Friday, July 08, 2005

The Blame Game

I agree with Billmon and Kevin Drum that there's nothing to be gained for anyone by abusing the deaths of at least 50 people nor putting salt on the wounds of the more than a thousand injured in yesterday's attacks.

Bloodthirsty conservatives are claiming that Britain will come back stronger and more vigorously in favor of the Iraq war, others will insist that this attack disproves the flypaper hypothesis.

While I think the flypaper idea was always absurd, I don't think that's the relevant issue. There's a much more serious issue that gets ignored when we immediately head to our respective corners. Let me explain.

I noted that we went to code orange yesterday. A commenter noted that only Mass Transit went to code orange, everything else is still at yellow. Now, given that new information, how will your behavior change? How will the behavior of your local bus company change? How will any form of mass transit in your neighborhood change?

You don't know. The Mass Transit orange alert gives you no new information. And I'll point out how it's actually harmful in a second.

New York is putting cops on every subway car, and putting bomb-sniffing dogs all over. Swell. But there's no way they maintain that police presence. This is a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The subways will always be vulnerable to attack, because you can't move that many people around in a convenient way and screen each person. And if they couldn't maintain that presence during the crime-ridden 80s, when subway crime was commonplace, they sure can't do it now, when nothing has happened on a New York subway.

As security expert Bruce Schneier points out:

I would also like to urge everyone not to get wrapped up in the particulars of the terrorist tactics. We need to resist the urge to react against the particulars of this particular terrorist plot, and to keep focused on the terrorists' goals. Spending billions to defend our trains and busses at the expense of other counterterrorist measures makes no sense. Terrorists are out to cause terror, and they don't care if they bomb trains, busses, shopping malls, theaters, stadiums, schools, markets, restaurants, discos, or any other collection of 100 people in a small space. There are simply too many targets to defend, and we need to think smarter than protecting the particular targets the terrorists attacked last week.

Smart counterterrorism focuses on the terrorists and their funding – stopping plots regardless of their targets – and emergency response that limits their damage.

This is, to put it delicately, dead on. We don't need to talk about duct taping our windows, or training the Lawrence police to respond to a bomb on the 'T' (not that I've heard anyone doing that).

Some commentary yesterday suggested that the British would be very good at dealing with the internal threat from al Qaeda because they had so successfully infiltrated the IRA. Let's just quietly think of the relevant differences between British police infiltrating Irish groups, and British police infiltrating Muslim groups. Could there be any cultural or societal similarities between Britain and Ireland that don't apply to British Muslims? I can think of a few.

But, effective training and counterterrorism planning did reduce the mortalities from this attack. While the Tube is ancient, it has effective ventilation and fire-suppression in place, so passengers could evacuate the trains. Emergency responders were well-trained from
the bad old days, so the injured received adequate care quickly. It's a sign of an effective response when so many people are wounded, but so few die.

I'm not convinced that this same sort of training and planning are going on around the country, and that's something I will fault Bush for. Sleeping through the warnings when no one has attacked yet is intolerable, but understandable. But we've been warned. We need a plan and we need to be training people to do what's necessary.

Now, Tony of Tony's KC says: "What the fuck do I care?" That's a question I can't answer. It's certainly true that the spread of meth and the developing gang war in KC's Eastside are more immediate concerns, but I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the threat to Kansas. If I were a terrorist, I'd be thinking about switching things up. Maybe NYC is too well defended these days, but most people don't live there. Frankly, a lot of people out here don't even care about NYC, or DC.

The bombings of discos in Israel are not just in the big cities. They also go after tourist towns and university towns, places where a bunch of telegenic kids hang out, places everyone has been to, or knows about.

If you wanted to scare America, you don't just attack the big, dangerous, coastal cities, you also hit the smaller cities and clubs in places like Lawrence.

Obviously, I'm not endorsing this, and I hope I'm very wrong. But if you don't think OBL is thinking about the Midwest, you're nuts.

We need a plan, and we need leadership. I'm waiting.