Entries Tagged "guns"

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Lessons from Mumbai

I’m still reading about the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and I expect it’ll be a long time before we get a lot of the details. What we know is horrific, and my sympathy goes out to the survivors of the dead (and the injured, who often seem to get ignored as people focus on death tolls). Without discounting the awfulness of the events, I have some initial observations:

  • Low-tech is very effective. Movie-plot threats—terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists with biological agents, terrorists targeting our water supplies—might be what people worry about, but a bunch of trained (we don’t really know yet what sort of training they had, but it’s clear that they had some) men with guns and grenades is all they needed.
  • At the same time, the attacks were surprisingly ineffective. I can’t find exact numbers, but it seems there were about 18 terrorists. The latest toll is 195 dead, 235 wounded. That’s 11 dead, 13 wounded, per terrorist. As horrible as the reality is, that’s much less than you might have thought if you imagined the movie in your head. Reality is different from the movies.
  • Even so, terrorism is rare. If a bunch of men with guns and grenades is all they really need, then why isn’t this sort of terrorism more common? Why not in the U.S., where it’s easy to get hold of weapons? It’s because terrorism is very, very rare.
  • Specific countermeasures don’t help against these attacks. None of the high-priced countermeasures that defend against specific tactics and specific targets made, or would have made, any difference: photo ID checks, confiscating liquids at airports, fingerprinting foreigners at the border, bag screening on public transportation, anything. Even metal detectors and threat warnings didn’t do any good:

    “If I look at what we had, which all of us complained about, it could not have stopped what took place,” he told CNN. “It’s ironic that we did have such a warning, and we did have some measures.”

    He said people were told to park away from the entrance and had to go through a metal detector. But he said the attackers came through a back entrance.

    “They knew what they were doing, and they did not go through the front. All of our arrangements are in the front,” he said.

If there’s any lesson in these attacks, it’s not to focus too much on the specifics of the attacks. Of course, that’s not the way we’re programmed to think. We respond to stories, not analysis. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic; this tendency is human and these deaths are really tragic. But 18 armed people intent on killing lots of innocents will be able to do just that, and last-line-of-defense countermeasures won’t be able to stop them. Intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. We have to find and stop the terrorists before they attack, and deal with the aftermath of the attacks we don’t stop. There really is no other way, and I hope that we don’t let the tragedy lead us into unwise decisions about how to deal with terrorism.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Two interesting essays.

Posted on December 1, 2008 at 8:03 AMView Comments

TSA News

Item 1: Kip Hawley says that the TSA may reduce size restrictions on liquids. You’ll still have to take them out of your bag, but they can be larger than three ounces. The reasons—so he states—are that technologies are getting better, not that the threat is reduced.

I’m skeptical, of course. But read his post; it’s interesting.

Item 2: Hawley responded to my response to his blog post about an article about me in The Atlantic.

Item 3: The Atlantic is holding a contest, based on Hawley’s comment that the TSA is basically there to catch stupid terrorists:

And so, a contest: How would the Hawley Principle of Federally-Endorsed Mediocrity apply to other government endeavors?

Not the same as my movie-plot threat contest, but fun all the same.

Item 4: What would the TSA make of this?

Posted on October 29, 2008 at 2:27 PMView Comments

The Two Classes of Airport Contraband

Airport security found a jar of pasta sauce in my luggage last month. It was a 6-ounce jar, above the limit; the official confiscated it, because allowing it on the airplane with me would have been too dangerous. And to demonstrate how dangerous he really thought that jar was, he blithely tossed it in a nearby bin of similar liquid bottles and sent me on my way.

There are two classes of contraband at airport security checkpoints: the class that will get you in trouble if you try to bring it on an airplane, and the class that will cheerily be taken away from you if you try to bring it on an airplane. This difference is important: Making security screeners confiscate anything from that second class is a waste of time. All it does is harm innocents; it doesn’t stop terrorists at all.

