Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Scientific Illiteracy, Part Two: Anti-Terrorism Measures

Rachel Maddow had an anti-terrorism expert on the other day whose analysis made so much sense that it is sure to be ignored. The expert pointed out how we always adjust our anti-terrorism measures to combat the latest terrorism attempt, instead of trying to anticipate the next one and guard against it. This makes us completely predictable, so that we are announcing to the world what we are doing, which tells a determined terrorist exactly what he needs to do to mount a successful attack.

Instead, what we should be doing is varying our measures, so that we are not predictable. (The 9-11 terrorists knew exactly what size of knife they could bring on the planes, becuase of our predictability.) But beyond that, the expert said we should be putting our money into investigation and intelligence operations, instead of all of thts "airport security" which costs so much and really accomplishes little.

But the real solution to the terrorism threat is to keep it in better perspective, to not get all stirred up every time an attempt is made. If we keep our sense of perspective, then the result sought by the terrorists is thwarted. Mitch Albom had a great column on this, found here. His salient point:

"Which leads us to the one thing we actually can do about terrorism that would have a measurable effect on it.

Expect it.

Figure that it's coming the way you know someone, somewhere, is going to shoot up his workplace. Someone, somewhere, will start a riot in a stadium. Someone, somewhere, will drive drunk and kill innocent people.

These are horrible events. We try hard to prevent them. But no amount of security, gun laws or alcohol warnings can keep them from happening completely. We accept this as a tragic part of life, but we still go on living.

Maybe the same needs to be done with terrorists who think airplanes are the way to unnerve our society. If we refuse to be terrified by these raging idiots, they lose their effectiveness. If and when the next airplane is victimized, our stock market doesn't go south with worry and our politicians don't go overboard with retaliation tactics, the terror is, to a large degree, neutered.

After all, what do these bombers want? It's not as if they're seeking a cessation of war, the return of a specific land or a specific prisoner release. What they want is mayhem. Hysteria. They want us stirred up with fear and hatred, which enables them to recruit larger masses to do their evil bidding.

We shouldn't play into that."

No indeed, we should not play into that. But that is exactly what the networks did this morning by devoting almost their entire Sunday morning news shows to the attempted terrorist act on Christmas Day. The media is showing the terrorists that they are winning in their efforts to create mayhem and hysteria in our country. We can thwart their efforts by remaining calm and accepting some risk as a fact of life, which it is.

The media is acting like it is a huge failure whenever an attempt, successful or not, is made. The media is unable to recognize that human errors will always occur and no system is foolproof. And of course the politicians all play into this hysterical attitude, by acting like any security breach is unacceptable and an occasion for hand-wringing. The failure to realize that risk is a part of life and some risk will always be there is a form of scientific illiteracy, in my opinion.

An honest reaction from administration officials would be to state that fact, but whoever did that would be out the door by the end of the day. Remember when Janet Napolitano said the rightwing militia groups posed a domestic terrorism threat? She was bad-mouthed so badly for this that she had to retract her statement. Next thing we know one of the very people she was talking about attacked the Holocaust Museum and killed a guard. The fact is, telling the truth too often gets you into trouble in our polarized and scientifically illiterate society. Too bad.

1 comment:

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