The High Price of False Security

by on November 20, 2012 at 10:44 am in Current Affairs, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

Charles Kenny has an excellent piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about security:

The attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is considerably out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. That’s especially true when it comes to Islamic-extremist terror. Of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen. Since 2000, the chance that a resident of the U.S. would die in a terrorist attack was one in 3.5 million, according to John Mueller and Mark Stewart of Ohio State and the University of Newcastle, respectively. In fact, extremist Islamic terrorism resulted in just 200 to 400 deaths worldwide outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq—the same number, Mueller noted in a 2011 report (PDF), as die in bathtubs in the U.S. alone each year.

…According to one estimate of direct and indirect costs borne by the U.S. as a result of 9/11, the New York Times suggested the attacks themselves caused $55 billion in “toll and physical damage,” while the economic impact was $123 billion. But costs related to increased homeland security and counterterrorism spending, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaled $3,105 billion.

Matt Yglesias adds a good point:

Something that I would love to see the Transportation Security Administration, the FBI, the CIA, and whoever else do is pull together an estimate of how many airplanes they think would have been blown up by terrorists if there was no passenger or baggage screening whatsoever. One way of thinking about it is this. If commercial airplanes were no more secure than your average city bus, planes would be blown up as frequently as city buses—which is to say never. I’ve heard some people postulate that terrorists have a special affection for blowing up planes, but I’m not sure that’s right. In the not-too-distant past, Israel had a substantial terrorists-blowing-up-buses problem and had to take countervailing security measures. But unlike Israel, we’re not doing anything to secure our buses. It’s at least possible that nobody blows up American buses because nobody is trying to blow anything up.

I would also add to the monetary costs the price of lost civil liberties and a populace that has sadly grown accustomed to government surveilling, scanning, and groping. As I said some years ago when visiting Independence Hall, the price of eternal vigilance is liberty.

Dingbat November 20, 2012 at 11:01 am

City buses in the US are full of poor people, often poor brown people. I suspect that the likelihood of a form of transportation being attacked is proportional to the number of rich and powerful people on it. (With the caveat that rich people aren’t under attack nearly as often as they think they are.) But if you want bang for your terrorism buck, you’re going to attack things that decision makers care about: symbols and people like them.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 11:59 am

What cities are you talking about? Detroit, DC, Atlanta and Birmingham?

Ride public transportation in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco and the crowd is definitely not “brown.” Many of those people earn more than the median income for their area as well as the nation.

Besides, i think you make a false presumption that Muslim fanatics are concerned with skin color.

Stephen November 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm

OP said City buses, not subways. Can’t speak to the other cities, but NYC buses and subways seem to have much different demographics.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

While i wont dispute the demographic differences between buses and trains, terrorists have attacked both buses and trains and both are equally accessible.

If terrorists wanted to avoid killing brown people, theyd only need to target the other conveyance, right? In fact, because trains (and especially subways) have a fixed infrastructure, bombing a train would be far more effective than a bus in disrupting economic activity and fomenting fear.

Emanuele November 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm

They are different but the difference is not related to the argument: subways are as not controlled as buses.
Probably a subway bombing would be as effective as an airplane one in term of economic damage and losses. Still the number of trains blowing up is pretty low.

By the way I do not see this data as strange. Of course we get really angry when other people damage us and we do not care at all for the same damage if self inflicted.
A couple of months ago a guy hit my car while I was waiting for the traffic light’s permission to pass. He caused just a few scratches on the bumper. Still I got quite angry, we alerted the insurance companies and I was annoyed by the event for a week. A few weeks ago I bumped against an higher then expected sidewalk and scratched my bumper in a similar way. My only thought was “That is why there is a bumper”, and ignored the thing at all until now.

It is not immediately rational but it is pretty human to spend 10 to avoid a guy stealing 1 from me. In most human relations it could be rationalized in the long time with reputation effects of course: I am the guy who spends 10 times more to avoid a damage, go annoy someone else. This is why we evolved in this way. Of course this is completely irrelevant now: if their purpose is damaging us our availability to self inflicting damage makes their job easier.
But still, this is how we are coded and it is pretty hard to change it.

Paul severe December 7, 2012 at 8:47 am

Even if we accept that terrorists do not have an affinity for attacks involving planes (an assertion that is not supported by the facts), it’s fairly clear that the destructive potential of an attack involving a commercial airliner is significantly greater than an attack invoking a bus.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 11:20 am

No, see, they seized 1200 firearms in 2011. So that means they stopped 1200 hijackings. Do the math, people!

