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.


DrNova

You did not mention a "conspiratorial" possibility--timed for successful action after the "gut feeling" of the Principals.

Your malignant detractors may be "the morons" or "the shills."

God bless you for your manly courage. God bless The New York Times for this platform for free speech.

(ISAIAH 55, JOHN 21:17-19)

Bryce

I enjoy your thoughts and provoking topics. You aren't a "moron, a traitor, or both." It is just a scary topic to some people. We live in a country where we don't have to worry about going outside because we might get shot, and bringing up the sniper terrorist idea makes people hesitate if only for the length of time it takes for the neurons to fire in their brains before stepping outside each morning.

Because these people read this idea, they will forever be scared because now there is a possibility of it happening... Maybe the terrorists read the post and agreed, or had thought of it before but never really considered it until now.

Whereas before your readers saw the post, the idea had not occurred to them, and they didn't know to be scared when going outside. It's the whole, "ignorance is bliss," thing.

But your readers couldn't articulate this fear. They were only able to say that thinking up ideas for terrorists was stupid and unpatriotic, and call you names. And for that, they show themselves to be the ones lacking.

Keep up the great work!

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Robert

As Ann S. noted, we don't consider school rampages or the DC Snipings to be acts of terrorism. I do not believe that the anthrax attacks were either.

I do agree that the lack of attacks in the US does not mean that some group is not planning one. It should indicate to angry responders to yesterday's column that terrorism is far more difficult than they would like to imagine to successfully carry out.

Brady Beckham

I feel like the alternative interpretation ("terror risk just isn't that high and we are greatly overspending")is right on. Of course, I have no facts to back that up.

I feel like this problem is similar to the drop in crime that you linked to abortion. Before you guys came along everybody attributed the change to something else. People now attribute the lack of terrorism as a sign that anti-terrorism is working. Maybe it is, but thank you for pointing out this is only taken on faith and isn't the only logical possibility.

On a softer note... many Americans still haven't gotten back on track from 9/11, they still fear more today than they did on 9/10, perhaps justified, but perhaps not. I think many of us could benefit from a clean slate.

Chris (Nashville)

You're doing a great job, Steve. You're absolutely right to brain-storm about possible terror actions. The more we talk about these things, the less likely that they are to come to fruition. I'm not going to say that you should have never moved your blog over to the NY Times website... but I will say that if you had kept everything like it was, you'd have fewer readers, BUT THEY'D BE MUCH BETTER EDUCATED & OPEN-MINDED.

Jake Hanes

(this may be a repost)

Your decision to try and develop and advertise plans for how to conduct and commit an act of terror in the United States is sick and disturbing. Perhaps you considered it a fun little mind game to think up and talk about ways to kill Americans and do so in a way so as to distribute that information at large. What a sad, horrible little game you opted to play. I don't honestly expect your moderators to let this comment through but if they do, it will probably be as a sign they too are horrified at what you have done.

III

it is worth noting that the quality of the commentary has markedly decreased since the switchover to the nyt.

i hope that the original articles continue to maintain the same level of quality.

Adam

I think it was the daily show or colbert report that said it best... all the terrorist's have to do is get nyc wet.

Mark

1) A scientist doesnt back down because a point is unpopular..kudos.
2) Perhaps the terror organization goal is to sustain itself and its members (like every other organization such as govt and church..wait that is another rant for another day). So there is an optimal amount of terrorists acts which will generate maximum profit (or utility such as leading rebel/anti establishment etc). And that amount may be X notable attacks per year globally (note there have been successful attacks abroad) whereas true global terror and fear would ultimately cause revenue/profit (ummm charitable giving I mean) to diminish.

Ahh knowledge, if you think its scary, try ignorance. Keep up the good work.

Poison

I read the last post as well. Most people had some sensible responses - some unhappy about the post, some feeling good and some offering their own ideas. Now my take.

The most dangerous thing in this country is smart people (most respondents & the blog writers included) who conjured up scenarios of their own in the hopes of being on the lookout for signs of occurance. The right-wingers have it right err correct, cull the wings of these thinking types and everything will be ok.. these thinking types are the ones providing ideas to the real Terrorists.. they think terrorists cant think on their own, hence smart americans shouldnt think for them. Also notice the right wingers are also extra christian, they think non-believers cannot think for themselves, so they will think & dictate to them as well..

