Terrorism, Part II

On the very first day that our blog was hosted by the New York Times, I wrote a post that generated the most hate mail I’ve gotten since the abortion-crime story first broke almost a decade ago. The people e-mailing me can’t decide whether I am a moron, a traitor, or both. Let me try again.

A lot of the angry responses make me wonder what everyday Americans think terrorists do all day. My guess is that they brainstorm ideas for terrorist plots. And you have to believe that terrorists are total idiots if it never occurred to them after the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings that maybe a sniper plot wasn’t a bad idea. The point is this: there is a virtually infinite array of incredibly simple strategies available to terrorists. The fact that it has been six years since the last major terrorist attack in the United States suggests either that the terrorists are incompetent, or that perhaps their goal isn’t really to generate terror. (A separate factor is the prevention efforts by law enforcement and the government; I’ll address that later.)

Many of the angry emails I received demanded that I write a post explaining how we stop terrorists. But the obvious answer is a disappointing one: If terrorists want to engage in low-grade, low-tech terror, we are powerless to stop it. That is the situation in Iraq right now, and, to a lesser degree, in Israel. That was also more or less the situation with the IRA a while back.

So what can we do? Like the British and Israelis have done, if faced with this situation, Americans would figure out how to live with it. The actual cost of this low-grade terrorism in terms of human lives is relatively small, compared to other causes of death like motor-vehicle crashes, heart attacks, homicide, and suicide. It is the fear that imposes the real cost.

But just as people in countries with runaway inflation learn relatively quickly to live with it, the same happens with terrorism. The actual risk of dying from an attack while riding a bus in Israel is low – and so, as Gary Becker and Yona Rubinstein have shown, people who have a lot of experience riding Israeli buses don’t respond much to the threat of bombings. Similarly, there is little wage premium for being a bus driver in Israel.

Beyond this, I think there are a few more prospective things we can do. If the threat is from abroad, then we can do a good job screening risky people from entering the country. That, too, is obvious. Perhaps less obvious is that we can do a good job following potential risks after they enter the country. If someone enters on a student visa and isn’t enrolled in school, for instance, he is worth keeping under close surveillance.

Another option is one the British have used: putting cameras everywhere. This is very anti-American, so it probably would never fly here. I also am not sure it is a good investment. But the recent terrorist attacks in the U.K. suggest that these cameras are at least useful after the fact in identifying the perpetrators.

The work of my University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape suggests that the strongest predictor of terrorist acts is the occupation of a group’s territory. From that perspective, having American troops in Iraq is probably not helping to reduce terrorism — although it may be serving other purposes.

Ultimately, though, it strikes me that there are two possible interpretations of our current situation vis-a-vis terrorism.

One view is the following: the main reason we aren’t currently being decimated by terrorists is that the government’s anti-terror efforts have been successful.

The alternative interpretation is that the terror risk just isn’t that high and we are greatly overspending on fighting it, or at least appearing to fight it. For most government officials, there is much more pressure to look like you are trying to stop terrorism than there is to actually stop it. The head of the TSA can’t be blamed if a plane gets shot down by a shoulder-launched missile, but he is in serious trouble if a tube of explosive toothpaste takes down a plane. Consequently, we put much more effort into the toothpaste even though it is probably a much less important threat.

Likewise, an individual at the CIA isn’t in trouble if a terrorist attack happens; he or she is only in trouble if there is no written report that details the possibility of such an attack, which someone else should have followed up on, but never did because there are so many such reports written.

My guess is that the second scenario — the terrorism threat just isn’t that great — is the more likely one. Which, if you think about it, is the optimistic view of the world. But that probably still makes me a moron, a traitor, or both.

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  1. Jason says:

    Levitt’s original terrorism post unintentionally revealed some interesting biases of the public mind. The overwhelming bulk of responses, characterized as “hate mail” by Levitt, show a group terrified by its own imagination, and conflicted as to what to do with the nightmare scenarios in their own heads: publicize, and thus prepare for them, or keep quiet, heeding the fear that average joes could seed terrorist minds.

    Fascinating how Levitt’s original two points got buried in the shuffle of knee-jerk reaction: that lighters should be banned from airliners but aren’t, and that people overreact to the threat of terrorism. But actually, the latter point was inadvertently proven correct, as “Alaskan Kid” points out:
    The idiotic responses on here overreacting to this blog only prove the point that people totally overreact to the threat of terrorism. The risks of death by terrorism are far lower than many other scenarios. One might compare this to people being afraid of sharks, when in reality you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine. (I did not make that up.)