And with a budget of only $8B, that is way less than the $55B every year for taking down the twin towers every year.

And the $3T for fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here, demolishing their countries are way cheaper than demolishing our country. We have way more nice stuff.

dead serious November 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm

My only quibble would be that the richest city on the continent can’t rebuild a skyscraper in less than a decade so that part of the math strikes me as wonky.

Other than that, I agree – such a bargain!

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Well, then the terrorists win.

We are cowards.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm

The costs of 911 were far higher than the cost of rebuilding some buildings.

No, they stopped MORE than 1200 weapons from going on to planes. The security measures deterred attempts to do so. Dare i say that most of the 1200 guns seized were not intended for skyjacking, so thats not evennthe measure of the effectiveness of the security measures. The effectiveness may be immeasurable because we dont know how many attacks were thwarted, averted, or contemplated.

“The only reason some people are alive is because it’s illegal to kill them.” – anonymous.

We did not spent $3 trillion fighting them over there. Stiglitz double counted and overestimated a lot of costs that would have been spent anyway.

And the benefits of the wars are far less easy to measure. If, forty years from now, Iraq and Afghanistan are peaceful and prosperous democracies, the costs would be a bargain. The US costs of World War II was a bargain compared to the alternative of pacifism, and the recent wars were a minuscule fraction of the cost of that war in both blood and treasure.

Floccina November 20, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Does that 1200 include my bottles of mouth wash and shampoo that they took from me?

dead serious November 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

“The effectiveness may be immeasurable because we dont know how many attacks were thwarted, averted, or contemplated.”

I’d replace “may be” with “is” and add a “conveniently” behind it.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 1:18 pm

It’s None.

We’ve resorted to creating them through FBI entrapment stings.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I dont dispute your point and in fact i embrace it. Calculating benefits for things like education, training, security, etc is always difficult. It gives the cost hawks disproportionate power.

I pay $40 or so a month for a home security system. The system has led to the capture of zero burglars. It has identified zero burglary attempts. I have no idea how many, if any, burglaries it has prevented.

So are you saying the $40 per month is wasteful? You explain that to my wife. :)

If i had no security system and i came home to find my wife and daughters murdered, in hindsight the system might seem to have been a bargain. At the very least, it might aid in the capture of the person who killed them by alerting neighbors, i.e. witnesses.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm

What we are talking about is completely different from your example.

Before 9/11 there were essentially only the skeleton crew of Saudi hi-jackers. Afterward there were none. This was fairly obvious.

On the other side of the ledger, there is the issue that I’ve been discussing since Walter Williams made it about not the TSA but about airline regulation that policy has killed thousands of Americans by pushing them into cars rather than flights.

To make your analogy more accurate, we’d give tests to housewives, and to the jumpiest ones we’d give Colt 1911′s and urge them to keep them in condition 0.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm

It’s good to see, btw, Yglesias giving us some hope that the democrats might one day not be completely worthless on this. It’s only been 11 years, but we are glad to have him.

Maybe their is hope that they might follow Matt’s lead and won’t be utterly useless for other serious issues and quit their focus on free birth control.

Democrats: You won, you were right, you’ve convinced us, we don’t want you guys to have kids. Now can we look at some real problems that the government is so obviously boning?

dead serious November 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm

“It has identified zero burglary attempts. I have no idea how many, if any, burglaries it has prevented.”

Let me help you out: the answer is zero.

And I understand the “explain that to my wife” answer, only most of the American populace reviles the TSA and would probably be happy to see it die a quick death. Similarly, I’m not sure there’s such a huge American appetite for our overseas military campaigns.

I wouldn’t want to see the elimination of the FBI and the CIA – to me that’s money better spent.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm

It may not be zero.

But the cost is not unreasonable relative to the risk.

What we are comparing that rational or arguably rational cost-benefit to is the utterly insane example of homeland security.

When everyone was panicked it was understandable. But 10 years on it is not.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm

No, Andrew, it was not just a skeleton crew of 20 hijackers. There were likely hundreds of people involved in conducting recon and testing security procedures for years. It’s only obvious you dont know how terrorist operations are conducted.

The testing of our security by terrorists continues. Many benign items caught by TSA were attempts to see what would get past them. People like you might say, “oh my God, it’s a hair dryer,” but that’s exactly the result the terrorists wanted. On the one hand they are testing, and on the other hand they are attempting to provoke a profiling incident with a plausibly deniable object of attention.

In other words, today it is Play Do for their kids. Tomorrow it is C4.

