James Edward Johnson

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Archive for the ‘terrorism’ Category

… and how to mitigate the risk. (2 of 2)

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Please note, this is the second of a two-part post. Read the first part here.

Kinnick Stadium at The University of Iowa (via HawkeyeSports).

So, you are sitting in a packed Kinnick Stadium with 70,000 of your closest friends …  A small single-engine plane flies low overhead and a fine powder begins falling from it.  What do you do?

The natural reaction is to panic and flee.  But why?  What do you accomplish by running?  You breathe more deeply, expose yourself to a wider area, endanger others with your panic, and gain nothing.   Imagine the powder is anthrax – how will this save you?  Anthrax, even in inhalational anthrax infections, does not kill quickly and is treatable.  You should stay still, avoid exposure in place by covering your mouth, and wait to find out what just happened.  You will be no worse off for doing so and you could very well be much better off.  By staying calm and reacting specifically to what you do know, you will help avoid causing harm to yourself and others.

The best solution to mitigating terror is not a top-down government solution.  It is public awareness and education.  Terrorism works because people improperly weigh risks and respond irrationally.  If people respond rationally – even if this were an anthrax attack – few would die at all and none would die because of mass hysteria.

Of course, as I noted in the prior post, a fake attack without any anthrax is easy.  Obtaining many pounds of anthrax spores, however, is many times more difficult.  Most likely, a terrorist making such an attack is relying on the response of people to his actions because he is likely not capable of an attack with the actual thing.  It is wise to remain cautious, but reasonable to presume that the attack is a hoax.

If we all responded to terrorism in the way we respond to auto accidents, terrorism would disappear tomorrow in most places.  Terrorism has a very low death count.  If it is worth your fear, then dozens of ordinary things deserve your fear too.  Never get in a car; in fact, stay at home.  Never meet new people.  Rarely use electricity or gas. Don’t even think of ever getting a pool in your backyard.  Become a recluse.  You should be crippled by fear of every ordinary risk if terrorism scares you.   It is not worthy of your fear because you will almost certainly die of causes other than terrorism.

Even at a small airport, the government should do little more.  Small airplanes are not, in themselves, very lethal.  You can kill as many people with one as you could with an SUV.  It is not worth hardening or securing.  If the government should secure small planes, then it should secure every gasoline semi-trailer, every fertilizer inventory, every gun store … every theater where someone might shout “fire!”  Even in these places, it is the diligence of the local people, and not the government, that will flag people for further examination by the authorities.

Persistence by pilots and staff in a municipal airport – by securing aircraft, noting and responding to suspicious people, raising alertness, … – will probably do far more to thwart my described potential attack than any government action.  This is, in large part, because terrorists adapt and exploit security holes.  The only practical response is to develop a cultural attitude wherein people adapt and change their behavior when they see potential criminal planning.  Remember, America mitigated the harm of one of the attacks on September 11.  Untied 93 was brought down prematurely, saving untold numbers of people, because ordinary people did something that the terrorists did not expect them to do – implement a response directly based on the specific actions of the terrorists.

Only that kind of ordinary vigilance will thwart these sorts of attacks.  More importantly, only this response will thwart attacks in a manner consistent with our nation’s commitment to a liberal, tolerant, and open society.  We need to be reasonably alert, remain in control when we sense heightened danger, respond with appropriate action when we see suspicious activity, and most of all, not respond with the irrational fear upon which terrorists rely for their efficacy.


Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 5:45 pm

How to perpetrate pure terrorism … (1 of 2)

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Please note: this is not a true how-to.  It is an exercise in situational awareness intended to highlight risks and provoke discussion.  Part 2 will address potential solutions to the problem posed here.

Risk awareness is a two-sided thing. In order to protect yourself from harm you need to consider how a criminal or terrorist might see you.

Terrorism is not about killing large numbers of people. If it were, terrorists could be more successful by making and selling inexpensive automobiles. Cars kill many more people than do terrorists and yet we hop into cars all the time with little worry that we might die.

Terrorism is about controlling people through fear and forcing people to do greater self harm than the terrorist can do directly. A terrorist who secretly causes the apparent accidental deaths of dozens is a failure. A terrorist who very publicly attempts to murder innocents and fails to kill even one is a success.

Putting myself in the place of a terrorist, I am aware of many gaps in national security that could be readily exploited in many places, and certainly in Iowa City.  Here is one:

Small airports are completely unsecured. Go to any small non-commercial municipal airport and you will readily make such an assessment. You can walk up to the hangars, enter the tarmac, and approach parked planes with little or no questioning or interference. The planes in such airports are small, easy to fly, and less secured than most cars parked on the street. Of course, if you steal a plane, there is a high probability that you will get caught eventually – planes are difficult to conceal or fence. However, if you just need one for a short period of time, there are few barriers to commandeering one.

Chest x-ray taken 4 mo. after the onset of anthrax in a 46 yr. old male (via CDC).

