A Realistic Approach to Looking at Terrorism

I'm noticing a trend in mass media coverage of terrorism - one that's quite disturbing. In examining how safe Americans typically are, the mainstream press tends to look at weaknesses in our security in everyday life. How safe are our trains, airplanes, water supplies, and other everyday things? And we should be looking for weaknesses in our current systems. It's healthy and it makes sense.

But there's a big piece missing. What I don't see a lot of is analysis on the likely methods that terrorists could use to have maximum impact here in the U.S. given their resources. We seem to be concentrating too much on security exploits in our current systems, losing sight of how effective a terrorist could be in exploiting those systems.

A good example would be the whole "blinding airline pilots with lasers" scenario. Yes, pilots can be blinded by lasers, but the investments required as well as the dependability of the method makes this an unattractive option for someone who wants to have maximum impact with comparatively little investment.

Think about it. There are too many variables - too many things that could go wrong along the way. A terrorist would have to invest in a commercial laser, a tripod and possibly some electronic aiming gear in order to have a reasonable chance at success. Wouldn't it make more sense for a terrorist to invest that time and training in acquiring black market weapons?

I think we identify where the risks are when we start with a zero base approach - putting ourselves in the shoes of the terrorist and looking at what is easily and reliably exploited with the resources terrorists are likely to have available.

We can start by asking ourselves where our security is most easily exploited. Some would say the fact that only a small percentage of shipping containers entering the country are adqeuately searched and screened is something that immediately comes to mind when we think of inadquate security. When we think further about what's riding on this lax port security, we realize that shipping is critical to our economy and that ports tend to be in areas that are filled with people and businesses. A well-placed dirty bomb or worse could cause not only immediate loss of life, but a blow to the economy and to an entire system that our economy depends on for long-term stability.

What makes more sense to you? That a terrorist already in the U.S. would opt to try to bring down an airplane with a laser? Or that a terrorist not yet in the United States would use an unscreened shipping container to deliver a bomb right to our doorstep? To your thinking, what has the greater chance of success? What requires the least amount of resources to accomplish the most damage, both in terms of human lives and economic impact?

Our efforts against terrorism require smart deployment of resources. After all, we can't make everything 100 percent secure overnight. But we hope to make use of what we have to reduce our exposure appropriately. That means making tough but intelligent choices about the allocation of manpower, capital and other resources. To do that, we do need to examine the weaknesses in our current systems, but we also need to look at the big picture and avoid things like expending too much time and effort on patching security holes that are relatively less easy or effective to exploit.

It's all about priorities, people.