Thursday, August 10, 2006

Fighting the last battle

What security measures to take against the threat of terrorism? The problem is that there is an almost endless number of ways in which a terrorist act can be carried out, and it is very hard, and probably impossible, to find ways of preventing every possible such plot. Perhaps inevitably, security measures are always reactive. Terrorists hijack four planes, kill three thousand people, and make George Bush win an election, all just with box cutters. Hence all box cutters and pointy objects are banned from flights. A would-be suicide attacker tries to detonate explosive hidden in his shoe. Hence we must X-ray all passengers' shoes. Female terrorists hide explosive in their bras. Hence the stories of passengers being indicently patted during security checks. Today we learn of the explosives to be made out of liquid chemicals. Now no liquids can be taken aboard US flights.

It is only a matter of time until a terrorist tries to smuggle explosive on an airplane by hiding it up his ass. And that's when I am going to stop flying.

28 Comments:

  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/10/2006 09:11:00 PM

    The authorities knew of this plot for some time, were tracking the suspects, and hadn't banned liquids, so the government's assessment of the risk level from liquid chemicals cannot suddenly have risen, unless this plot's exposure inspired new terrorists to use them; but, shouldn't anyone serious about blowing up planes know about liquid explosives?

    Ergo, liquid explosives on planes were and still are an acceptable risk in the authorities' eyes, and the new regulations are chiefly aimed at boosting public confidence.

     
  2. Blogger Scott
    8/10/2006 10:08:00 PM

    Alas, if this iterative process continues for much longer, I don't see how there will be any alternative to either (1) shutting down air travel, or (2) using profiling to cut down the search time by one or two orders of magnitude.

    An idea I've had for a while is that, if someone is profiled and turns out to be innocent, that person should fly for free to compensate for the indignity of having been profiled. Of course this would raise the cost of air travel for everyone else, but I'd much rather pay more than not be able to fly at all.

     
  3. Blogger Scott
    8/10/2006 10:25:00 PM

    (An obvious problem with my proposal is that people might try to get profiled in order to fly for free. There would have to be criminal penalties for anyone shown to be deliberately gaming the system.)

     
  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/10/2006 10:26:00 PM

    And then you would have people trying to board with large pictures of Bin Laden and fake belts of dynamite wrapped around them, hoping to get a free flight.

     
  5. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/10/2006 10:28:00 PM

    Ah! And only by 57 seconds!

     
  6. Blogger edwardahirsch
    8/11/2006 05:37:00 AM

    Seems like we could have visas for air travelling, similar to those issued by consulates.

     
  7. Anonymous Spyware Remover
    8/11/2006 05:52:00 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  8. Blogger aram harrow
    8/11/2006 06:31:00 AM

    Not to take away from the idiocy of the DHS in any way, but in response to anon #1, banning liquids before arresting the suspects would've given away the fact that the government was onto them.

     
  9. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/11/2006 07:17:00 AM

    Scott, profiling sounds like a good strategy ... but, sooner or later, whore-looking gay terrorists would decide to take the lead (an extrapolation of Luca's thoughts) ... and, buddy, that day you'll join the club of profiling victims: I guess this would most likely make you happier (or in other terms gayer) - based upon your proposal.

    Luca, don't worry about your ass. You should simply travel with Scott. He'd be more than happy to volunteer for you!

    As for liquids, I bet they'll let you go with lighters ... the cigarette lobby would be really pissed otherwise!

     
  10. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/11/2006 10:45:00 AM

    Anonymous 7:17:

    What are you talking about? Lighters have been
    disallowed on planes for a really long time, and
    incidentally so is smoking.

     
  11. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/11/2006 10:54:00 AM

    Adam-
    Why didn't they ban liquids as soon as it was clear that people were willing to blow themselves up on planes, namely, well before 9/11? Liquid chemicals are hardly esoteric or difficult to procure.

    I wasn't accusing the DHS of idiocy here. But this incident points out that they and other government agencies are oriented not only towards the management of public risk, but towards managing the public perception of risk and anticipating and responding to changing ideas of what risks are acceptable.

    We all know on some level that planes are vulnerable and that we would rather tolerate a very small risk of getting blown up than either not flying or undergoing the full rigors of 'total' security, and DHS understands this. But we are also psychologically unprepared to accept even a single catastrophe and need decisive action when one occurs or almost occurs; DHS understands this too.

    And finally, we would rather persist in our irrational and reactive thinking, and be led in it by savvy handlers, than try and soberly develop a calculus of acceptable risk. DHS understands this too. I challenge anyone to carefully define their idiocy or their moral failing in this regard.

    On this note, there is a very interesting biography just out about Herman Kahn, a Cold War thinker at RAND who, contra DHS, tried to get the public to think about acceptable risks in the context of nuclear war and plan for victory and survival in catastrophic outcomes.

     
  12. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/11/2006 10:55:00 AM

    Sorry, I meant Aram.

     
  13. Blogger aram harrow
    8/11/2006 12:22:00 PM

    anon #1,
    I agree that the failings of logic are originally due to the public. So maybe DHS isn't idiotic, but rather cynical.

