Saturday, August 11, 2007

If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack?

Steven Levitt wrote a really good article in the NYT about terrorism.
Hearing about these (new TSA) rules got me thinking about what I would do to maximize terror if I were a terrorist with limited resources. I’d start by thinking about what really inspires fear. One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.

Also, I’d want to create the feeling that an army of terrorists exists, which I’d accomplish by pulling off multiple attacks at once, and then following them up with more shortly thereafter.

Third, unless terrorists always insist on suicide missions (which I can’t imagine they would), it would be optimal to hatch a plan in which your terrorists aren’t killed or caught in the act, if possible.

Fourth, I think it makes sense to try to stop commerce, since a commerce breakdown gives people more free time to think about how scared they are.

Fifth, if you really want to impose pain on the U.S., the act has to be something that prompts the government to pass a bundle of very costly laws that stay in place long after they have served their purpose (assuming they had a purpose in the first place).

My general view of the world is that simpler is better. My guess is that this thinking applies to terrorism as well. In that spirit, the 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.

I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them.
Comments on the post are closed, alas. I think this is a good idea.

We might assume that anything published in that column or the comments has already been thought of at Terror HQ. By failing to talk about this stuff the only people being kept in the dark are potential targets: you and I.

My better idea is a wrinkle on Levitt's idea: the twenty terrorists deliberately target elementary schools. Not all the time, just on a few occasions.

My town of 20,000 people is probably typical. A large central high school. Two middle schools. A dozen small elementary schools, with a few hundred students each.

A terrorist attacks a school. Massacres a teacher and some of her moppets. Maybe a few moms in the driveway dropping off her kids. Fades into the populace. This happens twenty times in a day.

A guy who does this in Toledo, Ohio could be parked outside my neighborhood elementary in Wisconsin the next day - heck that afternoon if he gets in his first hit early and doesn't stop for a bathroom break while driving.

Would YOU send your kid to school with these guys on the loose? What are you going to do with your kids if you don't? Most of us can't tele-commute to work, young parents typically are two-job families.

You've got a morale bust from seeing dead third-graders. You've got an economic one from parents not coming to work so they can keep Johnny and Jane safe at home ..
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