Note: For those on who the point is lost, keep brainstorming - ideas are good.. and fear is reduced when stuff happens as it has been discussed & expected.

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Patton

Ha, have fun being added to the no fly list all!

Erik

Part of the reason terrorists in general and al Qaeda in particular haven't engaged in such a sniper plot may be that it doesn't fit in with their objectives and their world view. They aren't after terror for the sake of terror, but rather terror as a means toward an end: US out of Saudi Arabia, Israel out of Palestine, and now US out of Iraq. In their world view the World Trade Center was a legitimate target because it was an instrument of domination, as well as - their view, not mine - housing lots and lots of evil Jews.

Widespread attacks on random civilians just wouldn't fit with their way of seeing things. Thankfully?

Steven

Thank you for the redux. Much more lucid than yesterday's post.

I was struck by the observation that bus riders in Israel don't change their behavior much in response to threat of bombings. It reminded me that support for the Iraq war, before it began, was lowest in the nation's large cities, the same cities that are the most likely to be attacked by terrorists. It is horribly ironic that support for the most drastic action often comes from those least at threat.

Bernard F. Erlanger

It would be dangerous to conclude that a terrorist threat no longer exists. A big terrorist operation may be in the planning state. We must remain vigilant.
I Speakout.vox.com

Gib

It's no coincidence that the 9/11 commission's report was titled "A Failure of Imagination." Thank you for trying to use and stimulate our collective imaginations, which is the only way we can stay one step ahead of terrorist situations.

It's beneficial to actually use our memories, too; no Homeland Security Department was created after the 1993 WTC bombing, yet it was still another 8 years before the next attack. We all need to pay attention to that fact.

By the way, the killers of those kids in Newark? They are also terrorists, and a much bigger threat than Al Queda to the average American.

Gib

Mighty Mouse

I think that your aim was to start "the very first day that [y]our blog was hosted by the New York Times" with a big bang and you did a fine job at that, much like the "abortion-crime story" made you sell millions of your books. Otherwise, I don't think a smart man like yourself would have used that provocative jolly tone you had in your initial post.

Liam Shannon

Good post and discussion.

However, I think the most interesting aspect of all of it is the nature of many of the negative responses to the entire subject matter. SSHHH DON"T MENTION TERRORISM OR THE TERRORISTS MIGHT HEAR YOU. What exactly do these people think the terrorists are already thinking about?

It kind of reminds me of the people who in the Harry Potter books won't mention you-know-who (Voldemort) by name. It's as if the very act of discussion inceases the likelyhood of a response.

It makes no real sense. But, and this plays a very large role in economics, it does point to the fascinatingly illogical way in which humans perceive their situations - why they sell when their stock is low, cross the street to avoid black cats, and re-elect Presidents who have clearly demonstrated themselves unable to perform the job.

Interesting stuff.

Keep up the good work and the interesting thinking,

Liam

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Ross D.

"The work of my University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape suggests the strongest predictor of terrorist acts is the occupation of a group's territory."

Is your colleague a Ron Paul supporter, by any chance? That line of thinking does make quite a bit of sense to me. It's curious that more empathetic approaches aren't worked into this issue. I think it was a good post, just for that reason. It forced readers to empathize with a terrorist, if only for a second... and it apparently made some of them uncomfortable.

David

I just wanted to express my support for the post. I believe open and honest discussion about reality will help us move forward as a public. Yes, the thoughts are initally scary, but that's precisely why we have to probe deeper into them and understand them better. After all, once we've analyzed and understood the probabilities behind it all, we'll understand how safe we actually are.

...Hopefully...

At any rate, thank you for your post Steven and keep up the good work.

mapotofu

Terrorism is a media strategy. It's about gaming mass media to get move political discourse around to where you want it.

There is a way to beat terrorism - ignore it. Shut off the teevee when they start cranking up the fearmongering, don't click that link, even if your just curious, just blank it out and it will go away.

Remember the Oklahoma City bombing? Neither does anyone else. The agenda behind it is now totally forgotten, because everyone has been ignoring it for years.

Talking about terrorism encourages terrorism, just like talking about suicide encourages suicide.