Friday, May 27, 2005

Dispersed Terrorism

On September 12, 2001, in light of the previous days' attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attack resulting in a crash in a Pennsylvania field, I gave some serious thought on what, were I the terrorist(s), I would do to hold my advantage. Part of the conclusions I reached that day, which have not been changed since, led me to keep silent for fear of facilitating said actions. My reflections were made known only to my immediate family. I read a piece today that brought these thoughts back to the forefront for me, and now they need to be said.

The 9/11 attacks were designed, I believe, to shock and paralyze the United States. From what I understand, bin Laden thought that these attacks would result in inaction, or limited and ineffective retaliation. Instead they served to galvanize the nation into action, and to respond fairly quickly and effectively. Thus the terrorists lost their advantage.

Why was the advantage lost? The 9/11 attacks did cause a reaction of fear or terror in many of those citizens who were in direct contact with the attacks. It caused a reasonable suspicion of any aircraft for a day, or two. But if you were not within sight or hearing of those attacks, did you respond with fear? Most of us did not. We felt loss, grief, hurt, anger, rage, sadness, determination, and a desire for vengeance. This because these attacks did not personally affect the vast majority.

So today we go about our business. Government agencies serve to guard ports of entry, government centers, large financial institutions, events with large attendance, public utilities - the 'big ticket' items. Do we worry about falling victim to another terrorist attack? Not the United States in general, but as individuals? For example, I recently attended an event with an attendance of somewhere around 12,000. Several of the speakers were nationally know figures, maybe even a future President or two. And yes, the thought of a terrorist attack did cross my mind. But security was fairly tight, as far as I could see, and shortly dismissed any concerns that I may have felt. Most of us would probably give some consideration to security under those conditions.

Let me throw in another example here. Last week I went to a shopping mall. Several large chain stores anchored this mall, with maybe 100 small businesses filling the gaps. A food court. People milling about. Certainly not 12,000, but still several hundred. And I did not think once about a possible terrorist attack. Why not? There were security personnel about, but they were mostly concerned with mundane crime. Boxes, bags, all manner of baggage abounded. Vehicles were jam-packed all around the mall. But I did not feel unsafe, or threatened in any manner. I was not personally at risk.

Picture this scenario... a terrorist drives a nondescript sedan packed with explosives into a parking garage beneath a bank (the first WTC attack, writ small) in a mid- or small-sized city. Boom. Another terrorist three states away drives a similarly equipped vehicle to close proximity with an anchor store in a major mall. Boom. A school. Boom. Assume that over a three-day period this happens a dozen times, spread out all over the United States. Now I am going to have second thoughts about going to the mall. Are you? How about fifty incidents... any fear now? The size of the attack is not critical. Approximately 3000 died in the WTC attack. What if it was five deaths, or ten, or even twenty at a time all across the country, totaling 3000? Picture the present day situation in Iraq. How would that affect your behavior? I would hazard a guess that the majority of people would retreat into what they considered relative safety. They would cease to send children to schools, attend community social events, go to movies, go shopping. They would venture forth from fortress homes only for essential activities and to acquire supplies. All of this because the pure randomness of the dispersed attacks would instill in everyone a justified feeling of personal risk.

Consider the Maryland sniper case. Two individuals, John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, striking in a random manner, caused panic across a widespread area. People felt, rightly so, that they were at risk. Compare this to the Oklahoma City bombing, wherein Timothy McVeigh utilized a homemade bomb to cause massive damage to a single site. This incident was more akin to the 9/11 attacks, in that it did not engender a personal sense of risk in the vast majority of people.

A dispersed attack strategy would paralyze the United States. The economy would tank, businesses would fail, and unemployment would skyrocket. We would not have the necessary infrastructure to provide adequate security to prevent these results. Advantage: Terrorists.

It might be that we could develop an infrastructure designed to combat this threat. But would we want to? It would require massive increases in police forces, constant monitoring of civilians, basically a self-imposed police state. I do not think that many of us would find that prospect appealing.

Now the problem with these dispersed terrorist actions, and the reason I was afraid to verbalize it, is that they are relatively cheap and easy to implement. It would only require a cellular organization, financing, and personnel to implement. The terrorists already have all three. It would be very, very difficult to defend against, and the defense itself would have many of the same effects as would result from a terrorist campaign. Advantage: Terrorists.

The article that started me thinking about this again was one by Gary Wolf, appearing in Wired Magazine titled Question Authorities, subtitled Why it's smart to disobey officials in emergencies. (Note: link by Defense Tech via Instapundit.) The main point of the article is that "In a connected world, ordinary people often have access to better information than officials do." He goes on to draw the conclusion that in an emergency situation, ordinary people usually have a better grasp of their environment that would-be rescuers, and therefore should do what they think/know to be correct rather than waiting for and following to the letter instructions from above. But the part that resonated most with me was this:

We know that US borders are porous, that major targets are largely undefended, and that the multicolor threat alert scheme known affectionately as "the rainbow of doom" is a national joke. Anybody who has been paying attention probably suspects that if we rely on orders from above to protect us, we'll be in terrible shape. But in a networked era, we have increasing opportunities to help ourselves. This is the real source of homeland security: not authoritarian schemes of surveillance and punishment, but multichannel networks of advice, information, and mutual aid.

The fact that the borders of the United States are porous is a given. We as a body politic cannot seem to reach an agreement on how to close them, or even if they should be closed.

(Note: I realize that the examples I have cited above involved domestic terrorists, rather than foreign ones. I cited them to illustrate the type of attack, not the origin.)

On the one hand you have people such as those involved with the Minuteman Project, an example of ordinary people, networked, attempting to close the borders to illegal immigrants, and possibly terrorists (some say probably!), because they feel that authority is handling the situation improperly. On the other hand you have more ordinary citizens (including President Bush) decrying these efforts, characterizing them as 'Vigilantism'. Of course, those complaining are working under the assumption that vigilantism is wrong. That remains to be seen.

Regardless, we now have easy entry into the United States providing a route for terrorist attack, we have domestic terrorists to contend with, and we have eager candidates for those positions. Are you at risk? And what are you going to do? We must arrive at workable solutions if we are to survive as a free society.

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