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August 8, 2007 1:03 PM   Subscribe

The Freakonomics boys have migrated their popular blog to the New York Times. One of their first postings on this new home? Cool Ideas For Terror Attacks. Much lively and angry discussion ensues!
posted by william_boot (82 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nuke the site from orbit.
posted by ao4047 at 1:14 PM on August 8, 2007


I can't think of a better way in which to finally put paid to the stupid idea that if we just don't talk about these things, or we talk about things only when we're prepared for them, we can somehow forestall them.

The entire domestic security charade, at present, appears to be "if we simply don't talk about a specific type of attack, it won't happen", when anyone with a brain larger than a marble knows that the only way to even come close to preparing for an unknown is by vigorously discussing possibilities and keeping an open mind.

I haven't even read the comments or the article yet, and I can already see the comments in my mind: ranting, spittle-flecked screeds about how articles like this and discussions like this are emboldening America's enemies. And how it's much better for everyone to keep their mouths shut and do as they're told.
posted by scrump at 1:15 PM on August 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Hmmm...That's been pretty much exactly my "if I were doing it" idea for awhile. One or two gunmen in lots of places, shopping malls, restaurants, Main St....anywhere. Have a semi-coordinated attack. Shatter the illusion that anyone is safe anywhere at any time. That's pretty much terror in a nutshell, and it wouldn't cost much or take a lot to pull off.
posted by rollbiz at 1:16 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would have felt better about the article had the author mentioned the potential benefit of such a thought exercise upfront. Otherwise it just reads like the diary of an angst-ridden teenage boy.
posted by desjardins at 1:17 PM on August 8, 2007


I'm sure O'Reilly or some Townhall.com asshat columnists are going to have a field day with this one.

But yeah, I've always wondered why we promote close-minded squares to be the counter-terrorism experts, when what you need are people that think creatively, and think like criminals. *cough*

After all, the Columbine kids Harris and Klebold had plans after shooting up the school to hijack a plane and crash it into New York City. Then Condoleeza Rice had the audacity to claim that nobody could have ever predicted it.
posted by chlorus at 1:22 PM on August 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


i wish leavitt would have explored this a little further. it's telling that there haven't been attacks such as the one he identifies -- why is it, exactly? given the incredible array of options that would fuck our shit up in this country, why haven't they happened? law enforcement alone does not explain it. the barrier to entry for all manner of damaging attacks is minimal (coordinated subway bombs, snipers, etc. there are many plots that could be carried off very easily and be just as damaging or disruptive to us (mainly because of our certain overreaction) as 9/11 was).

my supposition is that the al qaeda threat has always been extremely overblown, as much as that can be said for an entity that managed to kill 3000 americans in one day. but if al qaeda was as dangerous and competent and entrenched an organization as it has been reputed to be, what could possibly explain their continuing failure to follow up in their attacks on this country?
posted by Hat Maui at 1:22 PM on August 8, 2007 [8 favorites]


I think the description of this should have been "Freakonomics boys join, immediately troll the New York Times." Whatever you think of the basic premise you've got to know it's going to be a shit storm.

Frankly, I think the premise is basically mental masturbation, armchair speculation of the most pointless sort, but getting up in arms about it is also ridiculous: mass sniper rampage? I've thought about that (and I don't spend much of my time contemplating potential terrorist plots), of course "the terrorists" have thought about it, whoever is in charge of thinking about what terrorists might think about has thought of it. Whatever has prevented it thus far, it is not that it wasn't thought of yet.
posted by nanojath at 1:25 PM on August 8, 2007



Can you talk about economics?

— Posted by c

Comedy gold!
posted by felix betachat at 1:26 PM on August 8, 2007


I don't think his sniper idea would really be all that effective after a while. I think the people would get caught up in roadblocks for one thing. Like, the DC snipers were caught in roadblocks 6 times or so before the police noticed. But out of state plates would be noticed right away, etc. You would need a pretty big support operation to make it work. Someone to line up a car, provide a new identity, etc.

But yeah it would probably scare people for a while.
posted by delmoi at 1:28 PM on August 8, 2007


This is no different than open source homeland security, which was all over slashdot, &c on 9/12/2001.

