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Real and unreal threats

Via Schneier on Security: Peggy Noonan and Movie-Plot Terrorist Threats.

Peggy Noonan - Think Dark - Don't close those military bases. We may need them someday soon. Among the things we may face over the next decade, as we all know, is another terrorist attack on American soil. But let's imagine the next one has many targets, is brilliantly planned and coordinated. Imagine that there are already 100 serious terror cells in the U.S., two per state. The members of each cell have been coming over, many but not all crossing our borders, for five years. They're working jobs, living lives, quietly planning.

Imagine they're planning that on the same day in the not-so-distant future, they will set off nuclear suitcase bombs in six American cities, including Washington, which will take the heaviest hit. Hundreds of thousands may die; millions will be endangered. Lines will go down, and to make it worse the terrorists will at the same time execute the cyberattack of all cyberattacks, causing massive communications failure and confusion. There will be no electricity; switching and generating stations will also have been targeted. There will be no word from Washington; the extent of the national damage will be as unknown as the extent of local damage is clear. Daily living will become very difficult, and for months--food shortages, fuel shortages.

In the incredibly elaborate scenario offered, I suspect our much-maligned intelligence community would get clued in long before anything so complicated could be realised.

The amount of damage on a national scale from such an attack would be insignificant. Certainly six small nuclear devices would cause a lot of local damage. This is a big country, and as a percentage the portion of country's infrastructure damaged would probably be some fraction of 1%. Doubtless as a country we would be pissed (and likely go out and flatten another small country). Otherwise the vast majority of the country would be materially uneffected, and would see little change in day-to-day activity.

Along a similar line, we had a lesson a few years back when the Northridge earthquake occurred within the greater Los Angeles area. For decades California was dreading the "next big one", largely from memory of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. What should have been obvious is that earthquakes are local events. A big earthquake can pretty much wipe out a small city - and back in 1906 San Francisco was much smaller. A big or moderate earthquake can do a lot of damage when structures fall down easily (not building with earthquakes in mind). But when your city is spread out over a large area, and the structures are built to withstand earthquakes, the amount of damage from any one earthquake is limited.

Let's make it worse. On top of all that, on the day of the suitcase nukings, a half dozen designated cells will rise up and assassinate national, state and local leaders. There will be chaos, disorder, widespread want; law-enforcement personnel, or what remains of them, will be overwhelmed and outmatched.

Impossibly grim? No, just grim. Novelistic? Sure. But if you'd been a novelist on Sept. 10, 2001, and dreamed up a plot in which two huge skyscrapers were leveled, the Pentagon was hit, and the wife of the solicitor general of the United States was desperately phoning him from a commercial jet that had been turned into a missile, you would have been writing something wild and improbable that nonetheless happened a day later.

First, I think the airliner-as-bomb notion came up in one of our random late-night discussions in college (about 1980), and I believe was not original then. At the time I was surprised at the lack of imagination shown by "terrorists". A half-dozen imaginative physics/chemistry/engineering undergrads can come up with quite a few workable ideas for causing mayhem in a single night.

When twenty years later some terrorists flew a couple airliners into a couple skyscrapers, I found nothing "wild and improbable" about the event (more like "so it finally happened"). Clearly "terrorists" had become some combination of smarter, better organized, and/or better funded - which is certainly something worth focus.

Second, if we lost a few or several dozen politicians ... the government is not going to come crashing down. (Ignoring the obvious joke about fewer lawyers and politicians).

There is one area of concern she did not mention. Having the majority of the federal government is in a single city (Washington D.C.) made a lot of sense back in the horse-and-buggy days. Since the advent of nuclear weapons this represents a vulnerability. Since the widespread availability of the Internet, this vulnerability is inexcusable. A couple small nuclear devices could wipe out Congress, the President, and the headquarters of a several federal agencies. A single large nuclear device could obliterate the entire city. We should not locate more than a small fraction of the government in any single city.

And all this of course is just one scenario. The madman who runs North Korea could launch a missile attack on the United States tomorrow, etc. There are limitless possibilities for terrible trouble.

( [sigh] ... I wonder if Peggy could even find North Korea on a map. I'm guessing she hasn't a clue about the technologies involved ... )

The most likely result of North Korea launching an almost-untested missile toward the United States would be a few scared fish lost somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. It takes fancy technology and practice to make ballistic missiles accurate at intercontinental distances. The missile is more likely to hit somewhere in China than anywhere in the US. If by incredible luck the missile made it to US soil, odds are it would not land anywhere near large numbers of people. This is a very big country with lots of empty space.

So we are imagining America being forced to fight for its survival on its streets. How does this get us to base closings? On the day the big terrible thing happens there will of course be shock and chaos. People will feel the need for protection--for the feeling of protection and for the thing itself. They will want and need American troops nearby and they will want and need American military bases up and operating to help maintain some semblance of order. The very presence, the very fact of these bases will help in the big recovery.

That's what all these bases are going to be needed for. To help us survive a very bad time.

Our military has proven superbe in facing an external enemy in an armed conflict. This is a very different task than keeping civil order or rebuilding an economy (assuming the imagined damage really was significant). An organization excellent at one purpose may be nearly ineffective for an entirely different purpose. There is no reason to believe that more military bases would be helpful.

If you want to make a difference in some imaged future dark day - decentralize! Large centralized cities and organizations as potential targets give any enemy the greatest possible bang for the buck. Our most effective and simplest defense is simple distance - a resource we have in abundance. With efficient transport, communication, and the Internet, distance no longer presents any difficulty for government of economic organizations.