia pedophiles trained by Al Qaeda, or some other form of kitten-eating weirdo.

David Thornley June 23, 2010 10:03 AM

@Nick: What is risk, if not the potential costs of doing something in some particular way?

This does require that everything be reduced to some common denominator, like dollars, but that’s what we do all the time. There are generally accepted dollar values for a human life (check any wrongful death suit), and there’s any number of ways we could spend money to reduce deaths. In the US, providing good health care to everybody would remove or alleviate a lot of risks to people, just to name one in the news nowadays.

Clive Robinson June 23, 2010 10:54 AM

Hmm what defines what we can and cannot afford.

For instance what if a choice is made to only buy technology that is wholly America (technicaly illegal but lets go with it for the moment).

You could view it not as spending money on questionable technology put to questionable uses, but an investment in R&D technology and ability in America (ie a subsidy). Or as encouraging economic development or churn to stimulate the home economy.

As noted above the cost has to be set within a context…

As a silly example the DHS could be seen to be doing what NASA did in the 1960’s and early 1970’s…

Unix Ronin June 23, 2010 10:56 AM

With this kind of thinking, you eventually reach a point where not only are you too terrified to ever leave the house, but you’re too terrified to let anyone ELSE ever leave their house either, because They Might Have Some Nefarious Plan. And anyone actually coming to your house (to deliver food, say) is Right Out. Besides, that food could be poisoned, or irradiated, or contaminated with anthrax, or contain Russian nanobots, or…..

We need to gather up all the raving, screaming paranoids who are making security policy right now, tuck them into nice safe cosy rubber-lined rooms for their own safety, and get on with the world. A little constructive paranoia is a good thing, but when paranoia reduces you to complete inaction except for gibbering in the corner, it’s long past time to stop listening to it and start treating it.

Thinkerer June 23, 2010 11:07 AM

Correct me if I’m wrong (@c.d.) but our experiences in THz wave imaging show it to be impractical in high vibration environments, much like holography.

BF Skinner June 23, 2010 11:13 AM

@David Thornley “require that everything be reduced to some common denominator, like dollars”

Well the advantage of a common measure is of course that is you can then compare apples and oranges.

The disadvantage is that numbers become a mania and you end up with oranges when making an apple pie. The map is not the territory.

@Unix Ronin “are you too terrified to ever leave the house”

I know I was but and it seemed reasonable; on the first day of my honeymoon my wife Lisa had an affair with a French scuba diving instructor. Then I met this old classmate, Polly, who said “I’ve been living my life. Unlike some freak, who thinks he’s gonna get the Ebola virus from a bowl of mixed nuts.”

RH June 23, 2010 11:24 AM

@David Thornley: There are generally accepted dollar values for a human life.

That’s really the problem, there is no such value on a human life. It changes from context to context. Can you imagine a politician running for office on the platform of raising the dollar value of the human being? Or someone being told they wont be treated because they’re not worth the cost of the treatment?

Can you imagine if the army had to pay lawsuit rates for their men on the line during a war?

Louis June 23, 2010 12:08 PM

Sounds to me like this guy is simply screaming his guts out.

He’s not a risk analyst and much less a risk manager.

Hindsight; whoever thought of inventing it should be historically blamed for all useless action plans

mcb June 23, 2010 12:11 PM

“Terrorism comes in many forms; you have to see, smell, taste and analyze everything.”

Everything? Everywhere? All the time? No we don’t! But I agree Don and his team should have some more grant money to develop this interesting technology. We may have need to analyze some things, at a place and time of our choosing.

Anon June 23, 2010 12:25 PM

Thinking about uses of radiation.

What about coherent radiation tuned to the resonance frequencies of common explosives. As long as these frequencies did not have effects on human tissue this could be used to set suicide bombers off at a distance. Or for airport screening simply have people pass one at a time through a titanium cubicle where their explosives would detonate with consequences only to themselves (be rather messy though).

David Thornley June 23, 2010 12:46 PM

@RH: I said dollar values, which covers the fact that there are different values, depending on context. The army, for example, pays death benefits of some sort (I don’t know the details), and therefore has a value of its own.

And, yes, people have been told they won’t be treated because either they can’t afford treatment or it’s not cost-effective. One common line is “You’re not a good candidate for this treatment.” It’s considered more polite than “You’re not, as a human being, worth the cost of this treatment,” but means much the same.

@BF Skinner: The map isn’t the territory, but I’ve gotten awfully lost before by not having a good map. Risk is a statistical distribution of cost. The costs come in different categories, including loss of life, loss of liberty (motorcycle helmet laws, for example), and resource cost, which is relatively easy to measure with dollars. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) For proper planning, we have to have at least rough conversions between the categories. Otherwise, we’ll wind up spending lots and lots of money on preventing very low-probability events, to the detriment of everything else.

Davi Ottenheimer June 23, 2010 3:38 PM

It is times like this I am reminded of the intense and prolonged effort of philosophers during the empiricism movement (especially in Britain).

David Hume, for example, argued with great success (for that time) that knowledge arises from sense experience. Earlier, John Locke expanded and moved beyond Descartes with the theory that all knowledge can only come “a posteriori” (based upon experience).

Wittgenstein tried to take this to the next level with mathematical proofs and logic…but more to the point of this article it seems that there is always temptation to return to the 1700s in philosophical views — “you have to see, smell, taste and analyze everything” to know anything.

This is not appropriate for modern risk management and response models. We know that threats today, in other words, are highly likely to come from paradigm shifts where new ideas come forward that do not follow existing theories. Information gathering for synthesis is fine and useful (assuming it is affordable), but it is high-quality analysis that is most important.

Jay June 23, 2010 8:20 PM

@Anon – you’re thinking of something out of “Cease Fire”, a short story by Frank Herbert.

That story involved a device that could detonate all explosives from a distance – the inventor thought it meant an end to war. That story ended with the re-introduction of poisons, barbed crossbows, and germ warfare.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a device could even exist outside sci-fi, it still solves the wrong problem. Not a winning tactic.

BF Skinner June 24, 2010 6:58 AM

@David Thornley
Sure but I think I said it more smart.

Everyone has models we operate from. It patches over a lot of cracks in the plaster.

“I know what I know. And that I don’t know; I forget.”

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