It's a great idea but apparently had no legs.
posted by bukvich at 1:28 PM on August 8, 2007


I think Levitt fails to understand the motivation behind the al Qaeda attacks. They are not designed to scare us, but to glorify al Qaeda in the Islamic world, to show that Islam is not impotent in its battles. They are show and the audience is Islamic. The attacks give legitimacy to the organization and over reaction in retaliation helps their recruiting. The bigger the attack the bigger the effect. A bunch of pot shots in the heartland may scare the people here but won't play big in the Islamic world.
posted by caddis at 1:28 PM on August 8, 2007 [17 favorites]


what could possibly explain their continuing failure to follow up in their attacks on this country?

DEAR LEADER'S VIGILANCE AND PUISSANCE!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:28 PM on August 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Whatever it was, Id do it in Kansas. Or small town Indiana. Redstaters out in Bumfuckville would riot, right wingers on Fox would literally implode on live TV and Bush would probably invade Turkmenistan and Iran in response.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:28 PM on August 8, 2007


Oh, everyone in posting in this thread is now on a government watchlist, you're phone calls are being monitored. And it's 100% legal.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:29 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


such statements border on treason. If such random acts of violence do occur it is likely that a form
of martial law would go into effect and such irresponsible statements even on the internet may be grounds for arrest.

— Posted by earl nielsen


LOL
posted by cmonkey at 1:29 PM on August 8, 2007


I think caddis's interpretation is pretty much right. Blowing up landmark building which happens to be a major economic seat of power = dramatic. Shooting mall shoppers = mickey mouse.
posted by anthill at 1:36 PM on August 8, 2007


Also, if I were a terrorist, I'd hack into electronic voting machines and rig it so that Ron Paul wins the election. That'd be shit-your-pants terrifying.
posted by cmonkey at 1:37 PM on August 8, 2007


If you could rig it so that a Ron Paul/ Dennis Kusinich platfom wins you could have one of those matter/anti-matter explosions that would rip America right out of the time/space continuum!
posted by Pollomacho at 1:42 PM on August 8, 2007 [5 favorites]


anthill,
I don't think his distinction was between "big time" and "mickey mouse", but rather about what the actual goals of the organizations are. If they really were just aiming to cause the most panic and harm as efficiently as possible, then large numbers of small actions would be the best strategy, as they are the easiest to plan and execute, the hardest to stop and predict, and have the maximum psychological impact. caddis was saying that, contrary to what many are led to believe by the news and the government, the real goal of these organizations is to enhance their own credibility back home, and so this drives the desire to do the big, flashy, less efficient/effective attacks. It's an interesting distinction that I think many people fail to make.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:42 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, if their true goal was to cow Americ into submission to their will they'd start hitting malls like Hamas does in Israel. They don't, rather, they go for the big, spectacular hits that give them the most air play back home.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:45 PM on August 8, 2007


Terror questions aside, that "we're hosted by NYT now" was the grand revelation they've been hinting at for the last couple days was a real anticlimax this morning. Of all the interesting directions the Steves could have been taking the site in...that? It's like Steve Jobs announcing the iBallpoint.
posted by cortex at 1:46 PM on August 8, 2007


One of the things that the DC snipers made me realize pretty strongly – everyone thought it was such serious business, and then it turned out it was some nut and a kid – was that society basically hangs on the very thin threads of hoping that everyone else will be nice and not kill you.

Because they can. People have cars. They could snap and run into you head-on, or run you over on the sidewalk, or fill them with fertilizer and whatever and blow them up. Some people have guns. More people have knives. You're walking past someone on the street ... they could shoot you. They could stab you.

They don't, of course, but anyone could. There's just one fragile pane of glass between civil order and civil chaos.

I think part of the TSA no-liquids thing is that most people never want to think about the fact that, basically, anyone could kill them at any time, so if you fixate on a couple of things, like box cutters and guys lighting their shoes on fire, you can take care of them enough that you can convince yourself to stop worrying.

Personally I don't actually go around thinking everyone's going to kill me. My point, though, is that if you take terrorism to its logical extreme, anything could happen at any time and everything must be locked down indefinitely. Hence metal detectors at American schools, I guess.

Since (I am assuming) we don't want to impose martial law for the rest of time, and freedom is enjoyable, I think there needs to be some kind of public coming-to-terms with the fact that it has to be dealt with from the bottom up, e.g., people need to be intelligent and critically-minded and have opportunities to express their dissent, and be generally happy enough that they don't want to kill other people.

