Killer Ideas

  • Denis Seguin
  • Slate
  • June 27, 2007

O’Hare, Chicago, the day before Thanksgiving. The nation’s busiest airport is straining against the nation’s busiest holiday. Among the crowd grumbling through the lengthy security line is a lone traveler with an attaché case. He removes a laptop computer from the case and places it on the tray provided. The tray moves along the conveyor belt. Inside the case’s frame, a small ampul of dimethylmercury cracks and seeps into the X-ray machine. The traveler removes his shoes, passes through the metal detector, retrieves the laptop and the attaché. He’s careful not to let the case touch his clothes. He abandons his stuff in the nearest men’s room and then leaves the airport.

Dimethylmercury is one of the most potent neurotoxins known. Every bag that passes through the X-ray machine will be contaminated—not only in Chicago but in the 10 other major airports where similar “lone travelers” are performing the same act. Within hours, the impact is felt. Every TSA screening employee at every infected machine dies. Thousands of passengers, trapped in airplanes, will be dead on arrival. Even if the planes make an emergency landing, no hospital can reverse the toxin’s lethal progress.

This thriller movie opening comes to you courtesy of R. Saunders, a semifinalist in the second annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest. The contest was created by Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who runs a respected and widely read security e-newsletter, Crypto-Gram. “Movie-plot threats are very good for scaring people, but it’s just silly to build national security policy around them,” wrote Schneier. “If we’re going to worry about unlikely attacks, why can’t they be exciting and innovative ones?” For the first year of the contest, he provided his hypothetical doomsayers a $500,000 budget and license to kill as many people in as grandiose a manner as possible. The winner was Tom Grant who slammed two explosive-laden cargo jets into the Grand Coulee Dam, destroying towns and shutting down the Western U.S. power grid.

In Schneier’s book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, he discusses how humans have a tendency to exaggerate spectacular but rare risks while downplaying common ones (i.e., the person who is afraid of flying blithely climbs behind the wheel of a car). He’s especially annoyed by airport security, which follows a reductive approach—no knives, no forks, no fluids—that promises to have us all flying naked.

Toward that day, Schneier’s instructions for the second annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest targeted the Transportation Security Administration: “Invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered. I want to see a plot horrific and ridiculous, but just plausible enough to take seriously.” He went on: “Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea.” R. Saunders, in his submission, suggests that his dimethylmercury plot would lead to “a ban on X-ray machines, TSA screeners, and airports to prevent the attack from being repeated.”

Saunders’ plot may have been impressive and devious, but he did not precisely follow the rules: This year’s attack must be on a plane. Among the 300 postings were several improbable-but-not-impossible scenarios and the common items such incidents would ban. Explosive breast implants: Pamela Anderson goes onto the no-fly list. A woman steps into the lavatory, removes her pantyhose, drops a bar of soap into one leg and walks out a terrorist with a lethal slingshot cum garrote: Nix the pantyhose and personal hygiene products. Several entries featured bomb plots that make use of cell phone and laptop batteries to ignite their weapons. Others trigger explosives by plugging into the seat-back AC outlets we see in newer aircraft. Adapter cables, headphone wires, boot laces, broken duty-free bottles: Weapons abound. But none of these plots comes close to the winner, announced June 15, for sheer panache.

Ron Phillips titled his caper Butterflies and Beverages, and he employs all the tropes of pulp screenwriting to make his case. Open on a single person diligently scraping in an airplane bathroom, carefully gathering a pile of metal shavings. Cut to the smoldering ruins of a downed 747. Two investigators are wondering why all these butterflies are flitting about the crash scene. They initiate a conference call with an entomologist, and gradually work it out: This particular genus of butterfly is attracted to sodium. Here’s Phillips’ dialogue:

Investigator 1: A cup of water would be enough, just drop the sodium metal into it and the chemical reaction would quickly release hydrogen gas, with enough heat generated as a byproduct of the reaction to ignite the gas. In just a second or two, you’d have an explosion strong enough to knock the side out of a plane.

Investigator 2: We’re going to have to ban water, and anything containing a significant amount of water, from all passenger flights. It’s the only way, otherwise we could have planes dropping out of the sky every time someone is served a beverage.

There you have it: The terrorist in the lavatory was collecting sodium metal. Phillips received a $50 prize, autographed copies of Schneier’s books, and—Schneier is vague on this—a meeting with a film director. Writes Schneier on his site: “We hope that one of his prizes isn’t a visit by the FBI.” When Schneier was asked if he verified the science behind these plots, he expressed contempt. “It’s a movie plot. You don’t have to verify the science. Feasibility is not required.” He points to the recently “foiled” plot to bomb JFK airport, a case he demolished in a recent essay, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot.” Law enforcement didn’t verify the science of the putative JFK bombers, he says. They didn’t verify the science of the London liquid bombers, either. Indeed, both might have been submitted to Schneier’s movie-plot contest.

While hosting his competition, Schneier received e-mails lambasting him for “giving the terrorists ideas,” a notion he finds still more contemptible. “That’s the whole point of the contest. It’s not about the ideas. Good terrorist ideas are a dime a dozen. We’re not going to become safer by pretending the bad guys don’t know that mercury is poison or that you could technically drop the Brooklyn Bridge.” Returning to the theme of this year’s contest, he adds: “Airport security is the last line of defense,” he said, “and it’s not a very good one. We need to stop the plots before they get to the airport.”

But that’s just not as exciting.

Categories: Articles, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.