I dont buy the argument that TSA security has pushed people to their deaths in cars. At least some people stopped flying because of 911, not because of TSA. I can think of only a few regional routes where lengthened security lines might tip the balance in favor of driving.

I travel a lot, and i have never been groped. Ive had more intrusive pat downs in private night clubs with live salsa bands. I got groped by a doctor last week, and i have to trust that she was a professional and not a sleeze. Frankly, some of you are whining like ninnies about TSA. Youre more shocked about the violation of your idealistic views on liberty than any afront to your body. Even though I agree with you on both principle and economics, youre simply making up some of your evidence and being drama queens in order to foment popular discontent. I dont believe that emotional pleas and concocted evidence is the solution to emotional pleas and concocted evidence.

The lines at the airport are much diminished, and it has taken less than 20 minutes for me to get through security on every flight for the past two years – in some cases far less than 20 minutes.

You are also neglecting the political ledger of the politicians who relax these standards and suffer the consequences when an event occurs. There is also minimization of maximum regret as an objective rather than straightforward optimization.

I quite agree with you that Americans are ninnies when it comes to terrorism, especially 10 years after the fact as you say. They not only overestimate their chances of being victims, but they react exactly how the terrorists want them to. I think this is the winner’s curse of having very few incidents. If we had more terror, people would understand it better. Id prefer they not understand it in that manner.

I would agree we need more education on the matter. Exaggerated indignation about TSA isnt the answer, in my opinion. As much as i would like TSA eliminated and its functionsmprivatized, remember that we were there once. Private firms will underestimate the probability of a terrorist attack at zero.

I agree that reinforcing cockpit doors solved much of the problem. Before 911, standard guidance was to cooperate with skyjackers.

Im a pragmatist when it comes to policy. It saves you a lot of stress from frustration.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Box cutters, G.

What evidence do you have?

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Why do people (you in this case) have to make up stuff?

Who is whining? Not me. Personally, I’ve just not flown. I’d like to fly.

I’ve also pointed out that there has been zero benefit for the cost.

There’s no whining. No ‘fomenting’. Relative to how much public discontent there should be, there is nowhere near enough, so fomenting would be warranted even though I’m not doing it.

dead serious November 20, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Agree with Andrew’ on the not complaining about being groped. That’s the very least of my concerns.

My biggest concern is that we are spending a not small amount of money on this needless process – a process that is unpleasant not so much due to physical effrontery but because it’s yet one more long line and set of customer service-deficient goons I need to deal with in an attempt to get from one city to another. The taking off of shoes, the stupid liquid restrictions (what about the C4 you mentioned – that wouldn’t be caught, right?) – everything we check for is a reactive measure to some specific prior attempt.

If we as a society are so hell-bent on devoting vast resources to protecting a single mode of travel, let’s just develop some giant scanners that detect dangerous materials (gunpowder, explosive chemicals) upon entering a terminal. Then we can hire a few goons to make you dump them out or refuse you entry.

albatross November 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Have there been any prosecutions for terrorism, attempted hijacking, etc., of anyone for those seized firearms? As far as I can tell reading the newspapers, there have been two serious attempts at attacking a US plane since 9/11, both were bombers, both got their bombs onto the plane despite the post-9/11 security, and both failed to set their bombs off. Are there other cases out there?

My first guess is that none of the people who had firearms taken at security checkpoints were planning a hijacking. Further, as soon as the airplane doors were re-enforced and the protocol for responding to a hijacking incorporated the knowledge that terrorists would likely try to use the hijacked plane as a poor man’s cruise missile, we were suddenly back to 9/10. A terrorist hijacking or blowing up a plane can, at most, kill the plane’s inhabitants. He almost certainly won’t be able to get control of the plane and fly it into a building, so he’s unlikely to manage to kill anyone on the ground. The airport security we had in place before 9/11 was probably just fine for this threat.

FE November 20, 2012 at 11:29 am

Please. One can question our security policies without the silly “Why do Americans make such a fuss about airplanes?” condescension.

rluser November 22, 2012 at 5:10 am

Agreed. Willits has gone off the rails above. I used to fly a great deal (USAir Chairman, Continental Platinum — deduce my domicile) but have insisted on telecommute in recent years. Contra his/her assertion, I have been groped (I mean this quite literally) by TSA twice on my last three airport passes (all in the past 30 days).

I would be quite interested in hearing the experiences of coin dealers.

