Terrorism

Our Foolish Security Theater

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Ohio State's John Mueller has outlined an elegant, reasonable, sensible approach to terrorism policy (pdf).  Which of course is why it will get very little consideration in Washington.  Mueller's premises:

1. The number of potential terrorist targets is essentially infinite.

2. The probability that any individual target will be attacked is essentially zero.

3. If one potential target happens to enjoy a degree of protection, the agile terrorist usually can readily move on to another one.

4. Most targets are "vulnerable" in that it is not very difficult to damage them, but invulnerable in that they can be rebuilt in fairly short order and at tolerable expense.

5. It is essentially impossible to make a very wide variety of potential terrorist targets invulnerable except by completely closing them down.

And his policy prescriptions:

1. Any protective policy should be compared to a "null case": do nothing, and use the money saved to rebuild and to compensate any victims.

2. Abandon any effort to imagine a terrorist target list.

3. Consider negative effects of protection measures: not only direct cost, but inconvenience, enhancement of fear, negative economic impacts, reduction of liberties.

4. Consider the opportunity costs, the tradeoffs, of protection measures.

Nick Gillespe interviewed Mueller for reason in 2006.  Tim Cavanaugh interviewed him in 2005.

Via Bruce Schneier.

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  1. interesting stuff. thanks!

    and from the Woody Hayes Chair, too!

    To contrast:
    The Bo Schembeckler Chair is still carving in stone tablets his recommendation for the Minoans!!

  2. But not doing something means they’re not giving the impression that they’re doing something.

  3. true, Rhywun. but instead they could be changing TallDave’s, the meletary loier’s (!!), and others’ diapers instead.

  4. The only thing that matters to the fucking politicians is re-election. Wasting money? Losing liberties? Who the fuck cares? They get their money and their privileges, and do not suffer the fates of the peasants, as long as they are re-elected. They actually have a direct incentive to do exactly the wrong thing because doing those things give them the exposure to get re-elected.

    It’s a complete clusterfuck that is basically impossible to stop unless people stop thinking that security theater does anything at all. Which means that we have to reduce the number of bedwetters, which will only happen when hell freezes over, I guess.

  5. People-

    Who have been the primary beneficiaries of the climate of fear and “terror”? Is it so hard to ponder the possibility that the answetr to the question might just be its architects?

  6. Spare us the Truther shit, Mike. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

  7. Epi-

    Good morning to you, too.

  8. That John Mueller sounds like he’s got his head screwed on straight. Of course being elegant, reasonable, and sensible will get you nowhere. Lucky for him, he can pick and croon just like Buddy Holly

  9. fucking politicians
    Who the fuck cares?
    a complete clusterfuck

    This is why I enjoy the comments here.
    The eloquence, the dispassionate reasoning, the diamond-hard analysis.

  10. You sound like a gay, Sam.

  11. Mueller is playing into the terrorists hands. Once we drop our guard, and get all complacent, then…BAM!, there goes the Corn Palace…BOOM!, there goes Carhenge…BANG!, there goes the Catsup bottle.

    Don’t let the terrorists win!

  12. Threadjack:

    Thug gets fired for abusing power

    One thug down, several million to go.

  13. You sound like a gay, Sam.

    The witty retorts.

  14. We can’t even stop punks from tagging vital infrastructure with graffiti. Where any fool gets the idea we can secure these things against trained and determined terrorists is beyond my guessing.

  15. This is why I enjoy the comments here.
    The eloquence, the dispassionate reasoning, the diamond-hard analysis.

    That’s some pretty diamond-hard analysis, picking out the swear words. Maybe you could comment on the non-swear words?

  16. Epis –

    While I find the main truther hypotheses to be highly unlikely, I do not find it unlikely that the current elected officials might not use fear to their advantage. It’s pretty common, even if not conscious.

    That goes for the media too. They even take advantage of fear of video games causing violence (and again, so do politicians). The GTA4 coverage was more than enough to illustrate that people take advantage of fear for personal gain.

