Terrorism, Part III

One final thought (for now) on terrorism:

The people who should most despise my blog posts on terrorist attacks (found here and here) are the government officials charged with fighting terrorism. Why? Imagine that one of the scenarios mentioned in the posts or the accompanying comments ever did come to pass. No doubt someone would write a headline saying something like, “Did the Freakonomics Blog Give Ideas to Terrorists?” But I suspect there would be far more headlines like this: “Government Officials Failed to Prepare Against Terror Attack Predicted Years Ago by Freakonomics Blog.”

Running the Department of Homeland Security is about the toughest job around. Those folks have my sympathy. The number of ways we can be attacked is virtually infinite. If anything bad happens, security officials are squarely to blame. If nothing happens, hardly anyone even knows that these people are the ones in charge. I would bet fewer than 20% of Americans could name the current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (If you need some help, the answer is here.)


Way fewer than 20% could name the DHS Secretary.


The method of attack chosen by a terrorist is only limited by their imagination. You can simply pick up any Tom Clany novel to get some ideas. Wasn't it in one of his books where an airliner smashed into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress? It was in "Debt of Honor" published in 1995. What about the detonation of a nuclear device at a Superbowl Game? Read "Sum of All Fears", published in 1991.

The bottom line is terrorism isn't a new idea. Its been around for thousands of years. Jewish rebels attacked Roman soldiers and leadership over two thousand years ago. The original "Assassins" would publically murder their targets, fully knowing they would die in the process...the original suicide attackers. There probably isn't an idea we could post on this blog (or anywhere else on the net for that matter) that some terrorist in some corner of the world hasn't probably thought of.

What we need is an open and honest public discourse on what terrorism really is and how we mitigate it. Notice I did not say eliminate it. We will never be able to eliminate terrorism from society...it is an action, not a tangible country or single organization. What we can do, however, is treat terrorism exactly for what it is...actions of violent criminals. One of my big points of contention is over the phrase "War on Terror". If this is a "war" can someone let me know when we will celebrate "VT" (Victory over Terrorism) Day?



Come on. People with Ph.D's should know better than to throw around the word "terrorist." It's the modern-day equivalent to calling some one a savage. As in, "Oh, they're just savages. No negotiating with them. Just give them some disease-invested blankets an fly a couple smart bombs into their houses."

It's called terror talk. Look it up. :(



Thank you. I agree completely. What's more, when attacks are foiled and the public is notified, those officials are vilified for fearmongering.


20% of people probably could name, maybe the Secretary of Defense? Or the Chief Justice?

I'd put the percentage who could name our Secretary of Homeland Security around 3, 4, 5%? I'm reasonably informed and not even I knew.

Mike W

Are you secretly working for FOX News, or using them to promote your blog? You've been a godsend for them. Apparently the hysteria level was getting a little low. Now you've given them something to get worked up about, and provided another reason to flog one of their favorite whipping boys (NYT) . If not for that, I probably wouldn't have noticed your blog, or at least not yet. Keep up the good work


The people who were complaining and alarmist about the last two posts should take ten minutes to read a feature from Government Executive.


Well--- I'm one who could not name him but I did recognize his name once I saw it...


I don't know. Exactly how much blame for letting 9/11 happen has Pres. Bush and Co. garnered? I'm not saying he is to blame, but he seems to be getting less blame than this post might suggest.

Bill in Chicago

I can tell you who probably appreciates your ruminations:


I don't think you need any fancy "freakonomics" to figure out who the real terrorists are. Yet it seems too much to ask for this administration.

ils vont

If we talk about terrorism than the terrorists have won...thats the mentality we are working with here. As a society it helps to discuss the things we fear. if the terrorist are scouring NYTimes blogs for ideas and insights than we have greatly under-estimated or over-estimated them? not sure.



Part of me wonders just how necessary many of DHS positions are.

Looking at Ireland (where admittedly I'm not all that informed) terrorism was a real issue, as it was homegrown, and active. I'm sure they had quite a few public servants working to try to extinguish terrorism, but what the US is doing just seems like overkill to me.

@AP: I believe 3-5% for the general public, however I wonder if 20% of freakonomics readers will know.



There is no such thing as "terrorism" as described by the bush administration. It is only a propaganda construct designed to enslave the populace. Osama didn't cause 9/11 either. Cheney did!

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Nope, I couldn't name him. But if one can ask: "does the President really matter", I can ask the same of this guy. Hopefully, though, in terms of our safety, he Does really matter. I'm deliberately ignorant, I freely admit, of most politics and politicians. I want to stick my head in the sand. The world just *feels* more unsafe and terrorism is everywhere including (as someone astute pointed out on this very blog) rampant on our roadways, as well.

Thomas Kurt

I wanted to start this comment out with some harsh language directed at you, but I know that's not proper etiquette, so I will refrain.

Just know that you *publicly* laid out an excellent plan (snipers) for any malcontent group - terrorist or otherwise - to wreak havoc. Your plan is so good, Homeland Security, the police, nobody, could defend against it, whether they wanted to or not.

Nice job and I hope you enjoy all the attention.


I am not sure that your arguments work here.

Initially you argued that giving ideas here was not going to be an issue, because the terrorists have already thought of everything.

Now you are saying that it is a good idea because the DHS, with all their manpower and budgets, may NOT have thought of everything.

Either we are coming up with new ideas, or we are not, you can't have it both ways!

Or is the premise that we are (collectively) smarter than the DHS, but dumber than 'the terrorists'?

a guy in iraq

I don't know about anyone else, but what bothered me was the flippant way in which you asked for ideas in the (I believe) the first post. Terrorism is truly horrible-- take a look at what is going on everyday in Iraq. With all this going on, you portrayed it as an academic exercise. It is anything but academic for me.

I've read the blog for at least a year, and while I typically enjoy your viewpoint, this time it just made my blood boil.


As always, F.D.R.'s famous quote seems pertinent once again:

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Of course seeing as how a large swatch of the general public would never be able to make the intellectual leap to thinking of how that quote applies to the modern context, it seems we will most likely be doomed to repeat ourselves, at least for the near future.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

I wonder if those who are upset about Steven Levitt's request to us on writing about how future terroristic violence might play out Also become upset, to Any degree, with all the violent, bloody movies and other media that saturate this culture? There is much sadism, in the form of *entertainment* which abounds in showing as much torture and gore as possible.


I agree with Nick- if you think about it, "terrorist" has become the modern-day equivalent to "communist", and is used as such to justify Bush's blank check from Congress- the problem is that the facile descriptions preclude an understanding of how to prevent violent anti-US factions- we need a less belligerant and patronizing foreign policy in the Middle East, else, as other posters have warned, we will perpetuate the cycle of violence