Steve Waas November 20, 2012 at 11:30 am

The basic thrust of the comment is reasonable (too much spent on these things?), but you should acknowledge that some “murders” require more attention than others. What was so special about the few thousand “murders” at Pearl Harbor? How many murders of Americans did the Nazis commit before we set out to reduce them to rubble (close to zero, I think)? Was it all worth the billions of $, nearly 1/2 million american soldiers lives, etc? Just for a few murders in Hawaii?

Or, was there a risk that worse things would have happened had we not responded?

doctorpat November 20, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Coughing three or four times from the smoke that starts filling your bedroom at midnight warrants a more serious response than coughing 30 to 40 times from a cold you got the month before.

derek November 20, 2012 at 11:32 am

Or put it another way, you know when you have been successful when some dumb economists starts factoring the cost per one that got through.

No question the US goes over the top in these things. You incarcerate some ridiculous number of young blacks, etc. But the reality of government bureaucracies is that they will do only one thing that you ask. if it is to save money, they will and nothing else.

By the way, the same question could be asked about special op anti hijack squads or any other specialized tactical arrangement designed in response to some threat. Or the FBI kidnapping section. Why spend the money, there aren’t kidnappings very often any more, there aren’t hijackings anymore. The reason there aren’t was effective response that took all the fun out of it.

John Thacker November 20, 2012 at 11:38 am

Even aside from the money wasted (which does eventually mean lives wasted) on TSA, etc., there’s the simple cost of causing people to drive on short to medium distance trips instead of flying, and driving is definitely more dangerous.

I think several studies have suggested that TSA and enhanced airport security, on net, has cost lives.

John Thacker November 20, 2012 at 11:39 am

Which is a point made by Yglesias in another part of the linked post, just not the part you quoted.

Slocum November 20, 2012 at 11:44 am

The way I’ve always thought about it is this — it would be just as disruptive to air travel, kill about as many people, and generate as much publicity for a terrorist to wheel a large suitcase bomb into a crowded check-in or security line at LAX or JFK and set it off.

What would it take to do this? Almost nothing: some basic bomb-making skills, 1 large wheelie bag, and 1 suicide bomber (it wouldn’t really even need to be a suicide bomber–nobody would notice an ‘unattended bag’ in the brief amount of time it took the bomber to get out of range). The fact that this doesn’t happen indicates to me that the number of serious, capable terrorists in the U.S. who are intent on mass slaughter is…zero. So all the heightened security in U.S. airports is a complete waste.

(That doesn’t mean, though, that the number is zero for terrorists trying to board inbound international flights — as the shoe and underwear bombers demonstrated).

Alexey Goldin November 20, 2012 at 12:36 pm

See this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domodedovo_International_Airport_bombing

More or less your scenario in action (although it was a suicide bombing).

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Why a crowded airport? How about shopping malls at Christmas?

The answer is that they dont want to be caught or identified. It exposes the entire cell to exposure and reveals their methods if they are captured. In a strong cellular structure, the ops team is separate from the recon team which is separate from the command and logistics elements. The recon team is cleansed from the scene 30 days prior. Bomb makers never plant their bombs. No one in a cell knows anyone outside the cell. They might not even know why they are doing what they are doing.

In a less sophisticated organization, there are mistakes in organization and communication that undermines their security efforts. Our intelligence apparatus is very good at piecing together information. So we dont have mall shootings because it only takes one hero to tackle a guy with an AK-47. Once we have that shooter, we are on the trail of the others. The 911 hijackers were all expected to be vaporized in the attack.

Killing has always been easy. Getting away with it is the hard part.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Getting away with it by dying?

Just sayin’.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Getting away with it by not being interrogated and providing information.

It’s not about the goons getting away with it, but the organization getting away with it.

When the PIRA, FARC, FALN, SL committed acts of terror, each member was a valuable asset who needed to be recovered if possible. Al Qaeda has a slightly larger recruiting pool, making suicide missions somewhat feasible. But a planned suicide mission needs to have everyone dead to be successful.

The chances of getting captured in a mall is a lot greater than an airplane. The narrow fuselage provides canalization that protects the hijackers by limiting the number of people who can rush them, and those few will trip over each other. Once the terrorists obtained the cockpit, they were already dead.

In contrast, a group of assailants in a mall can be attacked from behind, in front, an exposed side, or from above. A wounded terrorist is an easy captive. Even recovering the body can provide substantial evidence.