Since, pretty much, if you get to the point where you would kill someone, you will.
posted by blacklite at 1:47 PM on August 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


this iBallpoint...does it [have an accelerometer]?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:50 PM on August 8, 2007


If I were a terrorist, I'd cleverly impersonate an influential, Chicago-school economist and then adopt a breezy, iconoclastic style to sell people on giving in to their most venial and self-serving instincts. After writing a few controversial articles, including one that seemed to advocate genocidal eugenics, I'd pen a bestseller and parlay that into a gig at a major newspaper.

I'm pretty sure civilization would collapse shortly thereafter.
posted by felix betachat at 1:51 PM on August 8, 2007 [6 favorites]


One of the things that's always seemed most obvious to me is to play on the pretensions of being able to do anything about it. Create some fear about attacking a subway system, but actually attack the queues of people waiting to get bags searched that result. It's the first thing that pops into my head the moment anyone suggests doing those kinds of searches. All they do is create queues, and queues are large numbers of squishy bodies confined to a more cost effective blast radius.
posted by vbfg at 1:51 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


OMG! I have to have an iBallpoint! When is the release date? I can't find out anything about it. I want one so bad!
posted by ND¢ at 1:54 PM on August 8, 2007


I think Leavitt's talking about general terrorism, not necessarily the islamic flavor. Islamic terrorists are still trying to be effective in leveraging a tiny number of people to accomplish the goal of convincing the population that they are widespread and organized despite the fact that they are not. Likewise, our leaders are trying to inflate a tiny threat to gain a grip on power.

Someone should just link to this article and be done with it.


I'm hoping part II will be how to effectively counter acts of terrorism. The first response to a terrorist attack should be to remove the current crop of leaders from power. It's the only way to ensure that leaders don't benefit from it, and leaders to try to curtail rights and liberties in response to terrorism should be hung for high treason.
posted by mullingitover at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


Yep, fully agree with both caddis and blacklite. Interesting to note that you can still buy two bottles of duty free vodka, bring them on the plane, smash them together, and have a lot more pokey weapons than a pair of nail clippers.

Bruce Schneier had a fun movie plot competition for security red herrings. I thought he'd started a sequel, but I can't find a link to it... Something about a movie plot that would knee-jerk the TSA into banning something very common from aircraft. Like pants.
posted by anthill at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2007


Today might be the day I fscked up my spring holiday to the US btw. I was googling a law in a Californian town that concerned a $500 fine for detonating a nuclear device within the city limits earlier, and now this. Hmmm.
posted by vbfg at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2007


Hasn't Bruce Schneier done a couple rounds of "write the best terrorist attack scenario, win a prize" contests? I don't see people getting all up-in-arms over that..
posted by mrbill at 1:56 PM on August 8, 2007


Ah, here it is. The winner: Butterflies and beverages; water must be banned.
posted by anthill at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2007


Ah, sorry for the double post - but here's Schneier's Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner and Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest.
posted by mrbill at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2007


What's the next in-fashion school of economics after the Chicago one?
posted by ao4047 at 2:00 PM on August 8, 2007


Jinx, mrbill - but I posted the winner above! ;)

The gist: The threat of sodium beltbuckles or other explosively reactive metals being used prompt all forms of water to be banned from aircraft.
posted by anthill at 2:05 PM on August 8, 2007


anthill,
Huh, I didn't know you could bring vodka on the plane. Since the linked article says you can now bring lighters on, the plan is obvious: Molotovs. All someone has to do is go to the bathroom with the vodka and lighter, and you can put one together in seconds. It does seem odd that they would allow a fire-causing device like a lighter despite banning everything else...
posted by Sangermaine at 2:06 PM on August 8, 2007


I don't think that there is much value to this game other than as a fun mental exercise, but if I was the leader of a terrorist organization, the goal of which was to terrify the most number of people possible, then I would take twenty waterproof roadside bombs and drop them down in the hole where they store gasoline at twenty gas stations all over the country. I would have them on a timer to go off at 5:30pm on a weekday when people are gassing up on their way home. I would do it again at 8:30am four days later. That would terrify the shit out of everybody.

Gasoline blows up right? Don't give me some crap about oxygen or safety precautions that I don't know about or anything like that. I don't shit all over your terrorism plans.
posted by ND¢ at 2:07 PM on August 8, 2007


That movie-plot contest is pretty impressive.

