How to Defeat Terrorists

I was having dinner with family and some good friends, one of whom is an engineer several scores my elder. One of the topics that came up was how engineers see the world differently. This can be a potentially prickly question, especially since engineers are often considered to lack adequate social skills.

I have always been a “glass is twice as big as it needs to be” kind of guy — neither optimistic nor pessimistic…things just are.

The Boston Marathon Bombing a month ago was a horribly tragic event. In the aftermath, I felt powerless. I was scared that I no longer had sufficient control or predictability in my life, that at any moment a bomb may go off and I would be the one killed.

As I let that sit, the conclusion my mind settled on is remembering that life is unpredictable. We can guess what will happen next with relatively good accuracy. And for everything else there is typically various forms of redundancy.

In the end, things just seem to work. Except when they don’t.

Redundancy provides a statistical reduction in probability of failure through investment. It could be considered a form of insurance since it’s a risk shift through payment.

Redundancy is not free, and may often go unused. Sometimes we misjudge the risk and bad things happen.

Bruce Schneier is one of my favorite authorities on system security and once again provides great insight:

From www.theatlantic.com:

It’d be easy to feel powerless and demand that our elected leaders do something — anything — to keep us safe.

It’d be easy, but it’d be wrong. We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared. Our fears would play right into the perpetrators’ hands — and magnify the power of their victory for whichever goals whatever group behind this, still to be uncovered, has. We don’t have to be scared, and we’re not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.

Empathize, but refuse to be terrorized. Instead, be indomitable — and support leaders who are as well. That’s how to defeat terrorists.

I disagree with Bruce on being scared, in my opinion feeling scared is valid, especially immediately after something like the Boston Marathon Bombing. What I believe Bruce is getting at is our long-term stance, and I agree that in the long-term we must choose not to be scared. We need to understand the bigger picture and choose to not be terrorized. Far to many of those whom we have elected (and continue to elect) are scared, even if they are only are only scared of losing their next election.

We must make better choices. We must choose to be indomitable. We must choose to support leaders who are not afraid. We must choose to make appropriate choices in the redundancy of our systems. We must not let the terrorist win.

My Brief Thoughts on Northwest Flight 253

I’m going to keep this short, no more than 250 500 1000 words1.

As you all know by now, there was an attempt to blow up another airplane. Although it was initially reported someone lighting off firecrackers, it was soon discovered to be a makeshift bomb and “Bomb experts say there was more than enough explosive to bring down the Northwest jet, which had nearly 300 people aboard, had the detonator not failed.”2

I haven’t heard much as to the explosive nature of the bomb, other than it was “PETN3 and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive”4 and it was “carried in a soft plastic container – possibly a condom.”5

While there may have been enough explosives present by mass to destroy an airliner (and I even have some doubts about that6, given the lack of calculations I’ve seen), what are the odds7 of our suspect (or any future suspect) maximizing the effectiveness of such an explosive given their circumstances?

Here’s what I’m really concerned about though: Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar and ABC News consultant, has this to say, “We’ve known for a long time that this is possible and that we really have to replace our scanning devices with more modern systems.” Clarke said full body scans were needed, “but they’re expensive and they’re intrusive. They invade people’s privacy.”8

Responding to a need for fuller and more frequent body pat-downs and scanning, Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said, “I think we have to head in that direction… Yes, there is some brief violation of privacy with a full body scan. But on the other hand, if we can save thousands of lives, to me, we have to make that decision.”9

Why are we continuing to move in a direction that is A) ineffective and B) in violation of our constitutional rights10? (See also: A Discussion on the Fourth Amendment and National Security)

In response, the TSA has issued emergency rules that I’m sure will go far in helping keep people safe: From www.businessweek.com:

Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. from other countries were ordered to remain seated for the last hour in flight, and were limited to one carry-on item in response to an attempted terrorist attack yesterday on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit from Amsterdam.
New U.S. Transportation Security Administration rules also prohibit passengers from getting anything from their carry-on bags or having anything in their laps in the final hour of flight, the agency said.

Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist and author, had this to say in response to Northwest Flight 253 and the new TSA rules:
From www.schneier.com:

And what sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won’t think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?

For years I’ve been saying this:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

This week, the second one worked over Detroit. Security succeeded.

Now is not the time stripping more of my rights away in the name of security; I’m and sick and tired of being treated like a criminal. (My new policy: “Do I have the right to refuse this search?”)

Now is the time establish a new type of a system; a system that works. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that what we have now and the path we’re on is ineffective and needs to change.

And may God help whoever tries to blowup a plane I’m on; because I will own their sorry ass.

Thumbnail: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from Network (1976), released by MGM. © 1976 MGM.


  1. including quotes and footnotes 

  2. Officials: Only A Failed Detonator Saved Northwest Flight 

  3. NB: Same explosive Richard Reid used in 2001; gee, taking my shoes off during screening really helped prevent that from happening again… 

  4. U.S. Airline Security Reviews Under Way 

  5. Official: Explosive PETN Used in Attack 

  6. PETN – hard to detect and just 100g can destroy a car 

  7. The Odds of Airborne Terror 

  8. Officials: Only A Failed Detonator Saved Northwest Flight 

  9. U.S. Airline Security Reviews Under Way 

  10. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution 

Six Years Later

Patrick Smith is a commercial airline pilot and writes a section for the New York Times Blog called Jet Lagged: Navigating the Unfriendly Skies.
Here’s an excerpt from his latest article, The Airport Security Follies.

From jetlagged.blogs.nytimes.com:

Conventional wisdom says the [9/11] terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard box-cutters. What they actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset – a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings.

In years past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were trained in the concept of “passive resistance.” All of that changed forever the instant American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower. What weapons the 19 men possessed mattered little; the success of their plan relied fundamentally on the element of surprise. And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.

For several reasons – particularly the awareness of passengers and crew – just the opposite is true today. Any hijacker would face a planeload of angry and frightened people ready to fight back. Say what you want of terrorists, they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes with a high probability of failure. And thus the September 11th template is all but useless to potential hijackers.

The entire article is a great read. The TSA is easily one of the greatest failures of America in the 21st Century, perhaps even greater than the war in Iraq. I suppose it’s fitting then that the TSA is now tied with the IRS for least popular government agency in America.

via Photo Matt and BoingBoing