There is an enormous difference in security between a team that is attempting to survive and a team planning to obliterate themselves.

albatross November 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm

a. Why are suicide bombers headed to the mall or the airport line on Thanksgiving any more vulnerable to capture than suicide bombers getting on a plane? This makes no sense.

b. Similarly, none of your spy-novel stuff about separated parts of the terrorist team looks any easier to do to a plane than to a mall. Hell, spending a day hanging around in a mall is the *opposite* of suspicious behavior–just go spend a couple hundred dollars buying Christmas presents, and nobody will bat an eye at you. Bring along a child or girlfriend, and you can take a bunch of pictures without anyone caring. Leaving a bomb in a mall is surely easier than leaving one in an airport, where everyone worries about such stuff. And so on.

c. We do, indeed, have mall shooters and other mass shooters from time to time. This is a kind of (usually non-ideological) terrorism that’s very hard to stop, because there need not be any conspiracy. Some lunatic decides he needs to go shoot up a mall or theater or school, gets a gun, and does it, and there’s not much chance for someone in on his plot to be reporting everything back to the FBI so the attack can be headed off. In general, mass shootings don’t usually seem to be stopped by some hero tackling the guy with the gun, but rather by the shooter running out of ammo or victims and killing himself.

d. We have an example of a mass shooting style terrorist attack in Mumbai. It worked well enough (from news reports, it raised tensions between India and Pakistan enough to potentially start a war), though each attacker only seems to have murdered a standard mass-shooting level of victims, so it seems like the attack doesn’t scale.

dead serious November 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Don’t you know that it’s somehow scarier if a Muslim extremist shoots up a movie theater than if carried out by a corn-fed American?

Dan Weber November 20, 2012 at 11:47 am

But costs related to increased homeland security and counterterrorism spending, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaled $3,105 billion.

Tossing the wars in is just weird. It distracts from the message and makes me wonder what the real number (which I suspect is still significant) would be without the wars tacked on.

People like to forget, but the war in Afghanistan was inevitable once the first plane hit. We could have done a cheaper “drain the swamp” operation, which involved leveling everything the Taliban had touched and then walking away, but I don’t think that would fly politically.

As for Iraq, there’s a lot of evidence that Bush 43 wanted to a re-do of that even before 9/11.

The TSA is surely a massive waste of money in economic terms, but this doesn’t mean every argument against the TSA is a valid one. Yglesias asks a good question about how many bombings and hijackings there would be, and the answer is “about as many as before 9/11.” If the airlines adopted the pre-9/11 security policies with one change (“secure the cockpit door”), then we would have about 99.5% of the safety for about 1% of the cost.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm

“Afghanistan was inevitable once the first plane hit”

Actually it wasn’t. In hind-sight our utter inability to control that country puts the lie to the idea that the Taliban was making the country safe for Al Qaeda. And you don’t even need that. If your fight is with Al Qaeda, all you have to do is realize they can be from anywhere. They don’t need a mountain wasteland. In fact, we showed the hijackers a good time before they matriculated to their virgins.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Actually, it was inevitable. The president and Congress didnt have the benefit of hindsight, and they had an electorate clamoring for retribution. Both parties aimed the sword of war at both Afghanistan and Iraq, not because of misinformation but because of fear of the electorate. Claiming to have been misled was an after-the-fact political strategy. If you had been president in 2001, you wouldnt have been in 2005.

Removing the Taliban from power was a powerful signal to other nations harboring terrorists. Hussein and Qaddafi are both dead. We would have had a stronger hand to play with Iran had our strategy not been undermined. Politicians took invasion of Iran off the table when we had massive armies on their eastern and western borders. We did not actually need to invade Iran to put them in check.

The book of the history of terrorism is not writ. I caution people from concluding that we are in a post-terrorist world where security measures are obviously wasteful in light of terrorist attacks that did not happen. A parallel implication would be to eliminate wasteful police forces in places with low crime rates. The amount of terror/crime is simultaneously determined by the level of security.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm

As I said, hindsight PROVES it was unwise. You didn’t NEED hindsight.

the problem with the rest of your stories is that none are provable. We still “HAD” to invade Iraq. They didn’t bow down before our might and repent (apparently, because we “HAD” to attack them).

So, we did things for reasons you assume, but end up with no proof it did that or anything else.

albatross November 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Just as an aside, neither Hussein nor Gadaffi had anything to do with 9/11 or any more recent attacks on the US. Gadaffi had actually gone some distance to improving relations with us, given up his nuclear program, etc. So while they were both very nasty people who probably improve the world with their absence, I don’t really see how their fate provides any particular good incentives for people to avoid harboring terrorists. We killed them both for reasons other than terrorist attacks on us.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm

The Republicans gave aid and comfort to the even more despicable Democrat warmongers.

