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.)


"I would bet fewer than 20% of Americans could name the current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security"

This is an economics column, so let's go looking for incentives and payoffs...

If you were a prominent and successful member of the administration, you would have two things:

1: A public profile, regular media appearances, and name-recognition by 80% of the public;

2: The political skills to avoid a job that gets you pilloried when (not if) an attack comes in, while being slowly roasted on one side by civic-rights campaigners about loss-of-liberty due to increased surveillance, and roasted on the other side by well-connected campaign donors when security measures like border checks hit their profits.

Caleb Dyer

To the lovely meter maid: The least we can do is be informed about current events. "Sticking our head in the sand" might feel good but can lead to real trouble. Not going to work may feel good to, but if you just decided to do nothing it would most likely be detrimental to your lifestyle. Whether for or against current policies and views, doing as much as one can is a must whether it feels good or not. Terrorist are passionate and intense and if we ever want to make a difference we have to live the same way, if not moreso, not sticking our heads in the sand.


Took me a second, but I know who the Sec DHS is.

I for one appreciate the post. The debate is necessary, and the worst thing we can do is underestimate the intelligence of the people planning such attacks. That would be the height of Imperialist ignorance.

We need to face facts, the world has changed and we need to adapt. Our debate should focus on HOW we confront the terrorist threat, not IF.


"If anything bad happens, security officials are squarely to blame."

No, Mr. Levitt, the terrorists are squarely to blame. That like saying crime is the fault of the police. We have police because of crime. Crimes are committed by criminals and terrorism is committed by terrorist. Americans need to stop pointing fingers at themselves and their fellow Americans when the blame is squarely on the terrorist.

mandala oblongata

Many of your readers have suggested that you explore terrorism from an economic perspective, including examining ideas for reducing: a) acts of terrorism, b) the psychological impact of terrorism, and c) the economic impacts of terrorism. My suggestions can be found as response #104 to your second column.

Instead, after thinking about it for a week, you chose to write a post that suggests that if there were a terrorist attack, Freakonomics would not only be mentioned in various stories but would be in several headlines. Plus, these headlines would blame officials for inaction and would outnumber those headlines blaming you for giving terrorists ideas. How can I charitably say this? I find this defensive and unproductive.

Why not explore ways help reduce the number of terrorists acts and the magnitude of their impact? These issues relate to influencing behavior and creating creative and effective incentives that take into account human psychology to do so. In other words, good Freakonomics topics.


Kelly Tripp

Public Awareness is key. So talking about different scenarios is preventative.

Because it's really going be Joe Public who will be the 1st victim or 1st responder to the next unknow attack. The more Joe Public keeps his eyes peeled, the greater the chance that damage will be limited. We will only be safe by being vigilant.


Years ago when airplanes were getting bombed (and not used as bombs) my professor asked us how we could lessen or minimize the risk given the chances of boarding a plane with a bomb is like one in a million. He said, carry a grenade or explosive and the odds against having two people carrying explosives on the same plane rise exponentially to one in five million. Carry two and it rises further. This is just an exercise in probability and use of statistics.

The question is what level or risk are we willing to take? We know that more people die in road accidents every year but this does not stop people from driving. It is the mind set and perception of risk/reward that plays a major role in making decisions to drive, fly or take the train not government edicts.

Steven L.

Yes, you indeed remain a moron living in an academic bubble. The point is this... terrorists with the intent, capability, connections, etc. to actually strike the US are few in number. By definition, these guys have a very different perspective and understanding of the world - they have been brainwashed by a cult of death with one of the most intolerant, insular, and narrow ideologies / cultures on the planet. The primary lens through which they see if the world is a hateful, anachronistic text written by a meglomaniacal conman. If these guys really understood us, do you think they would dedicate their lives to blowing us up?

Americans on the other hand are arguably the most innovative people on the face of the planet (spare me the jingoistic BS). Our culture is one that encourages and celebrates dissent (unless you're the Bush Administration), creativity, and initiative. We live in a very complicated society that accommodates and embraces cultural influences from around the globe. Yes we're an open society with our culture exported everywhere, but even highly educated foreigners who have spent a lot of time here still struggle to fully understand our culture, politics, behaviors, fears, etc.

Now who do you think is going to come up with better ideas for killing and more importantly deeply seeding fear in the hearts of the 300 million Americans - is it going to be a small band 12th century Neanderthals living in a cave in Waziristan (granted they have access to the Internet and CNN) and the brainwashed morons in the West who listen to them (yes the guys in Britain were doctors, but still morons, just look at their execution)? Or is it going to be the tens of thousands of American NYT readers brainstorming and building off each other's ideas?

In (the likely) case the nuance here is too much for you to wrap your brain around, consider this: If I was interested in opening a new business in Afghanistan (just a business, not something as complicated and visceral as what it would take to terrorize the entire population - which is far more homogeneous than ours - on an individual level), where do you think I would get better ideas for creating a business that will satisfy Afghan needs and/or desires to the extent that they'd want to give me their money? Asking 10,000 Americans, or asking 100 Afghans?



I read at least seven or eight years ago that the most ingenious way for terrorists (or pranksters) to wreak the most havoc would be for them to accumulate a very large supply of LSD and put it in a large city's water supply system. Throwing the LSD into reservoirs wouldn't work; it would be necessary to add it at some point in the filtration process, which may be easier said than done. Then sit back and watch millions of people smelling circles and hearing the color blue!

Steven L.

