Cheap Terrorism

November 29, 2010

I have written here before about the danger that, by over-reacting to incidents like the Christmas “Underpants Bomber”, and the discovery of explosives in toner cartridges, we are doing more damage to ourselves, and to the values that make our society worth defending, than the terrorists could ever accomplish on their own.  In these and similar cases, we have ended up spending enormous amounts of money and energy creating responses to specific attack methods, even though the attacks themselves were unsuccessful.

As the New York Times reports, this lesson has not been lost on some of our enemies.

In a detailed account of its failed parcel bomb plot last month, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen said late Saturday that the operation cost only $4,200 to mount, was intended to disrupt global air cargo systems and reflected a new strategy of low-cost attacks designed to inflict broad economic damage.

It mocked the notion that the plot was a failure, saying it was the work of “less than six brothers” over three months. “This supposedly ‘foiled plot,’ ” the group wrote, “will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures. That is what we call leverage.”

As a result of these tactics, we have not only the added expense and inconvenience of additional security measures, but also the ongoing squabble about passenger screening protocols.  And more recently, we have had the news of the alleged plot to explode a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland OR.  (It is interesting, although probably the height of idleness, to speculate on  what new security measures might be introduced as a result of the Portland affair.)

We need to stop imitating a flock of headless Chicken Littles every time a potential attack is uncovered.  Bruce Schneier has been saying this for years; in an essay about the Underpants Bomber, he wrote:

The real security failure on Christmas Day was in our reaction. We’re reacting out of fear, wasting money on the story rather than securing ourselves against the threat. Abdulmutallab succeeded in causing terror even though his attack failed.

If we refuse to be terrorized, if we refuse to implement security theater and remember that we can never completely eliminate the risk of terrorism, then the terrorists fail even if their attacks succeed.

There are models we might consider.  I can remember how impressed I was, many years ago, when I first saw this picture of a milkman, taken in London in 1940, during the Blitz.

London Milkman During the Blitz

Of course we need to take the threat of terrorism seriously; but we do ourselves no favors by enabling the bad guys to hurt us on the cheap.

Refuse to be terrorized.

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