We sure have fallen far from GW promising no nation-building and a humble foreign policy.

Willitts November 22, 2012 at 1:00 am

No one said they had anything to do with 911.

After 911, we declared war on terrorists and the people who supported them, not 19 dead murderers.

Our next move was to end the regime in Iran. Obama ended that plan and took his eye off the ball. Hint: bin Laden wasnt the ball. Killing him solved nothing. Iran remains a serious problem that grows worse by the day.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Terrorist organizations have fewer resources than you think, and their vulnerability is higher than you think.

They cannot afford too many failures or they lose powerful reputational capital. These groups vie for power amongst each other. If one of their assets is captured, the entire cell is compromised and if the cellular structure is not strong, the entire organization is at risk.

The main weapon of terrorism is fear; the dead are not afraid. Terrorism attacks the SURVIVORS, not the victims. Murder and destruction is the means, not the end. Counting the number of dead as your measure of the success of terrorism demonstrates profound ignorance about what terrorism is.

While a libertarian might calculate the “cost” in the loss of civil liberties, such things do not enter the calculus of a terrorist. Security measures are a negative for them because it makes targets harder to hit. Al Qaeda isnt gloating about how much we spend on security, and they are not counting on us to go bankrupt as an objective.

Consider that for 911, the most they could muster for the operations team was 20 suicidal maniacs. They didnt merely need to find people willing to die, but people who were able to escape detection beforehand and not compromise the mission. This is a tougher challenge than you surmise.

It is a good question about why they havent targeted buses or trains. First, they do in fact have a fetish for airplanes. Second, they have bombed trains in Mumbai, Madrid, and Russia, so the reason for not doing so in the US isnt because they havent thought of it or dont want to.

One objective of terrorist groups is to undermine confidence in the government. This was one of the goals in Spain. If a president proposed to eliminate TSA and a majority of Congress agreed, how many airplane incidents would it take before the American people voted those idiots out of office? There are inefficiencies associated with living in a democracy.

Your economic arguments are lacking in key measures of costs and benefits. I agree with your stance on civil liberties, but there is an aspect of public choice you are ignoring – the political ramifications of being perceived as providing insufficient security. All these “good questions” are really the wrong questions.

msgkings November 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Nice post.

steve November 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm

There is some evidence that based upon their success in Afghanistan, AQ hoped to draw us into a costly war that would bankrupt us, like what they think happened with the USSR.

Steve

Stephen November 20, 2012 at 1:20 pm

What are you talking about? The Mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan were overwhelmingly Afghan and the small Arab contingent (some of who went on to found Al-Qaeda) played an insignificant role in repelling the Soviets. It’s pretty far fetched to think that Al-Qaeda wanted to get into a long drawn out war (that they’re losing by a wide margin). OBL thought we were soft and would pull back when the first punch was thrown, underestimating us as is typical for enemies of the US.

Rahul November 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I always thought that the more relevant question is “Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks?” Defending a whole nation seems a Herculean task and everywhere I see soft targets.

I’m not saying it’s pragmatic to harden these weak spots; I’m just (pleasantly) amazed that there have been so few attacks.

This more generally applies to those American public-shootings too; how come there are only so many? Guns are pretty easy to get and public spaces are hardly guarded. Is psychopathy simply rarer than is routinely portrayed?

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 1:08 pm

“Terrorist organizations have fewer resources than you think, and their vulnerability is higher than you think.”

No they aren’t because I said this 11 years ago.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Yes, Rahul, your observation is astute. There are an enormous number of soft targets with high visibility. I too am amazed.

On the one hand, that would seem to support the thesis that there are fewer terrorists than we think. That may be true, but it doesnt take many to have a profound impact.

Considering the low arrest rate for the murders we have and a conviction rate that mitigates some of the risk, yes it is remarkable we dont have more murders. One aspect in our favor is the cultural aversion to actual violence rather than violence for entertainment. Another is that in a developed country with greater per capita income and more liberties, you have much more to lose. Our poor live fairly comfortable lives.

I was an Assistant DA in Chicago many years ago. I got the sense that violence was connected to socioeconomic conditions and subculture attitudes toward violence. But being poor, of course, isnt sufficient for violence. There has to be an underlying motive such as retribution, reputation, money, antisocial personality disorder, etc.