Flour is completely unregulated and probably never could be regulated. It is widely available, widely used, and cheap. Even if it were not, there are a huge number of similar look-alike substances – chalk, talc, plaster, powdered sugar … But, for a terrorist, these substances, when applied in the right context might as well be anthrax. They are, of course, non-toxic, but since the 2001 anthrax attacks the American public has been conditioned to associate unusual dispersion of fine powder with anthrax.

If a person receives an envelope with white powder in it, it will cause that person to panic, trigger a significant police/security response, and make people cautious about receiving and opening their mail.

But, if someone aerially distributed a large volume of powder over a crowd, it would cause immediate and widespread panic. If done over an area where there are few known exits, such as an open air stadium or arena, that panic would cause people to run towards those exits at such a rate and with such force that many people would be crushed to death – either by asphyxiation or blunt force trauma. Many more would be injured and fear of large gatherings would suppress interest in a huge variety of entertainment and other mass public events.

Specifically, in Iowa City, stealing a plane, carrying a dozen bags of flour on board, and dumping them at low altitude over Kinnick Stadium during an Iowa football game would cause such panic. People would presume it was a terror attack, attempt to flee the stadium, and kill many by falling, trampling, and crushing asphyxiation as the exits became overwhelmed.

It would be the ultimate terror attack. The acts of the terrorist alone are not particularly murderous. Only because of the resulting terror would people be killed and injured.

It does not have to be this way. My next post will address what to do about this …

Update: Part 2.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 7:00 am

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AMIA massacre 16 years later …

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Z-Word over at the AJC comes through in reminding us of the AMIA massacre of Jews in Buenos Aires by Hezbollah 16 years ago today, and giving us an update on the current situation:

Though the AMIA massacre occurred on July 18th, 1994 the official commemoration of its sixteenth anniversary took place on the 16th. In these two stories covering the events that took place you’ll find Guillermo Borger, head of the AMIA community organization. the one directly affected by the attack, praising the “good performance” of the present administration with regard to the investigation into the attack and lauding Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s “bravery” in calling for the extradition of the Iranian fugitives in her speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

via Two Theses On The AMIA Massacre at Z-Word Blog.

Here in Iowa City, I have heard several people refer to Hezbollah as “brave”, “freedom fighters”, and other such nonsense.  Such people need to read about the AMIA bombing (that killed 85 and wounded hundreds) and learn that groups like Hezbollah are not simply enemies of Israel.  They are enemies of the Jews and all tolerant people everywhere.

Read the full post at Z-Word.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Resource: START’s Global Terrorism Database

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Global Terrorism DatabaseIf you want to get a picture of the totality of terrorism around the globe, an excellent place to begin is the Global Terrorism Database (“GTD”) from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (“START”).  While the data is fairly simple and lacking in nuance for any one event, it provides a picture of the reality of terrorism without the hidden priorities of editors and news-makers.  It tends to confirm that Islamist terrorism is still a top priority, but it shakes certain ideas about the scope of non-Islamist terrorism.

Perhaps more importantly, the GTD provides a strong challenge to the idea that terrorism and counterterrorism is a war between Islam and the West.  The simple fact is that violent Islamists are murdering Muslims and attacking Muslim communities at a far higher rate than they are attacking western targets.  The West is, in large part, merely an interested bystander.

Of course, for data nerds like me, the crown jewel of the GTD is its downloadable dataset, which you can access via this link.  It is a treasure trove of information that allows you to slice and dice the data any way you like, to probe the questions you might have.  Of course, you do need some familiarity with databases to do this.  But, if you have that familiarity, the possibilities with this data are endless.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 5, 2010 at 7:45 am

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Margot Lurie’s ‘I, Terrorist’ is not a personal confession.

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My reading list is light on fiction.  But, when I do read fiction, I look for those stories that will enhance my creative thinking around much of the nonfiction that I read.  Recently, I have been reading Daniel Silva’s work, in large part because he draws on a fair amount of knowledge about terrorism and counter-terrorism.  However, my reading has  only touched the larger genre of terrorism/counter-terrorism fiction.

For anyone interested in the genre more broadly, Margot Lurie has an excellent review of three books in the just released Jewish Review of Books.  Not only does she examine the books, but she draws in the connection between them and the real world.  Here is one of her observations:

There are many such stories in the New York Police Department’s 2007 report, “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” Its pages are filled with example after example of young men like Shahzad who have embraced, and acted on, a murderous jihadi-Salafi ideology, mostly in a progression whose four stages the NYPD calls pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization. It is a novelistic arc, and it is fitting that several contemporary novelists have taken it up. In doing so, they have given us a new kind of antihero, a ripped-from-the-headlines young man, raised in the West, affluent, smart, idealistic, who works out his salvation through other people’s fear and trembling.

via I, Terrorist > Publications > Jewish Review of Books.

Access to the article is restricted, but if you aren’t a subscriber to JRB, maybe you should be …

Written by JamesEJ

Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 7:44 am