    Levitt is vindicated in that the response to terrorism is completely out of proportion to the statistical threat: in this way, the entrepreneurial pursuit of terrorist innovation is a good investment, providing an accelerated return given the imaginary amplification of scared citizens.

    As many rushed to point out, interpreting the “guessing-game” posts as treasonous may be giving too much credit to the peacetime imagination of blog-watchers and Drudge-dredgers. Every poster hating on the New York Times is simultaneously crediting them with unparalleled influence. The armchair experts are similarly credited: anyone who can predict the twist of the next “24” episode became a Homeland security operative, revealing the soft targets that should be firmed up before a terrorist cell notes the opportunity.

    From those only too happy to air their secret imaginary terror, the responses showed the fears that only a terrorized mind could dream up: at scales both large and small, urban and suburban orders of banality are interrupted with grisly destruction. And so we got a list of terrorizing ideas: the least predictable, the most unlikely events generating the most spectacular fascination.

    Many respondents recognize the “purely” psychological nature of terrorism: statistically speaking, the threat to any one civilian is practically nil. Almost all the imagined attacks deal in high symbolism rather than mass body counts, which imputes a highly symbolic motivation to terrorists generally.

    One has to assume that the anguished tone of many of Levitt’s critics originates in a basic offense taken at being asked to think like a terrorist. This is a feeling Colbert appropriately aped as he shocked himself tuesday night with his own scenario (escalators topped with invisible razor-wire): “does that make me a terrorist?”

    Clearly, we terrorize ourselves, and part of the offended contingent is activating an us/them dichotomy which according to them (us) should never be crossed, and which will remain in place so long as we remain mum on the imaginary component of modern terrorism

    Ultimately, the effect of terrorism is seen in the terror that resounds between attacks: Levitt’s blog and the responses it generated show that the realm of terror is still the imagination, and that public minds predisposed to irrational fear are terror’s greatest allies.

    But surely there is a kind of egotism in the idea that any terrorist attack can be predicted. That which terrorizes is necessarily that for which we are unprepared. So attacks that are foiled go unnoticed, and those that truly shock do so because of the spectacularity of their execution, and the unspoken but always premonitory aspects of this specularity (see Zizek on the Hollywood quality of the 9/11 attacks).

    But after all, if the statistical probability of being affected by a terrorist attack is so low, what could the probability of predicting and preparing for, or even circumventing an attack be?

    Terror inheres in the spaces where nothing happens. This is the nature of the threat paradigm used by both Al Qaeda and the Bush administration: what’s truly terrifying (and simultaneously politically-motivating) is what may happen next.

    As soon as something is predicted, it is less scary.

    Those who implore the public to pipe down about the possibilities are keeping fear foremost in American imaginations. What is their motivation?

    –Jason V. S.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Jason says:

    Levitt’s original terrorism post unintentionally revealed some interesting biases of the public mind. The overwhelming bulk of responses, characterized as “hate mail” by Levitt, show a group terrified by its own imagination, and conflicted as to what to do with the nightmare scenarios in their own heads: publicize, and thus prepare for them, or keep quiet, heeding the fear that average joes could seed terrorist minds.

    Fascinating how Levitt’s original two points got buried in the shuffle of knee-jerk reaction: that lighters should be banned from airliners but aren’t, and that people overreact to the threat of terrorism. But actually, the latter point was inadvertently proven correct, as “Alaskan Kid” points out:
    The idiotic responses on here overreacting to this blog only prove the point that people totally overreact to the threat of terrorism. The risks of death by terrorism are far lower than many other scenarios. One might compare this to people being afraid of sharks, when in reality you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine. (I did not make that up.)

    Levitt is vindicated in that the response to terrorism is completely out of proportion to the statistical threat: in this way, the entrepreneurial pursuit of terrorist innovation is a good investment, providing an accelerated return given the imaginary amplification of scared citizens.

    As many rushed to point out, interpreting the “guessing-game” posts as treasonous may be giving too much credit to the peacetime imagination of blog-watchers and Drudge-dredgers. Every poster hating on the New York Times is simultaneously crediting them with unparalleled influence. The armchair experts are similarly credited: anyone who can predict the twist of the next “24″ episode became a Homeland security operative, revealing the soft targets that should be firmed up before a terrorist cell notes the opportunity.

    From those only too happy to air their secret imaginary terror, the responses showed the fears that only a terrorized mind could dream up: at scales both large and small, urban and suburban orders of banality are interrupted with grisly destruction. And so we got a list of terrorizing ideas: the least predictable, the most unlikely events generating the most spectacular fascination.

    Many respondents recognize the “purely” psychological nature of terrorism: statistically speaking, the threat to any one civilian is practically nil. Almost all the imagined attacks deal in high symbolism rather than mass body counts, which imputes a highly symbolic motivation to terrorists generally.