Psychopathy is rare, and even when present it is often suppressed. In some cultures, psychopathy is encouraged and the beast is released. It has frequently been studied in both war and in law enforcement that there is a surprising hesitance to pull a trigger. That is clearly not the case in some countries.

When young murderers were brought into custody, what astonished me the most was how scared they were by being held powerless. When separated from their “friends,” they were mostly docile children who wanted to call their mothers before their attorneys. There are lots of tears shed in handcuffs.

My understanding is that that is changing. Just like how we train soldiers on how to behave when taken prisoner, gangs and terrorist groups are better training their members on what to do when captured. When we invaded Afghanistan, we found Al Qaeda training documents that told their members that they wouldnt be tortured and how to exploit the American legal system.

shrikanthk November 20, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Well, the benefits of “eternal vigilance” are never seen, because disasters get pre-empted.
It is only the costs that are visible.

The second half of 20th century has been FAR more peaceful the world over than the first-half of 20th century of any half of most centuries mainly because of the “eternal vigilance” and the strong deterrents imposed by the pre-eminent power – US! The role played by the US as a global policeman has been remarkably successful.

Some random numbers that indicate how very peaceful our current era truly is -
Iraq war casualties : 110K
Syrian civil war casualties till date : 35-40K
American Civil War : 620K
World War II : 60MM
Thirty years War : 8MM

Paul November 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm

People feel especially vulnerable when flying. Fear of heights, confined space, nowhere to run to.

mw November 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Yeah but 150k is misleading–most of those are poor people, minorities, and everyone who’s losing the drug war. The better question is: what fraction of rich white people murders resulted from terrorism? That’s what we care about.

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Thank god that these heroes are thwarting attacks we never even learn about.

Like the dong bomber. The TSA screened a guy who had a C4 dong. You didn’t hear about that one did you?

Well, there you go. PROOF.

Floccina November 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I would think that it would be hard to recruit people for suicide missions.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 11:59 pm

When your recruiting pool has a billion people, it isnt as hard as you think.

When your recruiting pool is indoctrinated with fanatical sense of sacrifice, it’s not so hard.

During the US Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men lined up shoulder to shoulder and took turns launching volleys of musket and rifle fire at each other.

During WWI, soldiers ran across No Man’s Land against machineguns.

I wonder how big the gap is for voluntary action between a 1% chance of survival and a 0% chance.

It’s more implausible how Jim Jones got about 600 people to kill themselves and murder their 300 children.

Craig November 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm

One big difference though is logistics. The plane itself becomes the weapon, a much more effective one than a bus. Had the 9/11 terrorists driven two fully fueled NYC buses into the towers, the effect would’ve much less dramatic and much less “terror-provoking”

Andrew' November 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm

That essentially cannot happen again. In fact, it didn’t even happen again on 9/11 when the heroes on flight 93 did in the midst of total chaos and fog of war what everyone would do from the following day to eternity after learning the objective of the terrorists to fly into buildings was made clear.

What the government is doing is fighting the last war, and horribly at that. Not only would it be as ineffective as it was on 9/11 (they let the terrorists on the planes with box cutters, did not warn the airlines of the potential threat, and government policy was not to resist allowing a pitiful little band armed with 1.5″ razors to take over a plane). The security is too costly, and it is not addressing the actual threats we would face.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 11:45 pm

If you dont fight the last war, the next war is just like the last war.

Innovation by the enemy is contingent on innovation by us.

As i said earlier, the conventional response to hijackers prior to 911 was to not resist. The terrorists claimed to have a bomb and threatened to cut the throats of the flight attendants if the pilots didnt open the cockpit door.

So Andrew the pilot might be smart enough not to open the cockpit based on a threat to a flight attendant, but what is your response to the bomb threat?

See, you have the benefit of (imperfect) hindsight, so you can thump your chest about a ‘pitiful little band’ armed with razors. Even if we accept your premise that current security is inefficient, you have no real security answers for either the next attack or the last attack.

John Mansfield November 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Some good points, but the comparison of buses and airplanes is silly. The lightweight airframe, high speed, and altitude put an airplane in a precarious position that can be used to kill hundreds of people. An explosion in a bus or a theater can’t do that.