Re: #29 - It's been pointed out that I've again overestimated the intelligence of my intended audience. The answer to the test is B - 100 Afghans.

If you disagree, prove it - let's hear some great ideas for the type of store I should open up in Kabul.

Once we have a list, we could ask Levitt to pass the ideas along to his friends in the Taliban to get their reactions.


"Just know that you *publicly* laid out an excellent plan (snipers) for any malcontent group - terrorist or otherwise - to wreak havoc."

Been there done that. Remember Malvo and Muhammad?


Steven L. of post #29 and 31. Your name initially leads one to believe you are Mr. Levitt. I, however, don't believe this to be true. I haven't seen an instance where Mr Levitt is insulting to anyone.

mike s

My friends say that I come up ideas that scare them. Lets see if you agree:

1. Send a an airplane or a boat loaded with explosives or fuel into the Hoover dam and the Grand Coullee dam. The economic conditions of this country will be crippled for years , not months with massive power shortages, water shortages and food shortages for the entire country not just in the west. This does not even consider the cost of rebuilding and dage from the dam collapses. This country will be brought to its kneees in days and will sy that way for years.
2. Lay to waste the bridges in St. Louis, Memphis, Cairo and in Davenport to disrupt trucking transportation and railroad transportation from west to east and east to west.
3. Destroy the runways or air traffic control centers in Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Denver and Memphis to disrupt air trasportation throughout the country.
4. Make the Missisiappi river undrinklable for St. Louis and New Orleans by oil spills barges exposions or a simple railroad attack.
5. place a deadly virus on paper money
6. blow up several key refineries in Texas, and the east and west coast at the same time
7. place car bombs in retail parking lots or local food stores

I think I said enough. This country needs to pay attention to our infrastructure- this what helped build this country to a great nation.


Paul Tuminaro

I liked the other two columns, but what I still would like to see broken out is this: What is a good estimate of dollars spend on terrorism per lives saved. The cost with and with out the cost of the Iraq War - in my opinion just a convenient area for the Bush Administration to say they are fighting the war on terror, which has then become a hot front with actual terrorists who now travel there to easily shoot directly at our representative solders. I believe that there is a statistic out there that the FBI stopped around 270 terrorist like 'actions' between 1981 and 2000. What was the budget for the FBI for all of this work?

My overall goal: The Terrorism Budget spent since 9/11/01 applied to ____________ (you name it: traffic saftey: 40K deaths a year, reducing our infant mortality, whatever you can think of that needs only cash and some research to advance) would have benefited the American Public by saving x number of lives. Again, I agree with your note that people overestimate risks. Yes, I believe there are some Terrorists out there, but if the threat were so grave, why has nothing happened in the last 6 years? We don't have that much policing activity! I believe that most of our citizens are fairly fat and happy. We don't' have those sort of zealous hatreds in our citizenry. If we did, our streets would look more like London in the 70's or Israel...

At the end of the day, I realize the government must be vigilant, but where o where is the ceiling on spending? Cost per lives saved is the one type of things the governments can and must analyze.



Ideas for dealing with terrorism:

1) if more "guards" are needed for the country, how about using the internet? It would be using one of the massive advantages the U.S. has -- the largest per capita number of internet terminals in the world (correct me if I'm wrong here). Volunteer citizens could monitor security cameras from their home computer. Imagine the millions of extra "guards" present instantly, all on free forum. Of course, some would subvert this process, but they too could be found with ease. I suppose the job could be "outsourced" to a highly populated country such as India, which would benefit from the income and hi-tech boost, while the U.S. would benefit from greater security monitoring.

2) One massive Gandhi-like solution to global conflicts that everyone I've mentioned this to has laughed about, is to send about 100 million unarmed volunteers to peacefully occupy a given war zone. They would simply be present, and physically interfere with the violence, clean up the place, have conversations, etc. We have a massive overpopulation problem, we could use a billion volunteers to systematically occupy every war zone, everyone wins!


Rick Cendo

I'm sure we'll get something next year because Al Qaeda and Bush will be desperate to elect Rudy Giuliano as President. Plus, you can link to the attack to Iran and have an excuse to bomb them.

Willard Foxton


Hoover dam eh? Doubt an aircraft will dent it. But....

You get a truck, fill it with commercial demolition explosives, drive it to the mid point of the Hoover dam, and then drive it OFF the dam on the water side. You set the explosives to go off on a pressure fuse, so it'll blow at the foot of the dam.

Anyone who's seen dambusters knows what happens next. The water pressure makes the path of least resistance the dam itself, which enabled a relatively small one ton charge to level the german dams. We're doing it on a dam twice the size, but with 40x the explosive weight, twice the pound for pound explosive power - and seeing as how the inverse square rule applies to explosives (each doubling of weight increases the blast power by a square factor), something like multiplying the blasts energy by the power of five.


You blow the Hoover dam, destroying a.) a big national symbol, b.) Power to several states and c.) I'm sure some areas get their water from there.



You are a wonderful economist, but you are letting rational choice theory cloud your analysis of terrorist actions.

Payoffs and denial based strategies won't work on religiously-based terrorism. In the sort of extremist sects that engage in terrorism, we find a complete willingness to suffer any form of consequence in order to carry out a goal. Suicide bombing by certain terrorists is one example of this.

I agree with your statement that we are powerless, in many ways, to fight an asymmetric war.

I have always wondered why terrorists haven't yet tried small attacks like the ones you mentioned. Al Qaeda tends to do grander things when it comes to European and American countries.


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?