The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Fri, 2006-Aug-25, 14:33

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Fear Is a Healthy Reaction to Terrorism

Bruce Schneier recently posted a very well-written article at, "Refuse to be Terrorized." But as much as I admire Schneier's intellect, in this case he's come to some very wrong and very dangerous conclusions. As such I'm putting aside my usual blog topics to discuss history, political science, and the politics of security.

I'll start with a military fiasco: the Battle of the Bulge, which started in Europe on December 16, 1944. The German armies achieved operational surprise and tactical success; the Allied armies floundered, then recovered, and then pushed the Germans back. An important incident during the battle provides information on how people and governments react to unexpected acts of terrorism.

During the battle the elusive, unconventional, and highly effective German commander Otto Skorzeny dispatched a commando of German soldiers dressed in American uniforms; these soldiers went behind US lines to sabotage logistics and communications. US forces captured the soldiers, interrogated them, and — in conformance with the Geneva convention — shot them, all within the space of a few hours. But before they died, the German soldiers told interrogators that Skorzeny planned an attack to capture the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower.

The results of this misinformation were everything the Germans could have hoped for. Eisenhower spent weeks under guard, army security officers drove an Eisenhower impersonator around Paris in an attempt to flush out the supposed raiders, and Allied headquarters struggled to stay focused on the war. At the same time, the presence of impersonators who knew how to breach security worried soldiers at the front lines, and they added their own version of security checks ("Who won the World Series?" "What's the capital of Idaho?") to the standard challenge/response passwords.

With this history in mind, let's turn to Schneier's article. Schneier starts with a recitation of recent security scares — people escorted off airplanes, terminals evacuated, and suspects detained for questioning. All of these incidents turned out to be false alarms. Based on this sample, Schneier goes on to say

We're all a little jumpy after the recent arrest of 23 terror suspects in Great Britain... from the would-be bombers' perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they've succeeded.
And then he suggests
Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic... The implausible plots and false alarms actually hurt us...
Finally, his main message:
our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized.

Schneier makes some categorical errors. The first is that Schneier ignores the lessons of history, such as the ones taught by the Battle of the Bulge. In the midst of the "fog of war," you must carry on as best you can. Sentries at the front line couldn't stop the war and work out the proper security procedures; they improvised instead, working from best guesses based on limited information. Eisenhower couldn't abandon his headquarters and hide in a bunker in Colorado. In the same way, world governments could of course shut down all air traffic across the world until we determined the exact extent of the threat to airline safety posed by liquid- and gel-based explosives and wait until we instituted fool-proof measures to counteract the threat. In the real world, something else happens: people and governments improvise a response; almost never the best response, and almost certainly a response that's either too drastic or not drastic enough, but a response that works well enough to let the business of life proceed. To recite an old military adage: A quick decision is always better than a delayed decision, and if it's the right decision, so much the better. While I agree with some (but not all) of Schneier's contentions about security measures that the US took in response to the attacks of September 11th, it's also important to remember that these decisions must often be made quickly, under pressure, and with limited information.

Another error Schneier makes is in his assessment of the threat of terrorism.

The implausible plots and false alarms actually hurt us in two ways. Not only do they increase the level of fear, but they also waste time and resources that could be better spent fighting the real threats and increasing actual security. I'll bet the terrorists are laughing at us.
This echoes Schneier's labeling of certain terrorist attack scenarios "movie-plot threats" because, in his opinion, these scenarios are very unlikely. While this isn't the place for a complete deconstruction of Schneier's thesis, I'll illustrate how dangerous it is by mentioning the most far-fetched "movie-plot threat" of all: a group of hijackers fly airplanes into the World Trade Center.

Schneier also fails to explain why some of the examples he cites constitute an over-reaction. In one instance, dogs gave a false alarm that explosives were present. Just what what response would a reasonable person expect to the near-certain discovery of explosives in a crowded terminal?

The final set of errors lies in how Schneier's politics taints his views on national security: Schneier's contention that "politicians" use "fear" as a campaign tactic. In his closing sentences, Schneier says:

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn't make us any safer.
In other words, the War on Terror is simply a trick to remove our civil liberties. In his essay and elsewhere, Schneier often contends that terrorism should be handled by police forces, as if terrorism was a form of ordinary criminal activity.

Before President Bush even took office, Bush's opponents imputed all sorts of nefarious plots to President Bush, including plans to impose a theocracy. Although their fears were the result of hysteria and "movie-plot" thinking — six years into his presidency, President Bush is having a hard time getting tax laws through Congress, much less imposing state-run churches — Bush's opponents continue to reflexively denigrate his every statement. When President Bush states that terrorism continues to pose a threat to US citizens, surely a self-evident statement amply supported by the evidence, his opponents charge him with attempting to use "fear" as a "campaign tactic."

Finally, a few thoughts on the process that gave rise to Schneier's essay. Schneier contends that terrorist plots are "not a particularly common" risk, that the response to them is overblown, and he uses a set of high-profile incidents to illustrate his point. But according to Schneier that's exactly the thought process that produces an overblown security response. In the days since the British arrested the alleged Islamic terrorists, thousands of airline flights proceeded without incident. Schneier focuses on a handful of exceptional and highly-publicized incidents to claim that governments worldwide are deliberately instilling an atmosphere of fear. Isn't that the same error he imputes to others?

The facts show otherwise. Unlike the fiasco of World War II, the War on Terror hasn't inspired widespread hysteria, and the US government worked overtime to clamp down on any vestige of incipient panic. We have not interned entire populations because of their racial heritage, as was done to Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the US and Canada during WWII, and we have scrupulously avoided racial profiling. Even organizations that arguably support terrorism are given the benefit of free-speech protection.

Fear is a healthy and reasonable response to terrorism. But what do we do with that fear? One response is to flee from reality, claim that nothing has changed, and to continue with the failed policies of the past — to continue to treat terrorism as a police problem, one that can be solved through "intelligence and investigation" and by "refus[ing] to be terrorized." But I think that's wrong. I think that our fear should turn into determination, and that our determination should be applied to remdial action. That's what the United States has done — at home, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere — and the US government deserves our support.

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