Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Levitt on terrorism

Steven Levitt now blogs for the NYT. In a burst of misplaced enthusiasm he channeled Schneier and blogged on how to give terrorist great new ideas. I'm not sure this is a great idea when Schneier does it, but Levitt ought to leave this kind of thing to the pros.

Why am I a bit uneasy? After all, I've probably done the same sort of thing at one time or another. My unease comes because I worry that there's a reasonable number of fairly dull would-be terrorists out there. The pros (Hamas, the former IRA, etc) don't need ideas, but the dimwits probably appreciate 'em. I'm only a "bit" uneasy though, even the dimmest terrorist has an infinite amount of material to work from.

So why don't they do more, and can we really do much about it? In a better column Schneier digs deeper ...

Terrorism, Part II - Freakonomics - Opinion - New York Times Blog

... Like the British and Israelis have done, if faced with this situation, Americans would figure out how to live with it. The actual cost of this low-grade terrorism in terms of human lives is relatively small, compared to other causes of death like motor-vehicle crashes, heart attacks, homicide, and suicide. It is the fear that imposes the real cost.

But just as people in countries with runaway inflation learn relatively quickly to live with it, the same happens with terrorism. The actual risk of dying from an attack while riding a bus in Israel is low – and so, as Gary Becker and Yona Rubinstein have shown, people who have a lot of experience riding Israeli buses don’t respond much to the threat of bombings. Similarly, there is little wage premium for being a bus driver in Israel.... strikes me that there are two possible interpretations of our current situation vis-à-vis terrorism.

One view is the following: the main reason we aren’t currently being decimated by terrorists is that the government’s anti-terror efforts have been successful.

The alternative interpretation is that the terror risk just isn’t that high and we are greatly overspending on fighting it, or at least appearing to fight it. For most government officials, there is much more pressure to look like you are trying to stop terrorism than there is to actually stop it. The head of the TSA can’t be blamed if a plane gets shot down by a shoulder-launched missile, but he is in serious trouble if a tube of explosive toothpaste takes down a plane. Consequently, we put much more effort into the toothpaste even though it is probably a much less important threat.

Likewise, an individual at the CIA isn’t in trouble if a terrorist attack happens; he or she is only in trouble if there is no written report that details the possibility of such an attack, which someone else should have followed up on, but never did because there are so many such reports written.

My guess is that the second scenario — the terrorism threat just isn’t that great — is the more likely one...

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