13 July 2005

Terrorism Risk: Moving Beyond Fear...

In the aftermath of the July 7th London Terrorist Bombings the investigation and forensics are quickly answering our most obvious questions. Who? How? Why?

Yet we must be reminded that fear is an obstacle between us and truly understanding the event. It creates paralysis. It even makes us react in ways that can only be called stupid if we are to improve our safety and security.

The fear is in your mind and not based upon the real risks. Moving beyond fear and making sound decisions for the future involves looking beyond the newspaper headlines. It means looking at the threats and the effectiveness of the countermeasures. Now it means making prudent and logical security trade-offs. Beware of those who may cloak their actions as security-related to terrorism.

Let's not surround ourselves with security countermeasures that makes us have a false sense of security. To invest millions or billions more money in transportation security for the mass transit systems will help deceive us even more. Those who don't understand security or how to make trade-offs spend too much money and resources on countermeasures that don't and won't work.

When a threat is inevitable, focusing on prevention can blind you. Terrorism in the sense we are witnessing in London or Spain or monthly in Israel or Iraq is destined to continue without warning for many decades to come. The brand Al Qaeda is here to stay.

Security is about risk prevention. Safety is protecting assets from unplanned and undetermined actions. Security is for those deliberate and intentional acts such as theft and other criminal attacks. Preventing terrorist acts that are planned and intended to inflict damage, death and destruction is like trying to prevent people from stealing or committing fraud. Countermeasures such as walls, safes, guards, cryptography, ID cards or watermarks are largely ineffective and technology only makes security more complex.

What is changing is the focus on the reality of threats that we can't totally prevent. Bruce Hoffman's article The Logic of Suicide Terrorism sums this up nicely:

Nearly everywhere in the world it is taken for granted that one can simply push open the door to a restaurant, café, or bar, sit down, and order a meal or a drink. In Israel the process of entering such a place is more complicated. One often encounters an armed guard who, in addition to asking prospective patrons whether they themselves are armed, may quickly pat them down, feeling for the telltale bulge of a belt or a vest containing explosives. Establishments that cannot afford a guard or are unwilling to pass on the cost of one to customers simply keep their doors locked, responding to knocks with a quick glance through the glass and an instant judgment as to whether this or that person can safely be admitted. What would have been unimaginable a year ago is now not only routine but reassuring. It has become the price of a redefined normality.

In the United States in the twenty months since 9/11 we, too, have had to become accustomed to an array of new, often previously inconceivable security measures—in airports and other transportation hubs, hotels and office buildings, sports stadiums and concert halls. Although some are more noticeable and perhaps more inconvenient than others, the fact remains that they have redefined our own sense of normality. They are accepted because we feel more vulnerable than before. With every new threat to international security we become more willing to live with stringent precautions and reflexive, almost unconscious wariness. With every new threat, that is, our everyday life becomes more like Israel's.

The bomb sniffing bomb proof bus is coming to Jerusalem soon to augment the human security already present to deter and detect terrorist suicide bombers. All too often, two of the most important questions are forgotten:

1. What new potential security risks does this new solution cause?

2. What new trade-offs and expenses are a result of implementing the new solution?

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