August 8, 2007

Come on, everybody, let's brainstorm terrorism.

Steven D. Levitt -- whose Freakonomics blog is now on the NYT website -- applies his thinking skills to the enterprise of plotting terrorism! He identifies the goals: "what really inspires fear... is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack... I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them... try to stop commerce... [and motivate] the government to pass a bundle of very costly laws...." And he thinks "simpler is better."
[T]he best terrorist plan I have heard is one that my father thought up after the D.C. snipers created havoc in 2002. The basic idea is to arm 20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrange to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot....

I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service....
Or not!

IN THE COMMENTS: From Palladian:
Here's a good one: Let's arrange to drop a giant anvil from the top of the New York Times building onto Steven J. Leavitt's head! No pop economist is safe!

MORE: There's a discussion of the Leavitt post at Metafilter. A funny comment:
[I]f I were a terrorist, I'd hack into electronic voting machines and rig it so that Ron Paul wins the election. That'd be sh*t-your-pants terrifying.
A serious one:
I think Levitt fails to understand the motivation behind the al Qaeda attacks. They are not designed to scare us, but to glorify al Qaeda in the Islamic world, to show that Islam is not impotent in its battles. They are show and the audience is Islamic. The attacks give legitimacy to the organization and over reaction in retaliation helps their recruiting. The bigger the attack the bigger the effect. A bunch of pot shots in the heartland may scare the people here but won't play big in the Islamic world.
We forget that the people we call terrorists actually have their own system of beliefs. Their willingness -- eagerness -- to do one evil thing does not mean they are willing to do anything. Levitt goes part of the way toward thinking like a terrorist, but he blinds himself to the fact that they conceive of themselves as virtuous.

61 comments:

cyrus pinkerton said...

Definitely not!

Palladian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
peter hoh said...

I would infer that AQ is not interested in small acts of terrorism, however effective they might be at causing panic or disrupting commerce and daily life.

Palladian said...

Here's a good one: Let's arrange to drop a giant anvil from the top of the New York Times building onto Steven J. Leavitt's head! No pop economist is safe!

Fen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EnigmatiCore said...

Random shootings? Piffle!

I have two words if we want to cause mayhem:

Liquid hole.

Fen said...

[....]

edited for content by NSA

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

The problem with Leavitt's idea two-fold: First, is that it quickly loses its persuasive force once it becomes a pattern. Second, is that it does no more to advance the terrorists' goals than collapsing the twin towers did.

There are many examples of small-scale terror plans -- the PLO, IRA and Basque ETA come to mind -- but none that succeeded.

Henry said...

But as long as we're on the subject: How about the terrorists kidnap celebrity offspring, brainwash them, and use them to hold up banks?

hdhouse said...

Announce that Bush has a secret plan to win the war...Everyone would faint...taking us all over would be a piece of cake

AJ Lynch said...

Paladian:

I love to make the roadrunner's "meep meep" sound so can I help you drop the anvil?

Pogo said...

"So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur."

Maybe next Steven D. Leavitt can blog about all the ways thieves can break into his house, enumerating the weak window frame in the basement, easily jimmied garage door lock, location of checkbooks and other valuables, and telling when personal financial information will be discarded in his garbage.

It could be a form of public service.

Revenant said...

How the hell is this a public service?

In the software industry many people devote their time to finding and publicizing weaknesses (security and otherwise) in software. Whether or not this is a public service is hotly debated, but it is undeniably true that it pushes people to fix their software.

Suggesting that it would be a really effective form of terrorism to randomly shoot a bunch of people at a preset time, on the other hand, is in NO way helpful, because there is nothing we can do to fix that problem. We can't keep tabs on everybody, all the time. We can't track every gun in the country either. We can't bulletproof every man, woman, and child in America. All we can do, is hope that nobody follows Leavitt's suggestion, and promise to track down and kill anyone who helped put it into effect.

Hazy Dave said...