  17. The article had some bad and some good. I wish representatives would start their cost cutting measures with the DEA. Imagine a politician saying, “There’s no sense stopping that drug deal. The dealer will just find someone else to buy his drugs.”

    I do think the comparision with vandalism is right on. Vandalism harms others without producing direct material gains for the vandal. Some vandalism resembles terrorism very much psychologically. When gang members tag an area or politically motivated vandals spray paints “down with capitalism” they are trying to intimidate others into changing behaviors. When an Environmental Liberation Front member burns down a suburban house, he slides into the terroist category. NYC manages to decrease vandalism in the 1990’s. The same policies that effectively combat vandalism and arson should work fairly well on terrorism.

    The article also mentioned the diffuse quality of terrorist as a challange. I say, the best policy against a diffuse threat is respect for the second ammendment.

  18. The Mob is so lazy they don’t even qualify as apathetic. The State has guaranteed their retirement and catastrophic healthcare. Long live The Empire!

  19. That’s some pretty diamond-hard analysis, picking out the swear words. Maybe you could comment on the non-swear words?

    Well, it would seem that the people as whole have the ability to fire them, and don’t. In varying fits of joe-like lemming stupidity, we keep electing them. So, “people are fucking morons” is the only conclusion one might draw.

    Which leads only to the possibility of a false advertising suit against Ditech, but little else other than a whole bunch of problems and more 30 second attention spans with no desire whatsoever to investigate any deeper on issues.

  20. I’m with MP on this one.

    Why does Mueller hate the Corn Palace? What of Wall Drug?

  21. These recommendations only make sense if you think on a systemic level.

    If you think in a wholly provincial manner that includes the government being omnitient and the terrorists being omnipotent (except when stopped by the government), and assume that any price listed in policy prescription 3 is infinitely less valuable than the price of “allowing terrorists to operate freely”, you would:

    a) come up with a system pretty similar to our current one
    b) be kinda stupid
    c) be devaluing everything listed in point #3
    d) all of the above

  22. I thought the article did a good job of explaining why the defensive crouch is a failed strategy. If your goal is to make people safer, anyway.

    Unfortunately, I think that the defensive crouch and the “terrorism is a criminal activity” approach go hand in hand. Terrorism-as-crime is purely reactive – you do something about a tiny group of terrorists after the fact. If you can.

    Its not a preventive strategy at all, and I don’t think you can do without any prevention. Either realistically (the pipple will demand it) or from the point of view that the essential role of government is protection from violence and aggression.

    If you’ve sworn off “draining the swamp” or “taking the fight to them” as preventive strategies, you’re pretty much left with the defensive crouch.

  23. poo-poo ca-ca

  24. Well, RC, we do have a very expensive group of people that operate out of an Air Force base in Virginia who would be better used pursuing any threats than their current use of pushing paper and meddling in banana republics.

  25. 2. The probability that any individual target will be attacked is essentially zero.

    I don’t think this is true. The White House, the Capitol building, maybe the Empire State Building or the Hollywood sign have more chance of a terror attack, being known worldwide. Does the soldiers monument in Indianapolis or the George W Bush sewage treatment plant have the same propaganda value?

  26. It’s not truther shit to observe that the governemnt is taking advantage of the climate of fear.

    The Justice Dept didn’t have time to write the Patriot Act between the time of the 9/11 attacks and the passage of the bill.

    They just copied and pasted all the draconian measures they’d asked for in past years into one document, assigned it a cute title and sent it to Congress.

    This is an example of the way the government takes advantage of the climate of fear. They of course maintain the climate of fear with their their public statements as well. Remember the plot to blow up the fuel lines at JFK? The one that was technically impossible?

    It’s a terrible thing to live in fear.

  27. That will just not do. We have to be perceived as doing something even if it makes the citizens not one whit safer. The average American is too damned stupid to figure out that we’re just jerking off with all this crap. If you don’t believe me, ask your neighbors about “Homeland Security”.

  28. This is an example of the way the government takes advantage of the climate of fear.

    Sure, but anyone who even implies that they orchestrated it is a fucking loon.

