Crazy AND Competent

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks in the United States? Or in other developed countries, for that matter? With the exception of Israel, which is involved in an ongoing conflict and is surrounded by hostile states, terrorism is still relatively rare in the industrialized world. In many developing nations, on the other hand, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, terrorism and irregular conflict are commonplace. Most of these conflicts have a political root, and internal political stability clearly prevents this kind of ongoing insurgency within the United States. There is another safety net protecting the US, however: there simply aren’t that many individuals in the United States that are both crazy enough AND competent enough to execute a real terrorist plot.

The US market economy provides an amazing wealth and diversity of opportunity for a striving individual; one need look no further than the Mexican border to see that millions desire the opportunity to participate in the US employment market. The great majority of individuals competent enough to even contemplate a terrorist plot find themselves engaged in a productive career path from high school onward. The US, like any place on Earth, also has its share of individuals that harbor destructive or anti-social thoughts, and occasionally even plans for terrorism. Most in this group have no capability to execute on their dangerous ideas, and generally have nothing more than hate-filled invective stewing about in their heads.

Who then is left to cause terror in the homeland? There certainly are skilled and competent individuals in the United States who dislike US policy, and who may even harbor destructive plans. Even within this group, only very rarely will an individual choose to sacrifice the good life of America for the risk incumbent in prosecuting an act of terror. In the US, Timothy McVeigh is a rare example of such an individual. Among the millions of annual visitors to the US, the 9/11 hijackers represent a similarly rare breed.

All of this doesn’t mean that the US government can just drop its guard in securing the nation. Rather, it means that an intelligence-based approach is the only viable option for ferreting out the minority of minorities that is intent on causing harm. With the FBI, CIA, and NSA woefully understaffed in areas such as Arabic translation, it looks like we have a long ways still to go in catching that rare and elusive beast: the terrorist.

On True Costs – and airline security

First, welcome to my blog. I hope to take my incessant ramblings on politics, economics, and societal issues and crystallize some of those thoughts into coherent entries here; if my entries aren’t well written, I hope that they are at least thought provoking!

So, what is the concept of “True Cost”? If we had the power to know the true cost and benefit of each action we intend to take, surely decision-making would become a trivial process. In reality, people cannot predict the future, and they often disagree agree on the cost or benefit of a particular outcome. Still, this form of analysis has its place in policy-making, as it enables us to rationally approach topics that too often are debated in purely emotional terms.

Take, for example, the current security measures implemented in the airline industry. While fears of terrorism are well-founded, given events of recent history, at what point will the cost of extra security, delays, and trashed cosmetics outweigh the perceived benefit of increased security? No real terrorist has ever been caught by airport screeners (which is not to say it will never happen); but is this really the most effective way to effect airline safety?

More broadly, more Americans died from slips and falls (according to the CDC) during 2001 than from terrorism. Should we then live in fear of ladders and slick floors? Thinking individuals can work to balance security and risk in airline security – but they can do so only by weighing the cost and benefits, and not by reacting irrationally in the face of a new threat.