The suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on Monday has already
prompted a predictable scramble and knee-jerk reaction among officials
-- as all these attacks do -- to reassure the public that steps will be
taken to somehow keep such an attack from happening again. Security
around Russian airports is being tightened. Increased random bag checks
in public airport areas are reportedly in the works at U.S. airports, as
well. And Russian President Dimitri A. Medvedev has said that airport
officials at Domodedovo must be held accountable for failing to prevent
I feel for those officials. Because the
ugly truth of the matter is unless we want to prohibit more than five
people from gathering in any given place, targets will exist for people
willing to sacrifice their lives to hurt others. And it is impossible to
police or screen public gathering places well enough to keep any
attempted attack from succeeding.
In 2004, I
was part of a crew that flew a security blimp from Switzerland through
the Alps and across Italy to Athens for the summer Olympic games. The
Athens Olympics were the first summer games after the terrorist attacks
of 9/11*. So in addition to the blimp that typically provided aerial
video footage, Olympic officials arranged to have a second blimp --
filled with cameras, infrared sensors, GPS and communication relays --
hovering over the site.
The journey to Athens
was an adventure in and of itself that took us six and a half weeks to
complete. Among other challenges, we had multiple mechanical problems,
were detained at gunpoint by commandos in southern Italy, had to bail
out of the blimp in a dust devil and, with our destination in sight, had
to "hold" over the Bay of Athens for more than two hours in air so
turbulent that our gyrations rivaled those of air show performers.
the real eye-opening part of the trip took place after we, like the
weary Ulysses, finally set foot on Greek soil. The morning after our
arrival, I went out to the airport to talk to the security experts who
were outfitting the blimp with all its high-tech, bad-guy-defeating
gadgetry. I asked the expert in charge how all that technology was going
to keep someone from blowing up a bomb at the Olympic venues. The man
looked at me as if I had three heads.
"KEEP them from blowing up a bomb???" he repeated incredulously. "We can't keep them from blowing up a bomb."
..." I was at a loss. Why had we endured all those troubles and
aggravations, bringing the blimp to Athens, if it wasn't going to do any
"So what's the point of all this?" I finally asked.
"Because if someone DOES blow something up," the man replied, "all this will help us find the guy."
reflection, it makes sense. In a crowd of thousands -- in public
venues, centers, and street corners -- how do you find and stop the one
guy with a bomb in a backpack? The final sequence in the George
Clooney/Nicole Kidman film The Peacemaker
comes to mind, where officials trying to stop a terrorist from
detonating an atomic bomb at the U.N. in New York City start tackling
every male passerby carrying a backpack. It's a ludicrous and,
ultimately, unsuccessful exercise.
at Domodedovo happened to take place in a public area at an airport, so
much of the alarm and reaction is (rightly or wrongly) going to focus
on airport security. But really, the same bomb could have been
detonated, and done just as much damage, raising the same issues of
security and access, in any crowded, public area. Think, for a moment,
how many people are in Grand Central Station at rush hour. It more than
rivals any airport reception area. Or in Times Square on any given
evening. Or in Macy's, the morning after Thanksgiving. Or at Rockefeller
Center when the Christmas tree is lit. The list goes on and on. The
point is, finding a place where a suicide bomb explosion will kill 30 or
50 people is just not that tough to do. And there is simply no way to
eliminate that risk.
So what do we do with that uncomfortable truth? A few thoughts -- not new, but perhaps worth repeating:
1. Argue for more intelligent security, focused on "behavioral screening" (an approach many security experts advocate
During my return to the U.S. after that Athens trip, the security
personnel in Charles DeGaulle airport questioned me intently about how
I'd spent my six and a half weeks in Europe. They even asked for hotel
receipts to back up my stated itinerary. But then, after I'd produced a
few pieces of back-up paperwork, the security guard asked me -- while
looking directly into my eyes -- what my modes of transport had been for
my various travels.
"Let's see," I answered.
"Plane, train, truck, blimp, ferry, car, and then train again." She
didn't even blink at the "blimp" part. But then, neither did I, which is
2. Stop waiting for someone else
to do the vigilance. No agency or screening technology is going to
detect every person trying to detonate a bomb in a public place. And we
don't do ourselves any favors by hoping that it will. If there was ever a
good use for "crowdsourcing," security is it. We are our own best
weapon, as the examples of the Times Square bomber and shoe bomber
illustrate. Or, as I like to say, we are the heroes we've been waiting
for. Far better to be take the approach that each one of us is active
and responsible part of the solution, rather than just a passive,
fearful, and helpless-feeling victim.
course, having said that, I also think the security experts are correct
in arguing the need for training in what constitutes "suspicious"
behavior." The article I linked to above quotes experts advocating for
that training among security personnel -- but I'd argue that providing
some programming on spotting suspicious behavior, via PBS, NPR, or any
other outlet, would be a far more welcome and helpful service than the
useless "threat level orange" alerts.
at viewing the threat of harm from a terrorist attack the way we view
the threat of harm from automobile accidents or firearms. Each year
around 40,000* people die in automobile accidents across the U.S. Many
of the victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, when
someone else ran a light, crossed a median, or spun out of control. And
yet, we don't panic every time we get in a car. We understand the risk
is there, but on some level, we accept it -- perhaps because we really
don't want to give up driving.
By the same
token, 30,000 people a year in the U.S. are killed by firearms. True,
the numbers aren't random across the entire population. But, still.
Those numbers are far higher than the number of people killed in
terrorist attacks, but they don't prompt anywhere near the outcry and
panic of a terrorist setting off a single bomb. Why is that?
reason may be that bomb attacks kill dozens or hundreds of people at
once, so they're more alarming, and more widely publicized. There's also
a sense of vulnerability and intentional violation that accompanies the
idea of a terrorist attack, which only direct victims of gun violence
would feel. But it's worth pondering why we give such intimidation power
to terrorists, when we're clearly capable of weathering greater losses
from other causes without calling for someone to assure us, even if it's
not true, that events like that won't happen again.
all our advances in medicine, technology, and consumer safety, we've
managed to make life a lot less uncertain than it used to be. We don't
regularly lose children to illness anymore, and we now live longer than
previous generations. So it's possible for us to imagine that we can be
kept safe from all lethal risks and threats. Unfortunately, we
can't. But as any mountain climber, pilot, or other adventurer knows,
recognizing the impossibility of eliminating risk is actually the first
step in handling it and mitigating it effectively. Beyond that, all we
can do -- indeed, what we must do -- is endure. This post originally appeared on James Fallows's blog.
post originally stated that Athens hosted the first Olympics after 9/11
and that 50,000 people die in car accidents each year. We regret the
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