  29. R C Dean said:

    If you’ve sworn off “draining the swamp” or “taking the fight to them” as preventive strategies, you’re pretty much left with the defensive crouch.

    There’s defensive crouch and then there’s “no butter knives on the plane”. I don’t think the argument is the complete abandonment of the defensive crouch strategy, but rather that the strategy has a point of diminishing returns that we passed long ago.

  30. There are a very large number of potential targets where protection is essentially a waste of resources and a much more limited one where it may be effective.

    Costs vs benefits? That’s silly. We just aren’t spending enough money. It doesn’t really matter what happens to the money, as long as you make a great show of throwing lots of it at the hysteria du jour.

    It has occurred to me, lately, that our political religion relies on the ritual sacrifice of money in much the same way the Aztecs used virgins. Only not so much fun.

  31. tarran | July 18, 2008, 10:13am | #

    It’s not truther shit to observe that the government is taking advantage of the climate of fear.

    ….

    AARGH your truther shit is hurting my ears!!! be quiet!! must obey government… USS liberty was a accident…LBJ was good.. must call people worse names!

  32. The PATRIOT act, so a credit-card company has just told me, requires me to submit a physical address in addition to a post-office-box address. They promise never to use the physical address. I could have made one up to give them.

    Are we feeling safe yet?

  33. There’s defensive crouch and then there’s “no butter knives on the plane”. I don’t think the argument is the complete abandonment of the defensive crouch strategy, but rather that the strategy has a point of diminishing returns that we passed long ago.

    True enough, but any purely defensive strategy will be leaky, and every leak will lead to an escalation, so I think the defensive crouch inevitably slides down that slope to the “no butter knives” point.

    We essentially had the “terrorism is a crime” approach before 9/11, without any particular domestic security measures aimed at preventing terrorist attacks. The result: 9/11.

    The reaction to that attack was, as far as domestic security goes, a ridiculous over-reaction – the “security theater” – which I think anyone would agree is ineffective. I think the point of the article is that, for a terrorist, no domestic security measures will ever be particularly deterring/effective. Its just too much of a target-rich environment.

  34. Patriot act info sheets are all over the coin shop I go to in downtown boston…you have to show your ID and have the shop record all the info and send it in to the governemnt if you buy more than $1000 worth of gold or silver….I’m glad the governemnt is looking out for my safety so diligently.

  35. fucking politicians
    Who the fuck cares?
    a complete clusterfuck

    This is why I enjoy the comments here.

    No, no, no! It’s not 6-4-6! It’s 5-7-5, no matter how many obscenities are in it. Like this:

    Pissed-off libs agree;
    unstoppable clusterfuck.
    We’re completely screwed.

    See?

  36. i’ve been away from here for months…. i’d forgotten how reliable the posts and comments are for my daily dose of depression about our society. you guys are the best! (seriously.)

  37. My point is the government is creating the climate of fear. Look at the warnings they have been publishing. Their lies about AL Queda/bathist party links. The big-talking losers they’ve painted as dire threats to people’s safety.

    While I doubt that the U.S. government wanted the 9/11 attacks to happen – forget planning them -, there is no question in my mind that the officers of the U.S. government are consciously trying to keep the populace fearful.

  38. R C Dean said:

    We essentially had the “terrorism is a crime” approach before 9/11, without any particular domestic security measures aimed at preventing terrorist attacks. The result: 9/11.

    Oh come now. We also that the “Hijackers aren’t suicidal, don’t panic, stay calm, and let the authorities handle it” mentality before 9/11.

    And you know full well there were prevention measures prior to 9/11. We did not go from zero security to overblown security. 9/11 simply heightened our alertness (overly so).

    And I’m not even sure how you can say “The result: 9/11” and “no domestic security measures will ever be particularly deterring/effective” in the same post. Entirely contradictory. I must be missing something.

  39. there is no question in my mind that the officers of the U.S. government are consciously trying to keep the populace fearful.

    Next, I suppose you’ll tell me the government uses isolated and essentially unpreventable incidents to expand the scope of their power.

