Monday, September 18, 2006

Bolstered spirits

Pretty Lady was none too happy about returning to The City simultaneously with a renewed and specific terror threat. She spent a good deal of the nine-hour drive meditating upon the mechanics and/or futility of bug-out tactics--which pair of boots to pack, how much water to store in the 4-wheeler, spare tank of gasoline, spare gun from little brother, etc. But the truth of the matter is, if a dirty bomb hits Manhattan, the BQE is going to be too jammed for her to get clear of the city limits before receiving a lethal dose of radiation. Period. So why worry?

Conversely, she considered bopping on down to the mosque on Atlantic and starting a friendly conversation, but she's waiting on orders from the Holy Spirit before engaging in that one. Meanwhile, she said a cheerful return hello to the sweet lady in the burqua at the corner store this evening.

Thus, the Sensible Article forwarded by her Sensible Sister came just in time.

What the Terrorists Want

On August 16, two men were escorted off a plane headed for Manchester,
England, because some passengers thought they looked either Asian or
Middle Eastern, might have been talking Arabic, wore leather jackets,
and looked at their watches -- and the passengers refused to fly with
them on board. The men were questioned for several hours and then released.

On August 15, an entire airport terminal was evacuated because someone's
cosmetics triggered a false positive for explosives. The same day, a
Muslim man was removed from an airplane in Denver for reciting prayers.
The Transportation Security Administration decided that the flight crew
overreacted, but he still had to spend the night in Denver before flying
home the next day. The next day, a Port of Seattle terminal was
evacuated because a couple of dogs gave a false alarm for explosives.

On August 19, a plane made an emergency landing in Tampa, Florida, after
the crew became suspicious because two of the lavatory doors were
locked. The plane was searched, but nothing was found. Meanwhile, a man
who tampered with a bathroom smoke detector on a flight to San Antonio
was cleared of terrorism, but only after having his house searched.

On August 16, a woman suffered a panic attack and became violent on a
flight from London to Washington, so the plane was escorted to the
Boston airport by fighter jets. "The woman was carrying hand cream and
matches but was not a terrorist threat," said the TSA spokesman after
the incident.

And on August 18, a plane flying from London to Egypt made an emergency
landing in Italy when someone found a bomb threat scrawled on an air
sickness bag. Nothing was found on the plane, and no one knows how long
the note was on board.

I'd like everyone to take a deep breath and listen for a minute.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a
political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists
kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up
planes, trains, markets, or buses is not the goal; those are just
tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions
of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The
real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.

We're all a little jumpy after the recent arrest of 23 terror suspects
in Great Britain. The men were reportedly plotting a liquid-explosive
attack on airplanes, and both the press and politicians have been
trumpeting the story ever since.

In truth, it's doubtful that their plan would have succeeded; chemists
have been debunking the idea since it became public. Certainly the
suspects were a long way off from trying: None had bought airline
tickets, and some didn't even have passports.

Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers' perspective, the
explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause
terror, and in that they've succeeded.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if they had blown up ten
planes. There would be canceled flights, chaos at airports, bans on
carry-on luggage, world leaders talking tough new security measures,
political posturing and all sorts of false alarms as jittery people
panicked. To a lesser degree, that's basically what's happening right now.

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a
campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories
about the plot and the threat. And if we're terrified, and we share that
fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists'
actions, and increase the effects of their terror.

(I am not saying that the politicians and press are terrorists, or that
they share any of the blame for terrorist attacks. I'm not that stupid.
But the subject of terrorism is more complex than it appears, and
understanding its various causes and effects are vital for understanding
how to best deal with it.)

The implausible plots and false alarms actually hurt us in two ways. Not
only do they increase the level of fear, but they also waste time and
resources that could be better spent fighting the real threats and
increasing actual security. I'll bet the terrorists are laughing at us.

Another thought experiment: Imagine for a moment that the British
government arrested the 23 suspects without fanfare. Imagine that the
TSA and its European counterparts didn't engage in pointless airline
security measures like banning liquids. And imagine that the press
didn't write about it endlessly, and that the politicians didn't use the
event to remind us all how scared we should be. If we'd reacted that
way, then the terrorists would have truly failed.

It's time we calm down and fight terror with anti-terror. This does not
mean that we simply roll over and accept terrorism. There are things our
government can and should do to fight terrorism, most of them involving
intelligence and investigation -- and not focusing on specific plots.

