Entries Tagged "9/11"

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The Catastrophic Consequences of 9/11

This is an interesting essay—it claims to be the first in a series—that looks at the rise of “homeland security” as a catastrophic consequence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

In this usage catastrophic is not a pejorative, it is a description of an atypically radical shift in perception and behavior from one condition to another very different condition.

Hypothesis: The velocity of a catastrophic shift is correlated with two factors: 1) preexisting systemic resilience and 2) the intentionality of post-catastrophe response. The more resilience and intentionality depend on control mechanisms, the greater velocity of change. The more resilience and intentionality are predisposed to creative adaptation, the velocity of change is reduced.

More coming.

Posted on June 8, 2012 at 6:43 AMView Comments

Security Implications of "Lower-Risk Aircraft"

Interesting paper: Paul J. Freitas (2012), “Passenger aviation security, risk management, and simple physics,” Journal of Transportation Security.

Abstract: Since the September 11, 2001 suicide hijacking attacks on the United States, preventing similar attacks from recurring has been perhaps the most important goal of aviation security. In addition to other measures, the US government has increased passenger screening requirements to unprecedented levels. This has raised a number of concerns regarding passenger safety from radiation risks associated with airport body scanners, psychological trauma associated with pat-down searches, and general cost/benefit analysis concerns regarding security measures. Screening changes, however, may not be the best way to address the safety and security issues exposed by the September 11 attacks. Here we use simple physics concepts (kinetic energy and chemical potential energy) to evaluate the relative risks from crash damage for various aircraft types. A worst-case jumbo jet crash can result in an energy release comparable to that of a small nuclear weapon, but other aircraft types are considerably less dangerous. Understanding these risks suggests that aircraft with lower fuel capacities, speeds, and weights pose substantially reduced risk over other aircraft types. Lower-risk aircraft may not warrant invasive screening as they pose less risk than other risks commonly accepted in American society, like tanker truck accidents. Allowing passengers to avoid invasive screening for lower-risk aircraft would introduce competition into passenger aviation that might lead to better overall improvements in security and general safety than passenger screening alone is capable of achieving.

The full paper is behind a paywall, but here is a preprint.

Posted on February 9, 2012 at 6:10 AMView Comments

Abolish the Department of Homeland Security

I have a love/hate relationship with the Cato Institute. Most of their analysis I strongly disagree with, but some of it I equally strongly agree with. Last September 11—the tenth anniversary of 9/11—Cato’s David Rittgers published “Abolish the Department of Homeland Security“:

DHS has too many subdivisions in too many disparate fields to operate effectively. Agencies with responsibilities for counterfeiting investigations, border security, disaster preparedness, federal law enforcement training, biological warfare defense, and computer incident response find themselves under the same cabinet official. This arrangement has not enhanced the government’s competence. Americans are not safer because the head of DHS is simultaneously responsible for airport security and governmental efforts to counter potential flu epidemics.

National defense is a key governmental responsibility, but focusing too many resources on trying to defend every potential terrorist target is a recipe for wasteful spending. Our limited resources are better spent on investigating and arresting aspiring terrorists. DHS responsibilities for aviation security, domestic surveillance, and port security have made it too easy for politicians to disguise pork barrel spending in red, white, and blue. Politicians want to bring money home to their districts, and as a result, DHS appropriations too often differ from what ought to be DHS priorities.

I agree with that. In fact, in 2003, when the country was debating a single organization that would be responsible for most (not all, since the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Department of Defense were too powerful to lose any pieces of themselves) of the country’s counterterrorism efforts, I wrote:

Our nation may actually be less secure if the Department of Homeland Security eventually takes over the responsibilities of existing agencies. The last thing we want is for the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of State to say: “Security; that’s the responsibility of the DHS.”

Security is the responsibility of everyone in government. We won’t defeat terrorism by finding a single thing that works all the time. We’ll defeat terrorism when every little thing works in its own way, and together provides an immune system for our society. Unless the DHS distributes security responsibility even as it centralizes coordination, it won’t improve our nation’s security.

Back to the Cato report:

The Department of Homeland Security should be abolished and its components reorganized into more practical groupings. The agencies tasked with immigration, border security, and customs enforcement belong under the same oversight agency, which could appropriately be called the Border Security Administration. The Transportation Security Administration and Federal Air Marshals Service should be abolished, and the federal government should end support for fusion centers. The remaining DHS organizations should return to their former parent agencies.

Hard to argue with most of that, although abolishing the TSA isn’t a good idea. Airport security should be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels, but someone is going to have to be in charge of it. Putting the airlines in charge of it doesn’t make sense; their incentives are going to be passenger service rather than security. Some government agency either has to hire the screeners and staff the checkpoints, or make and enforce rules for contractor-staffed checkpoints to follow.

Last November, the U.S. Congressional Republicans published a report very critical of the TSA: “A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform.”