I think Jeff "Skunk" Baxter does a bit of this for a living these days. Perhaps more in the line of military hardware. Orson Scott Card's novel Empire features a rocket attack on the White House launched by scuba divers from the Potomac River. Sci-fi in general is good for that sort of thing, though some scenarios are more implausible than others. I've always felt that the cyanide-in-the-Tylenol-capsules could have launched plenty of related copycat attacks, if not in the drug store, in the grocery store. Opportunity's there, motive and means to be supplied by the psychopathic.

Liquid hole?

"...try to stop commerce... [and motivate] the government to pass a bundle of very costly laws...."

Gee, would Americans elect a government dumb enough to do all that? (For the Children?)

phosphorious said...

It would be a public service. One way of finding our weaknesses is to. . .well THINK about what they might be.

The "Lone Gunmen" (the "X-Files" spin off ) had a story where terrorists plotted to hijack planes and fly them into the world trade center. Perhaps we wouldn't have been caught flat-footed if more people had seen that episode (although the show sucked).

For those who thin k his idea is stupid: do you prefer that we NOT think about ways in which we might be vulnerable?

Tim said...

"So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur."

"Economic imperialism" has been discussed here before; I think it odd that Leavitt presumes those responsible for the nation's defense haven't been war-gaming various terror scenarios. However, I'm confident that in asking folks to come up with plotting terrorism, Leavitt has no better audience than the NY Times' readership.

Palladian said...

Life is vulnerable. I don't need the FREAKANOMICIST to tell me that.

A valuable method for anti-terrorism agencies and personnel, but a pointless exercise for a New York Times blog.

Jeff said...

"So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur."

Tim beat me, but does anyone really think this isn't already happening?

MikeinAppalachia said...

about 27 well-placed small explosives on transmission line towers could cause an electrical black-out for most of the country (and eastern Canada) for several days.

Mary said...

Climb the tanks and poison the water supply.

Wasn't there a short story about a town that treated a dying hobo badly and later after the whole town was sick from an epidemic, they found the dead hobo fouling the water tank.

I'm thinking there are chemicals now, where a terrorist wouldn't even have to die in the drink.

Pogo said...

Re: "Climb the tanks and poison the water supply."

Just like Mary's posts here!

Eli Blake said...

I feel uncomfortable with this topic.

I've at least twice not posted things on my blog I thought about precisely because they could give people ideas that don't need to be given, or in one case give them knowledge that comes by virtue of where I live, that they don't need to know.

I'm a strong advocate of free speech, but at least myself, there are things I wouldn't post on the internet.

Pogo said...

Maybe next Steven D. Leavitt can blog about all the ways strangers can murder his family and friends, just at random. Give out their addresses and time schedules, and float some ideas about how to knock them off one by one.

It's a brainstorm; a public service!

Pogo said...

Eli is right. And that's why both my posts and Leavitt's are offensive. It's morally repugnant to speculate about how to commit mass murder. It is decidedly not a public service, not in this venue. It's beyond grotesque the way some of those posters are treating it like some game; it diminishes us all.

Fen said...

The "Lone Gunmen" (the "X-Files" spin off ) had a story where terrorists plotted to hijack planes and fly them into the world trade center.

One of Tom Clancy's books had a similar scenario, where a japaneese-american pilot flies his 737 into the Capitol building, killing all congress-criters and POTUS at a STOU address.

Perhaps we wouldn't have been caught flat-footed if more people had seen that episode (although the show sucked).

Doesn't matter. The flaw in your argument is the weakness of static defenses - you cannot be strong in all places at once. An attack will get through.

Tim beat me, but does anyone really think this isn't already happening?

It is. I forget if it was State or Homeland Security, but some agency enlisted creative screen-writers to come up with scenarios. And thats just the portion of the program that was made available to the public.

There are two problems with the NYTs idea: 1) its already being done, and 2) its stupid to do it publicly.

Of course, the NYTs routinely leaks classified intel from Lefties at CIA, so I'm not surprised by they put this out there.

guene said...