    One has to assume that the anguished tone of many of Levitt’s critics originates in a basic offense taken at being asked to think like a terrorist. This is a feeling Colbert appropriately aped as he shocked himself tuesday night with his own scenario (escalators topped with invisible razor-wire): “does that make me a terrorist?”

    Clearly, we terrorize ourselves, and part of the offended contingent is activating an us/them dichotomy which according to them (us) should never be crossed, and which will remain in place so long as we remain mum on the imaginary component of modern terrorism

    Ultimately, the effect of terrorism is seen in the terror that resounds between attacks: Levitt’s blog and the responses it generated show that the realm of terror is still the imagination, and that public minds predisposed to irrational fear are terror’s greatest allies.

    But surely there is a kind of egotism in the idea that any terrorist attack can be predicted. That which terrorizes is necessarily that for which we are unprepared. So attacks that are foiled go unnoticed, and those that truly shock do so because of the spectacularity of their execution, and the unspoken but always premonitory aspects of this specularity (see Zizek on the Hollywood quality of the 9/11 attacks).

    But after all, if the statistical probability of being affected by a terrorist attack is so low, what could the probability of predicting and preparing for, or even circumventing an attack be?

    Terror inheres in the spaces where nothing happens. This is the nature of the threat paradigm used by both Al Qaeda and the Bush administration: what’s truly terrifying (and simultaneously politically-motivating) is what may happen next.

    As soon as something is predicted, it is less scary.

    Those who implore the public to pipe down about the possibilities are keeping fear foremost in American imaginations. What is their motivation?

    –Jason V. S.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Duncan says:

    “The work of my University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape suggests that the strongest predictor of terrorist acts is the occupation of a group’s territory. ”

    What is that supposed to be, news? Al Qaeda was very explicit from 1998 on that they were declaring and waging war against the United States because of our occupation of Saudi Arabia.

    Bush took his best shot at Bin Laden in Afghanistan and missed, then turned appeaser-in-chief and pulled our troops out of Saudi Arabia.

    So. Maybe the reason we haven’t had any terrorist attacks since 9/11 is, we gave them everything they wanted.

    The terrorists already won.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Duncan says:

    “The work of my University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape suggests that the strongest predictor of terrorist acts is the occupation of a group’s territory. ”

    What is that supposed to be, news? Al Qaeda was very explicit from 1998 on that they were declaring and waging war against the United States because of our occupation of Saudi Arabia.

    Bush took his best shot at Bin Laden in Afghanistan and missed, then turned appeaser-in-chief and pulled our troops out of Saudi Arabia.

    So. Maybe the reason we haven’t had any terrorist attacks since 9/11 is, we gave them everything they wanted.

    The terrorists already won.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. sam says:

    The best way to stage the most effecive terrorist attack would be to disrupt TIME – the Universal Time telling system. If no one knew what the right time was just think of the chaos that would ensue!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. sam says:

    The best way to stage the most effecive terrorist attack would be to disrupt TIME – the Universal Time telling system. If no one knew what the right time was just think of the chaos that would ensue!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Adam (London, England) says:

    My question is whether or not the terrorists are actually competent in what they are doing. Sure we may agree that 9/11 for the terrorists was a success. But we should also realize that this could have (im trying to use my words carefully) been a one out of the many attacks that was successful.

    We often hear now, how more then 100ml of fluids have been banned on planes. The reason for that is that we managed to get these guys before they could attack.

    Bombs in shoes, there where two cases of this specific type of attack, and they have both failed. Why? In this case it wasn’t security or the “secret air marshals” that caught the terrorists, it was actually civilians who stopped both of attacks. Could it possibly be, that instead of fearing terrorists, we are ready to stand against them? We are entering a period where everybody has had enough of fear, and when faced with it, we stand together against the threat, but never give in.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Adam (London, England) says:

    My question is whether or not the terrorists are actually competent in what they are doing. Sure we may agree that 9/11 for the terrorists was a success. But we should also realize that this could have (im trying to use my words carefully) been a one out of the many attacks that was successful.

    We often hear now, how more then 100ml of fluids have been banned on planes. The reason for that is that we managed to get these guys before they could attack.

    Bombs in shoes, there where two cases of this specific type of attack, and they have both failed. Why? In this case it wasn’t security or the “secret air marshals” that caught the terrorists, it was actually civilians who stopped both of attacks. Could it possibly be, that instead of fearing terrorists, we are ready to stand against them? We are entering a period where everybody has had enough of fear, and when faced with it, we stand together against the threat, but never give in.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0