The Risk of Public Places

>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 the attacks. 

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.  

But 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." 

"But ..." 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 good? 

"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." 

Upon 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. 

The bombing 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 the point. 

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.

Of 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. 

3. Work 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? 

One 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. 

With 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.

This 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 error.