  40. The defensive crouch should be informed by F-N numbers (prob x casualties) – there are targets that should be hardened to a reasonable level. Nuclear facilities must already withstand a defined “design basis threat”. Other than those types of installations, the congressman has the right prescription.

    Using his formulary, I suspect our cost in the WOT has already blown by our 9/11 cost (by orders of magnitude).

    Draining the swamp requires a pax Americana we cannot afford. Non-proliferation must be pursued by securing Special Nuclear Material and Diplomacy/Sanctions/Covert Ops in that order. If that all fails, then Invasion/MAD are the last line of defense.

    There was an interesting premise in a novel (Wild Fire) that hinted at a secret US policy re the middle east that if one nuke goes off on US soil our response would be to nuke the whole region. Pretty wild-eyed stuff but possibly the most sane policy for insane scenarios.

  41. Misread, professor not congressman. (What was I thinking?).

  42. Epi-
    Why the hostility to those that don’t buy the government conspiracy fable? Isn’t it kind of loony to dismiss any question the answer to which you do not have? And, you do not.
    I am not saying that I have the answers, either.

    I do know that any suggestion that categorically rejects the proposition that some elements of the government may have had a role in 9/11 is an ignorant suggestion.

    Did Osama Bin Laden have the Patriot Act already on the shelf? Do you discount the history of america and the countless acts of deceit and murder perpetrated by people employed by or otherwise tied to the government?

    At the very minimum, you should always ask who benefits and you do not cite gvt’s propensity to be incompetent generally as the one size fits all answer to what happened on 9/11. Do you really think that I think that public sector parasites are all diabolical, omnipotent genuises? Please. Most are just plain incompetent parasites.

  43. Why the hostility to those that don’t buy the government conspiracy fable?

    Because the evidence they are able to present to support their case is about as credible as evidence for UFOs, Psychics, and God.

  44. I do know that any suggestion that categorically rejects the proposition that some elements of the government may have had a role in 9/11 is an ignorant suggestion.

    Any suggestion that anything beyond government incompentence played a role in 9/11 is speculative bullshit.

  45. And you know full well there were prevention measures prior to 9/11. We did not go from zero security to overblown security. 9/11 simply heightened our alertness (overly so).

    I don’t think we had much of anything in terms of anti-terrorism measures on the street. Sure, we had a few guys at the CIA and the FBI who weren’t allowed to talk to each other, but that’s also part of the “terrorism is a crime” approach.

    And I’m not even sure how you can say “The result: 9/11” and “no domestic security measures will ever be particularly deterring/effective” in the same post. Entirely contradictory. I must be missing something.

    I’m not sure what the contradiction is. After minimalist anti-terrorism security, we got 9/11. That really doesn’t say anything about whether more anti-terrorism security would have prevented 9/11; its just an observation that what we had sure didn’t.

    As the article argues (and I agree), you can’t amp up the static defenses enough to prevent a terrorist attack. Even if you manage to “harden”, say a handful of high-value targets, or even the entire airline industry, there are just too many other targets out there.

  46. Going on the offense can also be ineffective if the approach is indiscriminate or aimed at the wrong target. If you go after a country that has little or no connection to the terrorists who might attack you, it’s a waste of time. Likewise, the FBI’s efforts to penetrate terrorist cells in their very early stages has netted a lot of losers who were probably threats to nobody but themselves, but few trained and motivated killers.

    Also, while Mueller is correct to note that you can’t secure every target, there are a lot of potential targets that should be (and to a large extent are) secured anyway. The odds of a terrorist attacking any particular industrial facility, say, are pretty much nil, but there are plenty of other reasons to have a fence and cameras in a place with dangerous equipment, expensive materials, trade secrets, company paperwork, etc. The odds of a group of trained and prepared terrorists actually obtaining biological weapons and releasing them in any particular building’s ventilation system are pretty much nil, but there are plenty of other reasons to lock the room with the ventilation system controls, and most buildings do that.