    Cynical because they prefer the appearance of protecting us to actually making safety improvements. And cynical also because they prefer to scare us (color-coded terror alerts, duct tape advisories) than to reassure us, so as to inflate their own importance.

    Perhaps this is what you mean when you say that they care primarily about the appearance of taking "decisive" action?

     
  14. Blogger Luca
    8/11/2006 12:24:00 PM

    Aram: thanks for the link to Mueller's article.

     
  15. Anonymous Sarvagya Upadhyay
    8/11/2006 02:01:00 PM

    John Mueller should go to countries like Sri Lanka and India to understand international terrorism.....the no. of people dying due to terrorism alone in India is very huge.....more than the automobile accidents in US....tousands of people have died because of terrorism and milions still suffer from it.......

     
  16. Anonymous personal development
    8/11/2006 02:28:00 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  17. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/11/2006 02:49:00 PM

    It's clear what happened here: The department of homeland security knew there was going to be publicity over the terrorist arrests in London, and they realized they could credibly raise the threat level, and add a new layer of fear and inconvenience (liquid weapons! you yourself are composed of 70% pure terrorism!) before the elections in November.

    Here is a full-proof method of smuggling a liquid explosive onto a plane (which I discovered today): Put it into a non-liquid container- these are not checked. If you want a detonator mechanism + liquid payload all in one, use one of those vibrating electric toothbrushes. They don't take them apart to ensure there's no liquid inside, and I'm sure the denotation mechanism is easily confused with the toothbrush electronics.

    I keep hearing how smart and well-organized the terrorists are, but I'm beginning to doubt. Sometimes I wish I was a terrorist just because I know I could do a much better job of terrorizing than the present crop (though not nearly as good a job as our government is capable of).

     
  18. Anonymous Jon
    8/11/2006 04:13:00 PM

    I'd settle for cameras in the bathrooms over anal cavity searches any day of the week.

     
  19. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/11/2006 11:43:00 PM

    I accidentally brought liquid onto a US flight today: they are not yet confiscating ball point pens.

     
  20. Anonymous Helger
    8/12/2006 01:32:00 AM

    There is a BBC story about Russian musicians who take a train from London to Russia, since they were forbidden to take their instruments to the cabin.

    What about laptops or other weapons of math instruction? Are they dangerous too? Books? Er, copies of papers? I often review papers while on the plane.

    Note that terrorists have not yet usen chellos to attack the pilots; the autorities can just have a preemptive ass control.

     
  21. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/12/2006 02:48:00 AM

    Considering that some people don't have anything to hide in their asses they will be very happy to have it inspected.

     
  22. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/12/2006 03:42:00 PM

    You people have an inflated sense of ass value. I don't mind if the government starts searching my ass. I think they'll just find that it's pretty boring in there.

     
  23. Blogger aram harrow
    8/13/2006 07:04:00 AM

    Luca: glad you liked it!

    Sarvagya: It's true that terrorism in S. Asia is reported comparatively less than in places like the Middle East, but what makes you say it's worse than US traffic accidents? This website says that since 1968 worldwide there have been about 40000 deaths and 100000 injuries from terrorism, both domestic and international. The number of deaths in a single year in the US alone from traffic accidents is about 40000 and there are maybe 3 million injuries, 400,000 or so of which are serious.
    Worldwide, a million people die every year while driving.

     
  24. Anonymous Sarvagya Upadhyay
    8/13/2006 11:45:00 AM

    Aram: My apologies but terrorism is still more problematic than automoble accidents.....terrorism is not an accident.

     
  25. Blogger Scott
    8/13/2006 04:09:00 PM

    Here's another way to state Sarvagya's point. In comparing terrorist attacks to auto accidents, we can't consider only the number of people that terrorists did kill; we also need to consider how many they wanted to kill, and would have killed if not for this or that defense measure. After doing such an analysis, we might still find that auto accidents are a bigger problem. But we certainly can't conclude that by comparing 3,000 deaths to 40,000.

     
  26. Anonymous Anonymous
    8/13/2006 07:17:00 PM

    I personally feel more terrorized by bad drivers than by disenfranchised arabs. So, in terms of actually inspiring terror, I guess the largest concentration of middle eastern terrorists is in new york (the cab drivers)?

     
  27. Blogger Scott
    8/13/2006 08:22:00 PM

    When I spent a semester in Israel, getting run over while crossing the street was by far my biggest safety concern. Driving etiquette there is essentially nonexistent.

     
  28. Blogger aram harrow
    8/14/2006 07:37:00 PM

    Would you rather (a) someone want to kill you, but fail, or (b) someone bear you no ill will, but accidentally kill you?

    (a) sounds pretty bad when you're sitting around thinking about evildoers, but (b) leaves you, and the world, worse off.

    Also, we exert plenty of effort on defense measures against driving deaths. American roads are some of the safest in the world, which is why driving deaths are as low as 40,000/year.

    And Scott was right to worry more about Israeli drivers. Even given the enormous toll of terrorism in Israel, traffic accidents still kill four times as many people.

    (I don't mean to get hung up on driving. Air pollution and TB would also work here.)

     

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