On Risk & Security

I like and agree with Bruce Schneier’s thinking here (when asked about whether a successful plane attack is inevitable in this Atlantic interview):

The fact that we even ask this question illustrates something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk.  Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be.  We’ll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include risk.  But that’s okay.  Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy our country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage.

I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can’t be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures.  We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.

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  • Jim  On January 4, 2010 at 11:06 am

    “…terrorism is not a transcendent threat…”

    He writes about terrorism and you agree with his logic as if terrorism was coming from a vacuum!!

    Terrorism is not the enemy! Islamic Jidadism is the enemy – do you remember that they want to destroy us as individuals and our country as a society?

    When we ask “Is a terrorist attack inevitable?” it is shorthand for the following: “Are the Islamic Jihadists going to continue to attack us?”

    That question does not illustrate “something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk.” It is a totally rational question when in a war declared by the other side!

    The writing by Mr. Schneier is silly!

    No, we do not need to “fear” terrorism and we all know that – we have faced a lot worse in the past. But that does not make a case for not recognizing it as a tool of war!

  • Curt  On January 4, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    You are looking at his comments very broadly, whereas my take on it is much more narrow. In the reaction to the last terrorist attempt on the plane on Christmas, there were some who wanted to continue to ramp up the TSA – for example to buy more scanning machines, etc. (example: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/29/opinion/29ervin.html). We can never get the risk down to zero, seemingly an obvious point, but there are plenty of folks who still want the government to “do something” in reaction to each occurence. We are already doing plenty, and in fact it has quite a high cost in dollars and people’s time.

    Schneier’s point, as I take it, is that we can never ‘guarantee’ that the TSA security efforts will catch every attempt – and at some point there are diminishing returns on investment in airport security. He’s previously made the point that I agree with, that what makes us most safe in the air is the heightened alertness of passengers since 9/11 – which is indeed what thwarted the Christmas attempt.

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