Art mimics and exaggerates life and life imitates art and exaggerated supposition. They say even scientific inquiry often answers questions writers pose first and in ways they imagine and posit. Sure, this is chicken and egg stuff, and hypos have always been fascinating to consider and “solve”, but when we give evil sick destructive people ideas and solutions, we’re authoring our fate. As if we subconsciously desire it, for some reason.

knoxwhirled said...

I like Palladian's idea. And let's attach a little note to that anvil saying, "Thanks for the input, jerk."

Didn't this guy have some theory correlating abortion rates to crime rates in his book? That was pretty abhorrent too, whichever side of the debate you're on.

Yachira said...

Hazy Dave said: "I've always felt that the cyanide-in-the-Tylenol-capsules could have launched plenty of related copycat attacks, if not in the drug store, in the grocery store. Opportunity's there, motive and means to be supplied by the psychopathic."

Didn't the Tylenol incident have a huge effect on the country? Namely the sudden and costly appearance of something rarely seen before...safety seals on nearly all medicines and most food items?

Joe said...

Get billions of dollars of loans across the country then default on them.

Convince everybody that they need to go to college and then watch them go horribly into debt after receiving their useless degrees... oops, this is for proposals of things to do, not already done.

Dang, than nixes my plan of producing an overabundance of lawyers and have them sue anyone and everyone over the most trivial things.

Joe said...

Of course, the most demoralizing proposal--have Al Gore lecture us 24x7 on every TV channel, radio station and billboard across the country.

(The problem with real proposals is that it could either get you arrested or some nut case would actually do it.)

SuperDave said...

I believe it the little things that are truly possible that strike the most fear.

I myself am convinced that a nearby busy intersection has been targeted by terrorists to fail right at 5:30 pm every evening and produce a 4-way flashing light. Ties up twelve thru and six turn lanes.

Revenant said...

Didn't this guy have some theory correlating abortion rates to crime rates in his book? That was pretty abhorrent too, whichever side of the debate you're on.

How was that abhorrent? He didn't advocate aborting babies in order to reduce the crime rate, he just observed that the two things appeared to be linked.

Cedarford said...

There are many examples of small-scale terror plans -- the PLO, IRA and Basque ETA come to mind -- but none that succeeded.

Not true.

Terror has worked. I give you Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela, Menachim Begin, Yishak Shamir.
Terror helped give Ireland a state, got Gerry Adams a full scale reception at the White House. Then again, in the Clinton Administration, wealthy donors and Yassir Arafat and whatever Zionist was in office fought over the Lincoln bedroom. AQ definitely succeeded in furthering radical Islam's prestige and recruiting of eager Jihadi wannabes, to intimidate cringing Euroweenies and US Lefties into accomodation with them - and so did the Iranian Revolution and letting fanatical Saudis export their oil money-funded Wahabbi cancer globally.

On terror in general, the problem with putting possible great new ideas in the NY Times for eager readers in Islamabad or Tehran or Saudi Arabia to check into is you might deliver great new ideas to radical Muslims they haven't thought of yet.

Many people in very specialized nodes of a country's technological base, industry and commerce can point out unique vulnerabilities and simple points of attack the general public and the Islamoids, presumably, are unaware of.

It would be more effective to discuss ideas for effective counterterror, not limited to "sacred law as lawyers decree it", but stuff to do in the Shadow world.

Some countries ended terror with mass deportations or internment camps. Others ended urban terror, kidnapping gangs with Death Squads.

Steve Leavitt should note journalists and media owners seen to be out to help the terrorists or out to destroy a particular group have also been targeted as an innovative strategy to spread fear in the population.

As have judges that are seen as terrorist foes or terrorist sympathizers.