But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to
be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand
together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion
Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320
million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not
terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore
the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance
political careers or increase a television show's viewership.

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our
job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and
not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those
politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and
promote security theater that wastes money and doesn't make us any safer.

There have been many more incidents since I wrote this -- all false
alarms. I've stopped keeping a list.

The chemical unreality of the plot:


This essay also makes the same point that we're overreacting, as well as
describing a 1995 terrorist plot that was remarkably similar in both
materials and modus operandi -- and didn't result in a complete ban on

My previous related writings:

This essay originally appeared in Wired:,71642-0.html

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Details on the British Terrorist Arrest

Details are emerging:

* There was some serious cash flow from someone, presumably someone
* There was no imminent threat.
* However, the threat was real. And it seems pretty clear that it
would have bypassed all existing airport security systems.
* The conspirators were radicalized by the war in Iraq, although it is
impossible to say whether they would have been otherwise radicalized
without it.
* They were caught through police work, not through any broad
surveillance, and were under surveillance for more than a year.

What pisses me off most is the second item. By arresting the
conspirators early, the police squandered the chance to learn more about
the network and arrest more of them -- and to present a less flimsy
case. There have been many news reports detailing how the U.S.
pressured the UK government to make the arrests sooner, possibly out of
political motivations. (And then Scotland Yard got annoyed at the U.S.
leaking plot details to the press, hampering their case.)

I still think that all of the new airline security measures are an
overreaction. As I said on a radio interview a couple of weeks ago:
"We ban guns and knives, and the terrorists use box cutters. We ban box
cutters and corkscrews, and they hide explosives in their shoes. We
screen shoes, and the terrorists use liquids. We ban liquids, and the
terrorist will use something else. It's not a fair game, because the
terrorists get to see our security measures before they plan their
attack." And it's not a game we can win. So let's stop playing, and
play a game we actually can win. The real lesson of the London arrests
is that investigation and intelligence work.
The above URL is unavailable in the UK:

My initial comments on the arrests:

** *** ***** ******* *********** *************

More Than 10 Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11

On 10 September 2006, the New York Times published a feature called "Ten
Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11": "The Op-Ed page asked 10 people with
experience in security and counterterrorism to answer the following
question: What is one major reason the United States has not suffered a
major attack since 2001, and what is the one thing you would recommend
the nation do in order to avoid attacks in the future?"

Actually, they asked more than 10, myself included. But some of us were
cut because they didn't have enough space. This was my essay:

Despite what you see in the movies and on television, it's actually very
difficult to execute a major terrorist act. It's hard to organize,
plan, and execute an attack, and it's all too easy to slip up and get
caught. Combine that with our intelligence work tracking terrorist
cells and interdicting terrorist funding, and you have a climate where
major attacks are rare. In many ways, the success of 9/11 was an
anomaly; there were many points where it could have failed. The main
reason we haven't seen another 9/11 is that it isn't as easy as it looks.

Much of our counterterrorist efforts are nothing more than security
theater: ineffectual measures that look good. Forget the war on terror;
the difficulty isn't killing or arresting the terrorists, it's finding
them. Terrorism is a law enforcement problem, and needs to be treated
as such. For example, none of our post-9/11 airline security measures
would have stopped the London shampoo bombers. The lesson of London is
that our best defense is intelligence and investigation. Rather than
spending money on airline security, or sports stadium security --
measures that require us to guess the plot correctly in order to be
effective -- we're better off spending money on measures that are
effective regardless of the plot.

Intelligence and investigation have kept us safe from terrorism in the
past, and will continue to do so in the future. If the CIA and FBI had
done a better job of coordinating and sharing data in 2001, 9/11 would
have been another failed attempt. Coordination has gotten better, and
those agencies are better funded -- but it's still not enough. Whenever
you read about the billions being spent on national ID cards or massive
data mining programs or new airport security measures, think about the
number of intelligence agents that the same money could buy. That's
where we're going to see the greatest return on our security investment.


max said...

But the truth of the matter is, if a dirty bomb hits Manhattan, the BQE is going to be too jammed for her to get clear of the city limits before receiving a lethal dose of radiation. Period. So why worry?

If you mean when/if a thermonuclear device is detonated in Manhatten...well, assuming you survive the initial x-ray/gamma ray burst, overpressure wave and firestorm, the fallout and whatnot that occur afterwards are not neccessarily lethal.

