Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

On the bombings

Been a bit frantic of late, so not really had time to think much about the bombings in Mumbai, beyond the fact that they're horrific and that the prospect of increased tensions between India and Pakistan should have any sane person losing sleep.

But this, from Bruce Schneier, needs to be widely read:

  • 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.


Anonymous Smyf said...

"Why not in the U.S., where it's easy to get hold of weapons?"

Precisely because it is easy to get weapons. Armed citizens and security guards would have engaged the terrorists and reduced the casualties if this was on US soil. I don't think it was that long ago that people took guns on planes in the states. That may have stopped 9/11.

05 December, 2008 14:05  
Anonymous accelerationista said...

guns on planes - sounds like an ace idea. would that have been during the seventies maybe? there were no plane hijackings in the seventies as far as I can remember.....oh wait no. there were lots, men with guns, dead hostages too. don't seem to remember any incidents of gung ho american passengers diving in with their (constitutionally protected) right to bear arms....
sarcasm aside though, whenever you have people with guns on a plane, or anywhere else really, sooner or later someone will make a mistake, and instead of the law enforcer having the gun it will be in the hands of a loonie, and people will die.

08 December, 2008 07:33  
Anonymous Smyf said...

Switzerland shows that you can have gun ownership and not have high rates of gun crime.

Plane highjackings don't seem to have any link to guns other than leftwing or Muslim groups tend to have them.

08 December, 2008 13:00  
Blogger Steve said...

The notion of armed citizens providing a serious deterrent against terrorists - and possibly stopping the 9/11 hijackings - sounds more like an NRA fantasy/B-movie scenario than any kind of actual reality. Like the idea (promoted by the NRA) that teachers and college lecturers should be armed to prevent another Columbine/Virginia Tech incident from occurring in future. Unfortunately (or probably fortunately), life is not a Chuck Norris/Steven Seagal movie. I am not against guns or gun ownership per se (after all, I strongly support the rights of a well-regulated militia to keep and bear arms) but the idea that an armed populace prevents terrorism is, at best, ludicrous.

17 December, 2008 21:56  

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