*******************
I'd rather go with strategies that deter terrorists by keeping the costs of their actions low. There is one strategy for dealing with a dirty bomb that recovers a impacted city in about a week and costs 50-200 million dollars. There is the method that costs 80 to 200 billion in direct and lost business costs as a city is shut down months to "remove every speck of contamination from a dirty bomb." Basically Civil Defense vs. EPA standards.
For now, the clueless idiots in DC have chosen the 80-200 billion cost method.

We also suffer from a lot of fat ex-cops now calling themselves "America's Heroes" and syncophantic politicans guaranteeing everyone will be perfectly safe as long as the pork to backwoods Alabama for new "heroes headquarters", the Cleveland Fire Department gets three new engines and 10new hires from Fed money, and moolah for "terror-fighting Alaskan bridges" keeps coming.

Remember that the War on Drugs launched in 1971 has cost 800 billion dollars. It has resulted in 35 years in the street price of cocaine going from 150 a gram to 40-60 a gram with supply quintupled. Marijuana potency up eightfold and supply everywhere. New waves of Meth and Ecstasy sweeping the country despite the assurances of smug DEA and FBI agents that "they have control". 28,000 drug gang, innocent bystander deaths over turf. Violent felons released so harmless druggies can serve their mandatory drug sentences when prison space runs out.

The War on Drugs is salutory to the War on Terror.

AJ Lynch said...

Is Leavitt proving the old adage "there are no second acts" in America?

Mortimer Brezny said...

How is it a public service? It better enables counterterrorism experts to plan for contingencies.

For example, instead of trying to smuggle bombs onto airplanes, terrorists would be better off purchasing roundtrip tickets for seats near the escape hatch and opening the hatch at 30,000 ft.

An easy fix for that scenario is to run extra security checks against anyone who purchases a ticket for a seat near the escape hatch or simply to design a hatch un/locking mechanism more secure than a lever.

about 27 well-placed small explosives on transmission line towers could cause an electrical black-out

There simply must be reforms that can secure our infrastructure better than this.

guene said...

When Britney Spears worries about her carbon footprint or Hillary wears Manolo gone green, I’ll begin to feel terror end-times, although my scariest scenario involves Laurie David, recycled TP and hemp fashion.

The bad guys are going to have to be extra evil to keep up with our progressive "best intentions."

Revenant said...

An easy fix for that scenario is to run extra security checks against anyone who purchases a ticket for a seat near the escape hatch or simply to design a hatch un/locking mechanism more secure than a lever.

This is the kind of mentality that has us walking through security terminals with our shoes in one hand. It substitutes busy work for intelligent problem solving.

There are a literally uncountable number of ways to disrupt American society through acts of terrorism. You CANNOT stop terrorism by thinking up all the ways terrorists might attack and then taking steps to prevent those attacks from happening. The way to stop terrorism is to identify the terrorists themselves, and neutralize them -- through arrest, deportation, and/or a bullet in the head.

Pogo said...

As an economist, Leavitt knows or should know that a TradeSports-like arena for wagering on 'the next terrorist attack' would be far more useful and predictable than the idle speculation in a NYT 'How I'd blow up the world' fantasy blog.

Mortimer Brezny said...

This is the kind of mentality that has us walking through security terminals with our shoes in one hand.

No, it is not. We must all remove our shoes now because a terrorist tried to blow up a plane with explosive shoes. Note the past tense. No terrorist has yet tried to open an escape hatch, but one could take down a plane this way without carrying a bomb on-board of purchasing a one-way ticket.

Mortimer Brezny said...

You CANNOT stop terrorism by thinking up all the ways terrorists might attack

No, but you can reduce the likelihood of easily preventable harms.

Mortimer Brezny said...

There are a literally uncountable number of ways to disrupt American society through acts of terrorism.

But there are many foreseeable methods of disruption that we should act to deter. To assert otherwise is to justify government negligence.

B said...

I was under the impression that part of my tax dollars go to pay people to spend full-time thinking about this very thing.

Revenant said...

No, but you can reduce the likelihood of easily preventable harms.