This report is an examination and critical analysis of the development, evolution, and current status and performance of TSA ten years after its creation. Since its inception, TSA has lost its focus on transportation security. Instead, it has grown into an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy, more concerned with human resource management and consolidating power, and acting reactively instead of proactively. As discussed more fully in the Recommendations section on page 18, TSA must realign its responsibilities as a federal regulator and focus on analyzing intelligence, setting screening and security standards based on risk, auditing passenger and baggage screening operations, and ensuring compliance with national screening standards.

In a related link, there’s a response to a petition to abolish the TSA. The response is by TSA administrator John Pistole, so it’s not the most objective piece of writing on the topic, and doesn’t actually respond to the petition:

Why TSA Exists.

TSA was created two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) [.pdf] to keep the millions of Americans who travel each day safe and secure across numerous modes of transportation.

Over the past 10 years, TSA has strengthened security by creating successful programs and deploying technologies that were not in place prior to September 11, while also taking steps whenever possible to enhance the passenger experience. Here are just a few of the many steps TSA has taken to strengthen our multi-layered approach to security….


Our Nation is safer and better prepared today because of these and other efforts of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA, and our federal, state, local and international partners. TSA is constantly identifying ways to continue to strengthen security and improve the passenger experience and appreciates the feedback of the public.

Pistole just assumes that what his organization is doing is important, and never even mentions how much it costs or whether it’s worth it.

Posted on January 12, 2012 at 3:04 PMView Comments

More 9/11 Retrospectives

Joseph Stiglitz on the price of 9/11.

How 9/11 changed surveillance.

New scientific research as a result of 9/11.

A good controversial piece.

The day we lost our privacy and power.

The probability of another 9/11-magnitude terrorist attack.

To justify the current U.S. spending on homeland security—not including our various official and unofficial wars—we’d have to foil 1,667 Times Square-style plots per year.

Let’s Cancel 9/11.”

I didn’t write anything to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary. I couldn’t think of anything to say that I haven’t said a gazillion times already.

Anything else worth reading? Post links here.

EDITED TO ADD (9/14): “How to Beat Terrorism: Refuse to Be Terrorized” from Wired.

Ten Things I Want My Children To Learn from 9/11.”

The creator of the TSA says it should be dismantled and privatized:

Pat Buchanan on Bush after 9/11.

9/11: Was There an Alternative? by Noam Chomsky.

Comments from Al-Jazeera.

The Onion’s comment.

Posted on September 12, 2011 at 1:27 PMView Comments

The Efficacy of Post-9/11 Counterterrorism

This is an interesting article. The authors argue that the whole war-on-terror nonsense is useless—that’s not new—but that the security establishment knows it doesn’t work and abandoned many of the draconian security measures years ago, long before Obama became president. All that’s left of the war on terror is political, as lawmakers fund unwanted projects in an effort to be tough on crime.

I wish it were true, but I don’t buy it. The war on terror is an enormous cash cow, and law enforcement is spending the money as fast as it can get it. It’s also a great stalking horse for increases in police powers, and I see no signs of agencies like the FBI or the TSA not grabbing all the power they can.

The second half of the article is better. The authors argue that openness, not secrecy, improves security:

The worst mistakes and abuses of the War on Terror were possible, in no small part, because national security is still practiced more as a craft than a science. Lacking rigorous evaluations of its practices, the national security establishment was particularly vulnerable to the panic, grandiosity, and overreach that colored policymaking in the wake of 9/11.

To avoid making those sorts of mistakes again, it is essential that we reimagine national security as an object of scientific inquiry. Over the last four centuries, virtually every other aspect of statecraft—from the economy to social policy to even domestic law enforcement—has been opened up to engagement with and evaluation by civil society. The practice of national security is long overdue for a similar transformation.

Maintaining the nation’s security of course will continue to require some degree of secrecy. But there is little reason to think that appropriate secrecy is inconsistent with a fact-based culture of robust and multiplicative inquiry. Indeed, to whatever partial extent that culture already exists within the national security establishment, it has led the move away from many of the counterproductive security measures established after 9/11.

Yet, in the ten years that Congress has been debating issues like coercive interrogation, ethnic profiling, and military tribunals, the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which have all the proper security clearances to evaluate such questions, have never established any formal process to consistently evaluate and improve the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism measures.

Establishing proper oversight and evaluation of the efficacy of our security practices will not come easily, for the security craft guards its claims to privileged knowledge jealously. But as long as the practice of security remains hidden behind a veil of classified documents and accepted wisdoms handed down from generation to generation of security agents, our national security apparatus will never become fully modern.

Here’s the report the article was based on.

Posted on September 2, 2011 at 1:34 PMView Comments

Terrorism in the U.S. Since 9/11

John Mueller and his students analyze the 33 cases of attempted [EDITED TO ADD: Islamic extremist] terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11. So few of them are actually real, and so many of them were created or otherwise facilitated by law enforcement.

The death toll of all these is fourteen: thirteen at Ft. Hood and one in Little Rock. I think it’s fair to add to this the 2002 incident at Los Angeles Airport where a lone gunman killed two people at the El Al ticket counter, so that’s sixteen deaths in the U.S. to terrorism in the past ten years.

Given the credible estimate that we’ve spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security (this does not include our many foreign wars), that’s $62.5 billion per life [EDITED: lost]. Is there any other risk that we are even remotely as crazy about?

