There are forms of extortion, and terrorism, that are shockingly easy to get away with, shockingly effective--and yet, shockingly rare. For example, it's very easy to wreak considerable agricultural damage undetected, as Alex Tabarrok notes:
Single bottles of wine from La Romanée-Conti, the legendary vineyard of Burgundy, sell for upwards of $10,000. In 2010 the owner received a threat, the vineyard would be poisoned unless the owner paid one million euro. When the owner didn't pay a map was delivered that identified several vines that had already been poisoned by drill and syringe. The French don't want to talk about this and for good reason, agricultural extortion is very easy and they fear copycats.
. . . Of course, a terrorist doesn't even have to collect damages to succeed-just a bit of mad cow or corn rust and we are in trouble (and those aren't even the biggest threats.)
I worry that this one of those dangers that is so threatening we are afraid to worry about it.
And yet the fact that this sort of thing doesn't happen frequently, despite the ease of execution, should tell us something. Why don't more people launch these sorts of low-cost attacks?
In the case of terrorists, I think it's that they are not merely interested in body count; they're interested in high profile symbolic attacks. Terror attacks aren't only aimed at us. They're also aimed at the rich people who fund terror groups, and the young idiots terrorists want to recruit. So while my Dad often points out that we're lucky the terrorists didn't think of collapsing a building on Grand Central Station or Penn Station--which would have choked off the flow of workers around the city for years, possibly decades--the fact is, they probably didn't want to go to their backers and say "76.4% of commutes in New York have now doubled!!!" They wanted to take down the (one time) tallest buildings in the world, which they took as a symbol of our unbearable pride and arrogance.
And in the case of garden-variety extortion? I wonder if it isn't just a sort of hardwired horror . . . the same thing that has kept biological weapons largely out of circulation. There's something particularly horrifying about someone who poisons food or livestock--much worse than, say, chopping down a competitor's fences or cutting off his water flow.
But maybe that's just so much post-hoc reasoning. Perhaps this stuff happens all the time, and we don't know about it for precisely the reason it's so dangerous: it's easy to do, and hard to detect.
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is a columnist at Bloomberg View
and a former senior editor at The Atlantic.
Her new book is The Up Side of Down