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H1 Are Terrorists Superhuman?

In a word, no, although one would think so by listening to the news or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Normally, when someone wants to justify a security measure, they talk about what terrorists could do, and what a terrorist could do, under the worst of circumstances is pretty horrible:

By LESLIE MILLER, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Terror strikes from the sea could be even more catastrophic than those from the air, intelligence officials say. They fear a hijacked oil tanker could be rigged with explosives or a radioactive dirty bomb could be smuggled ashore in a shipping container. ...
but, are the terrorists competent enough to manage these worst-case scenarios?

Most likely, no.

Terrorism is low-tech

History says that even successful terrorists don't use sophisticated techniques. They use commercial explosives, with commercial blasting caps, a battery and a switch. Oh, and possibly they mix broken glass or nails into the explosive. That's the recipe for half of all terrorist attacks. Most of the remainder add a simple timer to the bomb. There's little in that technological mix that would strain the intellectual capacity of the average 18-year old.

Even the most dramatic acts, like the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland or 9/11 aren't especially sophisticated. The Pan-Am bombing may have depended on the explosive being disguised as a battery to allow it to pass an X-ray scan. While that idea is fairly clever, it doesn't seem outside the range of cleverness one sees in a good DIY project or a model railroad.

The attacks on the World Trade Center required nothing more than twisted fanaticism, box cutters (which one buys from a hardware store), good organizational skills, and a few hours of pilot training. The pilot training is an accomplishment, but not a rare one. 34,000 people took the US FAA's private pilot test in 2002, and 95% passed. And, actually getting a pilot's license involves quite a bit more training than the terrorists took. If one does the math, about one in every thousand people in the US is a better pilot than the terrorists were, and many of the rest could be, if they weren't on tight budgets, too busy, or just uninterested.

Ask at any airport. They'll tell you that you can learn to fly, and they're right. While a few people can't manage it (there's always one student who makes the flight instructors wonder why he thinks he can learn to fly), most other people, if they spend the time and the money, will succeed. A pilot isn't a superman.

The only dramatic exception to this low-tech approach is, perhaps, the anthrax attacks in the US in the fall of 2001. Despite the lack of public evidence that the anthrax was "weapons grade," it was clearly not something the could be cooked up in a kitchen without quite a lot of skill and knowledge. Is this the lone exception to the low-tech rule or perhaps did the terrorist(s) manage to buy it? We don't know, and may not know for years, if ever. (NB: Japanese Sarin Subway attacks were probably high tech, too.)

Who is a terrorist?

Who, after all, is a terrorist? A fanatic who is willing to die for a cause. The twisted psychology of a fanatic may lead to dedication and long hours of work, but it conveys no special abilities, knowledge, skills, or intelligence. Rather than supermen, terrorists are ordinary guys off the street.

Indeed, even that may be an overestimate. In The True Believer, an amazing book written just after World War II, Eric Hoffer argues that the fanatic is someone who needs to believe in a cause bigger than himself because he (or she, of course) considers himself a failure and has a future far smaller than his expectations.

They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both; hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. They also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking - hence their proclivity for united action.
But, wasted lives or not, nothing seems to mark the fanatic as a superman.

Costs of Security

So, let us consider the essential mediocrity of most terrorists when we design our security precautions. If we plan to fend off the worst that the terrorists could possibly do, we must realize that the odds are very good that our mediocre terrorist will try something easier, instead. The odds are very good that we will have wasted time, money, skills and liberty fending off a ghostly possibility that would never have materialised.

The costs of security are real, though perhaps hard to count. Consider the security personnel in airports who X-ray your shoes every time you travel. A minor annoyance, one might think, but look again. Look at any two or three guys guarding the airport. They are in exchange for one medical researcher we can't afford. The money we pay for security is money we can't spend anywhere else, and who knows which is more valuable: stopping bombs now or stopping schizophrenia years down the line? Or perhaps it's not medical research that's important, but research on global warming. Or, these security guys could be policemen or firemen or EMTs. Would they save more lives in L.A. International Airport or South L.A.?

The other cost is the lives of the passengers. Rather than a plane-full losing their lives all at once, in a wingless fall into the North Atlantic, we consent to lose our lives a half-hour at a time, standing in a queue, waiting to be searched. While it's perhaps a valid choice for society to make, these costs are not negligable. According to the Air Transport Association of America, more than 700 million passengers were carried (year 2000). If they each waste a half-hour, that's 350 million hours wasted, or (doing the math) 500 lifetimes worth of waiting, every year.

Finally, there is the cost in terms of liberty. That's even harder to count, since it's so hard to imagine the effect of each individual change. Liberty measures the balance of power between a citizen and his or her government, and each loss of liberty is an accumulation of government power. From history, we know that the governments that had the most power over their population were rarely pleasant. Some were better than others, but a powerful government can, even with the best intentions, mess up the lives of millions. Socialist Britain during 1950-1975 is a shining example of a well-meaning government that created and extended years of hardship and austerity. Communism is the ultimate example, though communist governments were only well-meaning in theory.

People in powerful governments have more and stronger temptations to be corrupted. Some will succumb and will make decisions that hurt the citizenry to line their own pockets. Would we want to live in the New York of Tammany Hall, where the bosses tax the poor to pay for a government that doesn't work, line their pockets, and then (with a fraction of the graft), buy the votes to stay in office? ( Plunkitt of Tammany Hall is a fascinating view from the bosses' perspective, but one can read between the lines.)

Perhaps that won't happen again, but the temptations are many and varied. Even in places as well governed as the United States, FBI files of political opponents occasionally get passed around to the wrong parties. The rate at which nominally democratic governments (like the US and the UK) have been collecting power in the last year or two is disturbing: In the UK, there are an astounding number of TV cameras watching. Proposals to remove trial by jury for certain crimes were almost passed. In the US, before a Federal Appeals Court ruling, it seemed that one could be made to disappear into military custody, upon accusation of terrorism (although we have yet, as of 10 Jan 2003, to see the ruling obeyed). I think that the strong traditions of both countries will see us through this panic about terrorism, but yet, I worry.

A few thousand average guys out there have certainly scared us. Too much, I think.

[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Thu Jul 9 22:24:32 2015 Greg Kochanski: [ ]