Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Terrorism’s risk curve

The logic of anti-terrorism measures seems to be that if one bad event happens, such as the 12/25 plot, the risk of similar bad events suddenly shoots up exponentially.  Thus the airport shut-downs over the last two weeks in reaction to minor security breaches, the no-liquids and no-shoes flying bans, and the rush for body scans.  I’m dreading a cross-country flight tomorrow, since there are only so many books I can lug into an airport in anticipation of security delays (yes, Kindle would solve that problem).  Surely this sense of a precipitously elevated risk following an attempt or an actual attack is of questionable logic, though perhaps the reaction is unavoidable.   

A New York Times analysis points out that

the enemies on American soil in 2009, rather than a single powerful and sophisticated juggernaut, were a scattered, uncoordinated group of amateurs who displayed more fervor than skill.  The weapons were old-fashioned guns and explosives — in several cases, duds supplied by F.B.I. informants — with no trace of the biological or radiological poisons, let alone the nuclear bombs, that have long been the ultimate fear.

To a former assistant director of the CIA, 9/11 was the benchmark for Al Qaeda strength, against which the 12/25 plot come up short:

“Sending one guy on one plane is a huge step down,” [Mark M.] Lowenthal said. “They’re less capable, even if they’re still lethal. They’re not able to carry out the intense planning they once did.”

The Times elicits a consensus among Lowenthal and others “that the country is far safer than it was in 2001.”  But the country was safe even in 2001.  The 9/11 attacks were a logistical coup, but they suggested that Al Qaeda had no biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, otherwise it would have used them instead of box cutters and a mastery of flight schedules.  Moreover, there is no evidence that Al Qaeda affiliates have or in the foreseeable future will have the sophisticated lab equipment and technical capacity to develop such weapons.

The number of terror plots then as now was minute.  More Americans who are not gang-affiliated are killed by deranged shooters like the St. Louis factory worker on January 7 or the Las Vegas social security claimant on January 4, or by ordinary criminals, than by Islamic terrorists. 

It is precisely the extraordinary safety of our lives that allows the Times and other environmental fear-mongers to peddle specious environmental scares to an eager audience, such as the claim that our drinking water may be unhealthy or that a chemical in plastic bottles may be unsafe.   People want to feel at risk, it seems.  An entire health publishing industry is devoted to coming up with new things to worry about and take precautions against.  But modern technology and science have banished so many of the diseases and calamities that once devastated human existence that we have to look hard to find things to worry about.   Our search for threats extends even to those accomplishments that have eradicated so much suffering and inconvenience, such as our remarkable and magnificent waterworks and our friends the plastics.   Obviously, Islamic terrorism is a breeding ideology with outsized ambitions, but I am not certain that the amount of resources and attention we devote to it is commensurate with the size of the risk. 

That having been said, if you believe that Islamic terrorism is a civilizational threat, the Pentagon’s review of how the radicalization of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan went unnoticed–so politically correct as to ignore the role of political correctness in the oversight and to deny that Islam is related to whatever “self-radicalization” problem the military has–cannot be reassuring.



  • Author comment by David Hume · January 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

    people were likely far safer on 9/10 than 9/12, but no one *felt* that way….

  • mnuez · January 19, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Dave, I think you mean the other way around.

  • mnuez · January 19, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    In any case, the authoities are all full of shit anyway. The 9/11 hijackers killed over 3000 people not with box-cutters but with fake bombs. If we were REALLY fighting yesterday’s battles we’d make sure that no four random passengers had on them items that could convincingly be made to look like a bomb – to laypeople.

    It turns out that all that we’re actually doing is PRETENDING to fight yesterday’s battle — to save fewer Americans every ten years than were killed by motorized vehicles over the extended weekend.





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