Let me explain. If you’re caught at airport security with a bomb or a gun, the screeners aren’t just going to take it away from you. They’re going to call the police, and you’re going to be stuck for a few hours answering a lot of awkward questions. You may be arrested, and you’ll almost certainly miss your flight. At best, you’re going to have a very unpleasant day.

This is why articles about how screeners don’t catch every—or even a majority—of guns and bombs that go through the checkpoints don’t bother me. The screeners don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough. No terrorist is going to base his plot on getting a gun through airport security if there’s a decent chance of getting caught, because the consequences of getting caught are too great.

Contrast that with a terrorist plot that requires a 12-ounce bottle of liquid. There’s no evidence that the London liquid bombers actually had a workable plot, but assume for the moment they did. If some copycat terrorists try to bring their liquid bomb through airport security and the screeners catch them—like they caught me with my bottle of pasta sauce—the terrorists can simply try again. They can try again and again. They can keep trying until they succeed. Because there are no consequences to trying and failing, the screeners have to be 100 percent effective. Even if they slip up one in a hundred times, the plot can succeed.

The same is true for knitting needles, pocketknives, scissors, corkscrews, cigarette lighters and whatever else the airport screeners are confiscating this week. If there’s no consequence to getting caught with it, then confiscating it only hurts innocent people. At best, it mildly annoys the terrorists.

To fix this, airport security has to make a choice. If something is dangerous, treat it as dangerous and treat anyone who tries to bring it on as potentially dangerous. If it’s not dangerous, then stop trying to keep it off airplanes. Trying to have it both ways just distracts the screeners from actually making us safer.

EDITED TO ADD (10/23): A similar article ran in The Guardian.

Posted on September 23, 2008 at 5:47 AMView Comments

The War on T-Shirts

London Heathrow security stopped someone from boarding a plane for wearing a Transformers T-shirt showing a cartoon gun.

It’s easy to laugh and move on. How stupid can these people be, we wonder. But there’s a more important security lesson here. Security screening is hard, and every false threat the screeners watch out for make it more likely that real threats slip through. At a party the other night, someone told me about the time he accidentally brought a large knife through airport security. The screener pulled his bag aside, searched it, and pulled out a water bottle.

It’s not just the water bottles and the t-shirts and the gun jewelry—this kind of thing actually makes us all less safe.

Posted on June 2, 2008 at 2:27 PMView Comments

Terroristic Threatening

What in the world is “terroristic threatening“?

The woman was also charged with one count of terroristic threatening for pointing a handgun at an officer, said university police Maj. Kenny Brown. The woman gave her handgun to a counselor at the health services building, he said.

We are all hurt by the application of the word “terrorist” to everything we don’t like. Terrorism does not equal criminality.

Posted on April 4, 2008 at 11:19 AMView Comments

Detecting Gunshots

Minneapolis—the city I live in—has an acoustic system that automatically detects and locates gunshots. It’s been in place for a year and a half.

The main system being considered by Minneapolis is called ShotSpotter. It could cost up to $350,000, and some community groups are hoping to pitch in.

That seems like a bargain to me.

Recently, I was asked about this system on Winnipeg radio. Actually, I kind of like it. I like it because it’s finely tuned to one particular problem: detecting gunfire. It doesn’t record everything. It doesn’t invade privacy. If there’s no gunfire, it’s silent. But if there is a gunshot, it figures out the location of the noise and automatically tells police.

From a privacy and liberties perspective, it’s a good system. Now all that has to be demonstrated is that it’s cost effective.

Posted on March 20, 2008 at 7:27 AMView Comments

Heavily Armed Officers on New York City Subways

Why does anyone think this is a good idea?

In the first counterterrorism strategy of its kind in the nation, roving teams of New York City police officers armed with automatic rifles and accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol the city’s subway system daily, beginning next month, officials said on Friday.

Under a tactical plan called Operation Torch, the officers will board trains and patrol platforms, focusing on sites like Pennsylvania Station, Herald Square, Columbus Circle, Rockefeller Center and Times Square in Manhattan, and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

What does it accomplish besides intimidating innocent commuters?

Posted on February 7, 2008 at 6:06 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.