If you're referring to a device of some sort consisting of a chemical explosive strapped to some radioactive materials - the odds of dying or even of getting sick from that are very low. It's a question of mass - even a coupla pounds of finely ground plutonium won't be distributed very far by a chemical detonation. And plutonium is the densest natural element so it's not something that travels far easily. That kind of detonation would kill somewhere in the range of 0-500 people, mainly due to direct absorption of material into the lungs. (Another words, if you 500 feet away from such a detonation when it occurred, you might inhale some of the material before it had a chance to settle, whereas if you came within 500 feet several hours later, you might not even be directly exposed.) If it isn't clear, imagine strapping a coupla grenades to a case of tomato sauce. Pull the pin, run like hell, and watch where the sauce goes; you might get some tomato 'dust' (or 'sauce vapor'), but most of it is going to wind up spread all over nearby cars and buildings.

Reactor accidents and thermonuclear detonations are different, because then you have a fire and lots of fizzing going on that creates short-lived radioactive isotopes out of assorted elements that are typically not radioaction, such a iodine-91. The fizzing makes the isotopes and the fire(s) carries them up into the sky to settle down far away. The isotopes that are made are often much more deadly over the short term and in much smaller particulate form than either plutonium or uranium.

If someone knew how to manufacture the hellishly radioactive short-term isotopes short of using a nuclear weapon, then yes, a dirty bomb would be potentially devestating. But no one knows how to do that. If terrorist types could get ahold of large amounts of refined, weapons-grade uranium or plutonium that might be moderately dangerous if placed in the presence of a chemical explosion except if you've got bomb-grade plutonium, why make a dirty bomb at all when you can have the real thing?

Making a bomb is really hard work tho, so really, the terrorist weapon of choice is still C4 (or equivalent) and a bunch of ball bearings or a box of rusty nails. Cheap and easy to make, hard to detect, good kill ratio!

I personally expect that sometime in the next 10 to 50 years a Western city will buy it via a nuke. New York is an obvious target but it's not the only target by far. So I expect that it is far more likely you will die of old age, bathtub slippage, car wreck or mugging in Manhatten than from a terrorist attack. Or war with China, even.


prettylady said...

Well, you have inexpressibly relieved my mind. ;-)

thimscool said...

Excellent post Pretty Lady. And you too Max.

This is yet another reason that I find the GWB crowd to be so reprehensible. So two faced.

I'm headed up to Brooklyn for a wedding next month and occasionally I get the irrational terror worries... but I know what Max knows, and I also suspect that it would be Manhatten, not Brooklyn that would receive the blow. Or the tunnels and bridges...

That would suck hard, but probably not be deadly... unless we get trampled by a terrorized mob.

Anonymous said...

Despite your nine-hour adventure, I would heartily recommend a bug-out bag packed with 72-hour essentials.

Make sure that this backpack has nicely padded straps, and a belt. I am continually amazed everytime there is a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina comes to mind - that we do not see evacuees sitting on top of cars and hanging off buses, since whenever I see photographs of refugees in the Middle East trying to unass an area they will literally hang twenty people off a truck to get away from whatever the Bad Thing of the Week happens to be. This never seems to happen here in the US - most of the Katrina people were either standing around like sheeple waiting to be herded unceremoniously into the Guantanadome, or were too busy looting and pillaging to flee the rising waters. I can guarantee you that if I had lived in N.O. and did not have a car I would have been either riding a bike, sitting on the hood or in the bed of someone's truck, or humping a trail out of the flood zone.

You have mentioned you own a bike, you can cover a fair distance in just a few hours on a bike and not have to worry about fuel availability or gridlock on the 59th St. Bridge. Your friend Max's analogy of the Prego bomb is accurate, and on a bicycle your chances of successfully evacuating an area before you absorb too many rads is much better than your chances in a cab or car.

You can buy a decent mil-spec (unless it's "fuck the budget, I've got Mastercard" time, then buy milsurp) CFP-90 backpack that will handily carry water, food, clothes and toiletries in it with little discomfort. It is nice to know that you can leave your flat and be gone in under 30 seconds in case of a fire, or any other emergency and know you have enough gear to carry you through the next three days.


thimscool said...

Well spoken, Crom. Be prepared.