Alexei Sadeski November 20, 2012 at 10:00 pm
axa.maqueda November 21, 2012 at 7:26 am

subway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarin_gas_attack_on_the_Tokyo_subway (local people) subway & bus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/7_July_2005_London_bombings (local people) car: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_City_bombing (local people) train, madrid (local people) mail, unabomber (local people) plane, new york 11-S (foreing people) plane, airfrance 8969 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_France_Flight_8969 (foreign people)

it seems a matter of logistics for terrorists. if they live in the place they attack they prefer ground transportation or mail, if they are foreigners, they prefer planes. so, TSA is biased on menaces coming from outside, xenophobism check. also, you can blame them from not being cost effective, causing stupid delays, being privacy invaders, enemies of liberty, bla bla bla, but crazy people wanting to blown us up still exist.

the conclusion at the article in businessweek is really stupid. yes, the system is inefficient and expensive, but you just don’t disappear it. instead of child in need of attention signaling your intelligence calling on the economic efficiencies……..you can say airport security is still needed, but lets move on from from 19th century approach. security employees using a metal detector on passengers, metal detectors archs, sniffer dogs, damned old inefficient technology and methodologies.

airport security can be less invasive, less stupid, and less expensive .sniffer robots are being developed, they can detect explosives, firearms, drugs. come on, metal detectors are so 20th century. the system methodology is wrong, the system objective is not. Alex, grow up.

In the department of unintended consequences, is the any measure on the TSA impact on detecting drugs or drugs money? Heroine, cocaine, or a nice 50 lb bag full of cash?

If a robot-system approach can detect cocaine, explosives, firearms in a non invasive and cost efficient way. I’d call that advance. You can fire many people not only from TSA, also from Customs =)

John Mansfield November 21, 2012 at 7:48 am

From the link, it looks like 191 people died due to 10 bombs on 4 trains, an average of 20 people per bomb or 50 per train.

Willitts November 20, 2012 at 11:34 pm

That is exactly the philosophy of air defense artillery. You dont need to destroy the plane. You just need to help gravity destroy the plane.

A typical antiaircraft missile has only about 3kg of explosives.

Turkey Vulture November 20, 2012 at 9:51 pm

If you vote to eliminate (or greatly reduce the extent of) the TSA, and then there happens to be a successful terrorist attack on an airplane in the next few years, how much does the probability of your re-election decrease because of that vote?

Willitts November 22, 2012 at 1:06 am

100%, unless your constituents are as dumb as you are.

Willitts November 22, 2012 at 1:08 am

I mean as dumb as the politician, not you TV. Sorry.

Ricardo November 21, 2012 at 4:40 am

I am sympathetic to the argument that the U.S. spends too much time and resources on preventing terrorism but Yglesias’s argument has too many flaws.

The main objective of terrorists is to spread panic and disrupt day-to-day life. My guess is that Americans don’t rely on buses as much as people in other countries do and so they are not very attractive targets. The D.C. metro or New York subway would be a much more attractive target and, indeed, the law enforcement and intelligence communities foiled precisely such an attempt on New York in 2009. There was an attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010 and it seems from testimony of captured terrorists that al Qaeda has looked into attacking malls and department stores.

It is quite possible that the reason Americans haven’t seen more non-airplane attacks is a mix of luck, the relative incompetence of most terrorists and the fact that the crack-down on foreign nationals who raise red flags may well be working. One doesn’t need to give too much credit to the CIA or DHS — one merely has to hypothesize that most terrorists are not smart enough to beat the system as it currently stands. One shouldn’t count on luck and the stupidity of terrorists to last forever, though.

As for the attractiveness of airplanes as terrorist targets, that seems self-evident. Airplanes have been the target of hostage-takers and bombers since the 1970s around the world. We know from experience that a successful attack can severely disrupt commercial aviation and spread panic and fear. Maybe it shouldn’t but that’s a reality of human psychology and the news cycle that there isn’t much point in denying.

dead serious November 21, 2012 at 7:55 am

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/17/us-usa-crime-bombplot-idUSBRE89G1M320121017

I guess now we should start making people take their shoes off and dumping any liquids upon entering any large building in New York? I mean, why not?

Ricardo November 21, 2012 at 8:54 am

If people could fit 1,000 pounds of explosives (what the article you linked to is about) in their shoes or in water bottles, that might be a possibility. See above: airplanes are more vulnerable to small explosives than buildings are. Different scenarios call for different security procedures.

chuck martel November 21, 2012 at 7:43 pm

It’s pretty obvious that the 50 story skyscraper is a thing of the past but similar structures will still be needed. They’ll just be more or less turned upside down, with a ground level roof and a 50 story basement.

The Other Jim November 21, 2012 at 8:00 pm

>nobody is trying to blow anything up

The shoe bomber says hi. Also the underwear bomber. And the other underwear bomber. And the Times Square car bomber.

They don’t call this guy Ydiot for nothing, you know.

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