    Of course, if well-trained terrorists really, really want to attack a particular factory or office building or whatever, they’ll probably find a way to do it. But locks and fences and other common sense measures are probably enough to keep out most of the loser wannabes who talk big but lack the organizational chops to carry out a sophisticated plan. This is just one more reason why it makes little sense for the FBI to bust some losers with vague plans and then claim some big victory.

  47. MP and Kinmath-

    The evidence that a few saudis with box cutters overpowered the planes as part of a “conspiracy” to do terrorism is also specualtive bullshit. Just a conspiracy theory spouted by those to whom enormous benefits have flowed.

  48. And those who just can’t believe that anybody working for or with the gvt. could ever do something so nasty. Talk about having a conflict with reality.

  49. R C Dean said:

    I’m not sure what the contradiction is. After minimalist anti-terrorism security, we got 9/11. That really doesn’t say anything about whether more anti-terrorism security would have prevented 9/11; its just an observation that what we had sure didn’t.

    IMHO, saying “The result: 9/11” implies a cause and effect. i.e. your statement reads to me as “minimalist anti-terrorism security led to 9/11″.

    I’m not sure that the fact that “minimalist anti-terrorism security” did not prevent 9/11 is even a point worth discussing. What does it teach us? We can neither derive that more security will make attacks meaningfully less likely, nor can we derive that equal or less security would make attacks meaningfully more likely.

    We learned one, and only one thing, from 9/11. That hijackers are potentially suicidal. We already knew we were at risk from terrorist attacks, having suffered one on our soil 8 years earlier. You may argue that 9/11 taught us that terrorism had greater risks than we previously accepted, but those risks were actually known pre-9/11 but were simply discounted.

  50. 99% percent of anti-terrorism efforts should be spent on securing or eliminating nuclear weapons and weapons-grade uranium and plutomnium.
    Everything else is just fear politics.

  51. “””Don’t let the terrorists win!”””

    What are they going to win? If you think the United States, you’d be a moron. Nobody is really thinking that, right? Nations with far more resources can’t beat us. So what are they going to win?

    The best they could do is trick us into destroying ourselves.

  52. It would be foolish to abandon attempts to secure likely targets or those which could result in great harm to those near them were they attacked. And as another poster pointed out – all targets are not created equal – the logic behind a target list is/should be to better allocate resources when reasonable protection is possible. Unless of course you prefer to suggest that large chemical plants in heavily populated areas (think parts of NJ) should abandon efforts to improve their security? Public water supplies?

    This is not to say that one can protect against every eventuality and certainly cost/benefit/harrassment must be considered. But this does not mean *no* effort should be made.

  53. “””And those who just can’t believe that anybody working for or with the gvt. could ever do something so nasty. Talk about having a conflict with reality.”””

    The government’s nastiness or potential is not valid evidence that they did it.

    “””The evidence that a few saudis with box cutters overpowered the planes as part of a “conspiracy” to do terrorism is also specualtive bullshit. Just a conspiracy theory spouted by those to whom enormous benefits have flowed.”””

    Really? Just because they could is a good enough reason to believe the government did it, but not anyone else? That’s a conflict with reality.

    “””We essentially had the “terrorism is a crime” approach before 9/11, without any particular domestic security measures aimed at preventing terrorist attacks. The result: 9/11.””

    Here’s how the U.S. government defines international terrorism. Title 50 chapter 36

    (c) “International terrorism” means activities that-
    (1) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any State;
    (2) appear to be intended-
    (A) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
    (B) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
    (C) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping; and
    (3) occur totally outside the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.

  54. “”Unless of course you prefer to suggest that large chemical plants in heavily populated areas (think parts of NJ) should abandon efforts to improve their security? Public water supplies?”””

    No one is suggesting that. Reasonableness is the lost word. There are place you need to secure. But what secure means can become disorted and unreasonable counter measures applied. Like expecting total security in a world that grants none.

  55. True enough, but any purely defensive strategy will be leaky, and every leak will lead to an escalation, so I think the defensive crouch inevitably slides down that slope to the “no butter knives” point.

    Whereas “proactive” drain the swamp campaigns NEVER backfire…have you been in a vegetative state for the past six years or something?

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