Note that everyone who died was shot with a gun. No Islamic extremist has been able to successfully detonate a bomb in the U.S. in the past ten years, not even a Molotov cocktail. (In the U.K. there has only been one successful terrorist bombing in the last ten years; the 2005 London Underground attacks.) And almost all of the 33 incidents (34 if you add LAX) have been lone actors, with no ties to al Qaeda.

I remember the government fear mongering after 9/11. How there were hundreds of sleeper cells in the U.S. How terrorism would become the new normal unless we implemented all sorts of Draconian security measures. You’d think that—if this were even remotely true—we would have seen more attempted terrorism in the U.S. over the past decade.

And I think arguments like “the government has secretly stopped lots of plots” don’t hold any water. Just look at the list, and remember how the Bush administration would hype even the most tenuous terrorist incident. Stoking fear was the policy. If the government stopped any other plots, they would have made as much of a big deal of them as they did of these 33 incidents.

EDITED TO ADD (8/26): According to the State Department’s recent report, fifteen American private citizens died in terrorist attacks in 2010: thirteen in Afghanistan and one each in Iraq and Uganda. Worldwide, 13,186 people died from terrorism in 2010. These numbers pale even in comparison to things that aren’t very risky.

Here’s data on incidents from 1970 to 2004. And here’s Nate Silver with data showing that the 1970s and 1980s were more dangerous with respect to airplane terrorism than the 2000s.

Also, look at Table 3 on page 16. The risk of dying in the U.S. from terrorism is substantially less than the risk of drowning in your bathtub, the risk of a home appliance killing you, or the risk of dying in an accident caused by a deer. Remember that more people die every month in automobile crashes than died in 9/11.

EDITED TO ADD (8/26): Looking over the incidents again, some of them would make pretty good movie plots. The point of my “movie-plot threat” phrase is not that terrorist attacks are never like that, but that concentrating defensive resources against them is pointless because 1) there are too many of them and 2) it is too easy for the terrorists to change tactics or targets.

EDITED TO ADD (9/1): As was pointed out here, I accidentally typed “lives saved” when I meant to type “lives lost.” I corrected that, above. We generally have a regulatory safety goal of $1 – $10M per life saved. In order for the $100B we have spent per year on counterterrorism to be worth it, it would need to have saved 10,000 lives per year.

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Steven Pinker on Terrorism

It’s almost time for a deluge of “Ten Years After 9/11” essays. Here’s Steven Pinker:

The discrepancy between the panic generated by terrorism and the deaths generated by terrorism is no accident. Panic is the whole point of terrorism, as the root of the word makes clear: “Terror” refers to a psychological state, not an enemy or an event. The effects of terrorism depend completely on the psychology of the audience.


Cognitive psychologists such as Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Paul Slovic have shown that the perceived danger of a risk depends on two factors: fathomability and dread. People are terrified of risks that are novel, undetectable, delayed in their effects, and poorly understood. And they are terrified about worst-case scenarios, the ones that are uncontrollable, catastrophic, involuntary, and inequitable (that is, the people exposed to the risk are not the ones who benefit from it).

These psychologists suggest that cognitive illusions are a legacy of ancient brain circuitry that evolved to protect us against natural risks such as predators, poisons, storms, and especially enemies. Large-scale terrorist plots are novel, undetectable, catastrophic, and inequitable, and thus maximize both unfathomability and dread. They give the terrorists a large psychological payoff for a small investment in damage.


Audrey Cronin nicely captures the conflicting moral psychology that defines the arc of terrorist movements: “Violence has an international language, but so does decency.”

Posted on August 18, 2011 at 1:32 PMView Comments

Social Solidarity as an Effect of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

It’s standard sociological theory that a group experiences social solidarity in response to external conflict. This paper studies the phenomenon in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Conflict produces group solidarity in four phases: (1) an initial few days of shock and idiosyncratic individual reactions to attack; (2) one to two weeks of establishing standardized displays of solidarity symbols; (3) two to three months of high solidarity plateau; and (4) gradual decline toward normalcy in six to nine months. Solidarity is not uniform but is clustered in local groups supporting each other’s symbolic behavior. Actual solidarity behaviors are performed by minorities of the population, while vague verbal claims to performance are made by large majorities. Commemorative rituals intermittently revive high emotional peaks; participants become ranked according to their closeness to a center of ritual attention. Events, places, and organizations claim importance by associating themselves with national solidarity rituals and especially by surrounding themselves with pragmatically ineffective security ritual. Conflicts arise over access to centers of ritual attention; clashes occur between pragmatists deritualizing security and security zealots attempting to keep up the level of emotional intensity. The solidarity plateau is also a hysteria zone; as a center of emotional attention, it attracts ancillary attacks unrelated to the original terrorists as well as alarms and hoaxes. In particular historical circumstances, it becomes a period of atrocities.

This certainly makes sense as a group survival mechanism: self-interest giving way to group interest in face of a threat to the group. It’s the kind of thing I am talking about in my new book.

Paper also available here.

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 9:10 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.