America's Necessary Response to Moscow's Airport Attack: Nothing

By Foster Kamer
Esquire Politics Blog
January 24, 2011

As Russia reels in the aftermath of a brutal terror attack yielding an estimated 35 casualties at Domodedovo Airport -- Moscow's busiest -- much of the awe and reaction toward this specific incident is focused on the location: not just an airport, but a restaurant at an airport, outside of the baggage claim, before anyone reaches a security checkpoint. Especially as the terrorists in question are initially being reported as Arab, governments (and specifically: ours) beginning to react on their own turfs outside of Russia is a given. Yet, while responses by Western Governments to terror attacks anywhere are subject to variables generally extending to who's been attacked, who has done the attacking, and whether continuity within the attack is a possibility, they all typically have a common link: the intensifying of security at corresponding locations. Is that going to happen here? Will you now have to be checked just to get into baggage claims? Does this attack foretell any changes in the way Americans go about their lives? For answers, we turned to Bruce Schneier, a security guru with a day job as Chief Security Technology Officer of BT, when he's not authoring one of his several books, donating a fair share of congressional testimonies, and writing a monthly newsletter on security technologies, Crypto-Gram, which enjoys a following of over 150,000 regular readers. We reached Schneier over the phone this morning, as he spoke to us from his hotel room in Guatemala.

ESQUIRE: What kind of response by those responsible for American security from terror does an attack like this produce? What's considered overly reactionary, here?

BRUCE SCHNEIER: This is the sort of thing that yes, people are likely to overreact to, and do all sorts of things that'll do nothing to solve the problem but make people feel better.

What kind overreactions are we talking about?

Anything. Could be anything. Doing anything would be an overreaction. As long as you have crowded people, bombers can blow themselves up in those crowds. It has nothing to do with airports. It has nothing to do with anything. Restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums. We could list, without even trying, 100,000 potential targets.

Allow us to be naïve: What's the harm in overreacting to a potential security threat?

It'll cost you money. It's money that could be better spent making you safer. You waste money, you waste civil liberties, time, freedoms. You end up with governments that break the law. There's a lot of harm [to be had]. In the U.S. certainly, we've had at least one political party campaign on 'You're scared and we'll make you feel better.' You go to other countries and that kind of thing is even more severe. Fear-based politics.

Is there no reasonable route for recourse in the aftermath of a terror attack?

No! Of course not! If something takes most precedence, then you're overreacting. Nothing changed between yesterday and today. A singular event happened. Threats didn't change, security didn't change. Bad guys didn't change, good guys didn't change. Nothing happened. Just: people are now more scared.

So where do Americans use their resources to protect themselves from a world with one more terror attack, as of this morning?

Investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. Anything that focuses on the targets is missing the point. It's hard [not to react immediately], right? Your brain's just saying 'fear, fear, fear, fear.' It's really hard to look at the numbers. It's hard to calm down. I know. Humans aren't built for this. But it doesn't matter how much money Moscow spent on security checkpoints and passenger screening and ID checks. All that was irrelevant. The attackers said 'Oh yeah, airport security's too hard. I'm going to go someplace else.'

Are America's current efforts on domestic security fronts sufficient, though? Where's the need for improvement?

There's a lot of stuff we're doing very badly. We just spend money crappily on security. We spend on things like taking away liquids at airports, which is just plain dumb. We spend on full body scanners, which is even worse than dumb. We're now starting to do random bag searches in subways in Washington D.C. Imagine how stupid that is. We're forcing the bad guy to walk seven blocks to the next station. Do you feel safer? Look at the numbers. We have 42,000 people die each year in car crashes. That's really, really appalling. Terrorism is pretty much close to zero, here, so we're certainly sufficient against the threat. Investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. The stuff in the beginning -- which gets the bad guys regardless of their plot -- and the stuff afterwards, it cleans up and helps people survive after the inevitable thing happens, no matter what it is.

Schneier later e-mailed after our conversation to emphasize a point:

"The bomb could just as easily have been in any other crowded area of the city. There's simply no way to secure them all. Increasing security in the arrivals area would do [little] more than force the bomber to choose another target. Unfortunately, psychology will kick in and we'll over react. 'Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.'"

earlier story: Bruce Schneier: We Need "Cyberwar Hotlines" to Match Nuclear Hotlines
later story: Don't Blame Sony, You Can't Trust ANY Networks
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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