What, exactly, can be done to reduce the likelihood of individual terrorist snipers shooting random people in separate cities?

downtownlad said...

Yes. Of course it's better to just pretend we're safe, when we're not.

Why does the right hate freedom? Someone writes an interesting article, and the right wants him killed.

downtownlad said...

What, exactly, can be done to reduce the likelihood of individual terrorist snipers shooting random people in separate cities?

We can do lots of things. Like figure out how to calm the public if this does indeed happen.

The whole point of that particular terrorist incident in particular would be to bring down the economy. That's the real threat from that incident - not the number of people that would die (which would be much, much smaller than 9/11).

If the terrorists know that we can respond to this event, they won't do it.

bill said...

For more ideas, read Bruce Schneier's Second Movie-Plot Threat Contest:

Your goal: invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered. I want to see a plot horrific and ridiculous, but just plausible enough to take seriously.
Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea.

Your entry will be judged on the common item that the TSA has no choice but to ban, as well as the cleverness of the plot. It has to be realistic; no science fiction, please. And the write-up is critical; last year the best entries were the most entertaining to read.

Christy said...

Not too long before 9/11, owners of very large storage tanks full of nasty chemicals were required to provide the government with detailed descriptions of the tanks, the locations and the contents. The report included what plans we had to keep them secure and our plans for recovery should the unthinkable happen. Excellent idea, we all agreed. Problem was that the EPA wanted to publish the reports in the Federal Register. The industry argued at length and unsuccessfully to keep these reports out of the public record for the obvious reasons. Finally an appeal to the FBI worked to put the kibosh on publication. Just saying, we've always wanted to tell everyone what our problems are, whether we should or not.

Revenant said...

We can do lots of things. Like figure out how to calm the public if this does indeed happen.

Oh, please. We already know how to respond. This isn't rocket science.

If the terrorists know that we can respond to this event, they won't do it.

Plenty of countries with full knowledge of how to respond to terrorist attacks still suffer them on a regular basis, Israel being the best example. No response can completely neutralize the effect of a terrorist attack.

The correct means of dealing with the terrorist threat is to identify the likely terrorists and eliminate them prior to them even having the opportunity to stage an attack. There are a finite number of psycho Muslims in the world.

Daryl said...

I like the idea of a car bomb targeting anti-war/truther/Ron Paul supporters/hippies/etc.

Demonstrations have people bunched up tightly, so there would be big casualties, but the real benefit would be watching the anti-war movement accuse Bush of carrying out the attack to silence dissent AND have a ready-made Gulf of Tonkin to go to war. Then some jackass right-wing blogger would laugh at the leftists for being dupes for the very terrorists who bombed them (which would not be very respectful in the aftermath of such a tragedy), deepening the divide in this country.

Do it before the election, in multiple places around the country. If Republicans win, Dems will blame it on fake terror attacks and go insane. If Dems win, Republicans will go crazy and say the American people caved to al Qaida and surrenderred.

It would harm free speech, freedom in general, the idea that people can protest peacefully, the idea that America's free system is superior to other political systems, and in general make the country a much more nasty place.

The key to 9/11 was leveraging our own infrastructure against us (jets full of fuel, from high altitude/speed, crashing into high buildings that then collapsed).

Al Qaida can't destroy this country by itself. It needs our help.

Daryl said...

b: I was under the impression that part of my tax dollars go to pay people to spend full-time thinking about this very thing.

Yeah, but they don't BLOG ABOUT IT.

At least, not on blogs that can be read outside of our defense agencies' intranets.

You know what would be awesome? Reading FBI counter-terrorism agents' internal FBI blogs 50 years from now. That would be helluva historical resource.

Slim999 said...

Well, the thing is this:

The more effective your terror plot, the less effective it can be.

That sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it, but really ... once Americans believe that terrorists are in their midst, the al queda types would lose all the support they have in the United States.

Could Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid be agitating for withdrawl from Iraq if children were being systematically killed at day care centers each and every day?

