Wednesday, August 02, 2006

IT'S EASY FOR TERRORISTS: One year later on the Doom Line

At only mid-week readers know the Doom Line is red hot. And it's been that way for a good long time. Dick Destiny blog has purposely portrayed the news in a silly manner. That's why the weird and gross pictures. Expect more of 'em! The sheer amount of official doom, the regular stream of cant, delivered by leaders and terror-fighers vieing for attention and money, invites you to regard it as absurd.

About a year ago I took on an exercise at GlobalSecurity.Org to illustrate one insane aspect of it. This was done by mapping certain types of war on terror news in the newsmedia.

Reprinting from that time:

[The newsmedia] when dealing with potential problems, like the threats posed by terrorists . . . has an extremely poor track record. It does not ask hard questions of anyone. It simply acts as a conduit for the delivery of nightmare claims. Employing a Nexis search, [I] was able to quickly find around one hundred stories devoted to spreading permutations from the last two years containing some fashion of the assumption or assertion that "it's easy for terrorists" to bring on calamity using a multitude of plans and practices.

Rail road yard security is a joke, it's easy for terrorists to walk right in. .50 caliber sniper rifles, powerful enough to shoot down airplanes...are easy for terrorists to acquire [but even easier for Americans to get]. It's [still] too easy for terrorists to get across the border. A new driver's license bill is bad because it makes it easy for terrorists to have them. A blackout reveals how easy it might be for terrorists to knock down the electrical grid. Colorado is vulnerable to terror because federal focus on big cities has made it easy for terrorists to strike in landlocked states. It is easy for terrorists to contaminate water so [a scientist's] new sensor system is a necessity. Be alert for farm terror because it is easy for the enemy to strike there. [A state] [leads or lags] in bioterror readiness and it's a matter for concern because it is easy for terrorists ... Assume a bioterror attack is coming because it is easy for terrorists...

By themselves, they occasionally appear lucid and reasonable. Pile them together and the aggregate is astonishing. The message is everything is vulnerable and terrorists are capable of anything. Because of one terrible day and the cliche "9/11 changed everything," devastating terrorist strikes have been theorized as transferable to almost any imaginable attack scenario.

After I read a stack of these articles, I thought for a moment I was in the wrong business and should devote a couple months and publications to predicting the ways in which terrorists could attack. Terrorists could imitate the methodology of the Washington sniper and his accomplice. Why haven't they? Terrorists could go into the forests and high chaparrals of southern California during fire season and ignite calamitous blazes, making national news and sewing panic. Local arsonists do it. It would be easy for terrorists. Gang members from central Los Angeles shoot into cars on the freeways. Surely that would be easy for terrorists... [Anti-terror celebrity Richard Clarke did do this in a long piece for the Atlantic Monthly.]

It's a good game. It needs to take no account of what terrorists are actually doing, no knowledge of what tough to get human intelligence sources and materials may show, or historically -- what preferences, capabilities, experiences and limitations terrorists carry with them. It can assume that there are more terrorists expertly trained in many degrees and methods of mayhem and working themselves into place than there are actual terrorists. For the anti-terrorism effort, it is only necessary to assign a simple universality to fragility and vulnerability and degrees of omniscience and unlimited resources to the adversary. It is easy, so to speak, to think of things that are easy for terrorists to do.

. . . If one looks at an article published for the August/September 2005 edition of the American Journalism Review, one found a lamenting over the lack of good reporting on homeland security. But in the first few paragraphs, the article promptly fell into the same type of reporting it purported to criticize. The review delivered a titillating and speculative disaster porn scenario, trotting out a reporter to furnish claims about how easy it would be for a terrorist to kill -- again thousands -- by sabotaging a tank of anhydrous ammonia at a chemical plant.

"This particular killer goes for the eyeballs and turns skin into a gooey mass. Respiratory systems are paralyzed by excruciating pain," wrote the publication. "...thousands of people would have died. I have no doubt of that," said a journalist who was a source.

And "To attack [America's electrical] grid, a terrorist need only study publicly available trade journals, which explain where new facilities are constructed," again cried an op-ed piece in the New York Times on August 13, 2005. "A terrorist could then disable a particular system by destroying the computers and relays housed in the poorly protected building."

Article after article can be found warning of dire consequences. No publication is too small, no facet of life too obscure.

The publication Arkansas Business, for example, furnished warning about attacks on rice.

"It would be very easy for terrorists to introduce anthrax or even something as simple as rat poison into rice being exported to the United States," said a rice businessman for the paper.

"A shipload of contaminated rice, distributed throughout the nation, would be a security nightmare, creating not only a panic but possibly an economic meltdown." (The subtext: Buy American grown rice, as only it can be guaranteed to be inspected, pure and clean.)

In any case, the hot button issue is again anthrax, the ultimate weapon, as has already been read, possibly to be blown through cities, worked into beef, poured into fruit juice, or also distributed in bags of rice.

And if not anthrax-tainted rice, how about lunches for school children?

At the end of July 2005, USA Today ran with the brief "School lunches a terrorist target? USDA calls meals 'particularly vulnerable.'" "Currently, authorities are looking at how a popular lunchroom staple, chicken nuggets, may be susceptible to tampering," wrote the newspaper. "Federal officials have distributed a food safety checklist to school lunch providers, who must show evidence of a food safety plan..."

Catastrophe-causing poisoning materials for terrorists are apparently available off the shelf everywhere, too, their capability facile.

"Robert Buchanan, a senior science adviser with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said mounting an attack on the food system would not require a great deal of knowledge or sophistication, and the result could be catastrophic," wrote the Birmingham Post-Herald in July 2005 in the article, "Experts say food supply could be hit."

"The number of biological or chemical agents that could be used in an attack [is huge]," said the government advisor to the reporter. "I'm amazed how many agents are available over the Internet."

[W]hile such news often departs from reality, it generates its own truth and consequences by filtering into reports delivered by expert government, corporate and academic agencies. The action of this process as well as the close uncritical embracing of it dissipates organization into thousands of efforts going in different directions, reducing security to a chaotic scramble for money by crowds of experts and officials, all trying to paint scary scenarios because the more forbidding the manner of doom the easier it is to command attention.

Such collections of news stories and claims frequently lead to hearings, policy, entrenched beliefs, and funding of no immediately visible benefit to average Americans. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to put forward the distinctly not radical idea that given the recent national and local failures in the face of catastrophe, the needy would still take it in the shorts if all that was claimed to be very insecure to terrorists was made secure.

In any case, I concluded that the packaging and delivery of doom and terror stories comprised rigidly casted scripts which destroyed careful deliberation. They inspire a belief that everything must be secured and that nothing is secure. They lead to the perception or even conviction that the work of battening down the nation will never be over.

They fostered belief that it is rational and healthy to be in fear because everyone is threatened, "the world is not a safe place," and maniacs can and will attack fruit juice, school lunches in Iowa, chicken nuggets or tubs of cafeteria spaghetti.

The enemy will also use nuclear weapons so keep looking over your shoulder for the bright flash.
Your children should then be trained to in the wearing of hazmat suits and the disinfecting of the contaminated. And there will never be enough money spent -- locally, regionally or nationally -- to bring peace of mind. Nothing is beyond the foe.

Now the thesis is a year old and it's the same old, same old. The original is still here. It generated a little interest on the basis of this nicely done summary.

And then everyone went back to business as usual. Pass this one around. Link to it. Maybe it could do some good.


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