Such a plan would certainly instill the requisite terror, no? And yet, such a plan would lead ultimately to the outlawing of Islam as a cult in the United States, and from there, the world.

It's a delicate balance ... the terrorists goal isn't to scare. The terrorists goal is to drive policy, defeat its enemies and promote its advocates.

In short, the terrorists goal is to eliminate the very freedoms we cherish, in place of their totalitarian aims of placing all women in burkas and forcing all children to spend their schooldays in madrassas.

And lo ... we have the city of New York debating whether we should outlaw free speech by making it a crime to utter whatever word they find objectionable in the moment.

It starts with the "N" word, then the "B" word, then the "ho" word ... but in the end, it will be a crime in the United States to offend Allah and Mohammed.

The terrorists have already achieved their goal in the United States, I maintain.

Our own politicians are busy systematically setting the stage for their triumphant victory.

No need to even fire another shot.

Now that's terror.

knoxwhirled said...

How was that abhorrent? He didn't advocate aborting babies in order to reduce the crime rate, he just observed that the two things appeared to be linked.

I know he didn't. But it doesn't stop me from thinking the implications are gross on 2 counts: one is that the high abortion rate is somehow good as a "weeding out" process, and another is that it implies people who have abortions would otherwise be skanky criminal-breeders.

Skeptical said...

I'm not sure why knoxwhirled thinks that something cannot be both true and abhorrent.

# 56 said...

"As an economist, Leavitt knows or should know that a TradeSports-like arena for wagering on 'the next terrorist attack' would be far more useful and predictable than the idle speculation in a NYT 'How I'd blow up the world' fantasy blog."

That was suggested by a panel post 9/11, and loudly shouted down as death/terror profiteering. A shame, I expect the co mingling of information, and aberrant trading patterns, could provide usefully data.

knoxwhirled said...

Well, skeptical, which one do you think is true?

Revenant said...

But it doesn't stop me from thinking the implications are gross on 2 counts: one is that the high abortion rate is somehow good as a "weeding out" process, and another is that it implies people who have abortions would otherwise be skanky criminal-breeders.

More accurately, the pool of people likely to produce criminal offspring -- selfish and unintelligent people with poor impulse control -- is also a group which is much more likely to have (or cause) unwanted pregnancies and, where abortion is available, opt to get rid of them.

Revenant said...

which one do you think is true?

Knox, one can realize that something reduces the crime rate without agreeing that it is "good".

The observation that approximately half of the homicides in America are committed by black people, for example, does not imply that anti-black police policies are a good idea or that preemptively jailing all black men would be the right thing to do. Whether or not the reduction of criminal activity by abortion is "good" or not depends entirely on the moral status of abortion itself. Obviously if abortion is, itself, murder, then murdering millions to prevent hundreds of thousands of crimes is not a good idea.

Korla said...

Oh, well here's what I would do. I hope Mr. Bin Laden isn't reading this...

Daryl said...

That was suggested by a panel post 9/11, and loudly shouted down as death/terror profiteering. A shame, I expect the co mingling of information, and aberrant trading patterns, could provide usefully data.

It would be a good way to make a few bucks.

What are the odds that a dirigible filled with toxic cream cheese would explode over downtown Minneapolis at the exact moment that Air Force One is touching down in Osaka, Japan?

I'm thinking they're billion-to-one. And therefore, after I'm done buying the blimp and poisoning the cream cheese, I'll only need to bet my last remaining $100 in order to become the richest person in the world.

knoxwhirled said...

Revenant,

you make good points. Here's the thing: I feel like all the factors that play in to the "creation" of future criminals are too complex to so confidently draw a line back to abortion. You are ready to go here: the pool of people likely to produce criminal offspring... is also a group which is much more likely to...get rid of them. I'm not. I think it is way too complicated to start drawing correlations between the two, and I think that for Leavitt to do so is irresponsible... perhaps "abhorrent" was too strong a word. Anyway, that's what I meant.