I was just about to say, though, for al-Qaeda specifically, I think they're looking for simple, straightforward, audacious actions against the whole of American culture, to glorify their cause, and rend what they see as society of total self-indulgence and immorality.

So, I don't know. Hollywood next?
posted by blacklite at 2:12 PM on August 8, 2007


sangermaine, yep, right here... they've tried to stop you 'tampering' with them, but a glass bottle of vodka don't need much tampering with. But if you ban that, I know a man who can kill... with his bare hands.... muahahahahahaha.
posted by anthill at 2:14 PM on August 8, 2007


It does seem odd that they would allow a fire-causing device like a lighter despite banning everything else...

Even while lighters were banned, you could bring several books of matches on board. So this doesn't change much of anything except make it more convenient for travellers that smoke.
posted by cmonkey at 2:17 PM on August 8, 2007


Create some fear about attacking a subway system, but actually attack the queues of people waiting to get bags searched that result. --vbfg

ZOMG!!! We need to start searching people before they get to the search queues!!!
posted by Bugg at 2:24 PM on August 8, 2007


If I were a terrorist, I'd steal a couple of presidential elections, get embroiled in an unwinnable war overseas, and use my executive power to establish security systems that failed to prevent further terrorist attacks while simultaneously making it easier to keep a populace constantly goaded by fears. I'd probably work on reducing or eliminating their civil liberties while branding everyone who opposed me a traitor, too.
posted by klangklangston at 2:30 PM on August 8, 2007 [8 favorites]


Well random sniping would be almost completely useless as caddis points out. It's the sort of low-level violence that fades off in the background very quickly.

Anyways there's almost certainly no point to trying to stage major attacks inside the US at this point. With plenty of high value targets overseas and, well, Bush repeatedly supplying such great PR al Qaeda's job is essentially doing itself. There's still plenty of dividends to reap from 9/11 so why risk it? But this confirms that spectacular high risk/reward attacks are the way to go. I think the next optimal target would be a large convention of an explicitly non-political group of something like, say, the Girl Scouts or perhaps the Catholic Senior Bowling League. Something that really drives home the fact that they just don't the hate the government, they hate all Americans.
posted by nixerman at 2:32 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Security-Theater Cameras Coming to New York
posted by homunculus at 2:40 PM on August 8, 2007


nixerman writes "I think the next optimal target would be a large convention of an explicitly non-political group of something like, say, the Girl Scouts or perhaps the Catholic Senior Bowling League. Something that really drives home the fact that they just don't the hate the government, they hate all Americans."

They do just hate the government. As bin Laden himself put it, if they hated freedom, they'd go bomb Sweden or something. The US != freedom. Sure, they've killed a number of civilians, but nowhere near the number of innocents the US has slaughtered. One could argue their line of reasoning is identical to the US': "You have to break a few eggs to make an omlette."

But yeah, you're right, Bush is doing a fine job for them and they really just need to sit tight. Bush is the best thing that ever happened to them, and vice versa.
posted by mullingitover at 2:50 PM on August 8, 2007


IANAMB*, but would it really be that hard to replicate the Oklahoma City U-Haul bomb? I've always had a feeling that that would be the form of the next attack.

* I Am Not a Mad Bomber
posted by bardic at 2:53 PM on August 8, 2007


(with odds being 50-50 as to whether it was done by a Muslim fanatic or a Christian/White Supremacist one)
posted by bardic at 2:55 PM on August 8, 2007


mullingitover writes "The first response to a terrorist attack should be to remove the current crop of leaders from power. It's the only way to ensure that leaders don't benefit from it, and leaders to try to curtail rights and liberties in response to terrorism should be hung for high treason."

Wouldn't that just encourage political opponents of whoever the current leaders might be to execute an attack?
posted by mr_roboto at 3:06 PM on August 8, 2007


The Freakonomics blog mentions how easy it would be to stage a variety of terror attacks in the United States. This is not a cause for concern. Rather, people should feel reassured that, despite the limitless opportunities for carnage, there are very, very few "terrorist" attacks. The risks are quite low, and are merely being exploited by a government that seek to roll back democratic freedoms and civil society.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:07 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


We should probably be really thankful that they are interested in the high profile targets, because it would be a lot easier for them to randomly set off some car sized bombs at malls throughout the midwest and sow some real terror.

For my money, that would generate a lot more fear than snipers. And with the paranoia that has been running loose our country since 2001, you would have martial law in no time; people would be throwing their civil liberties at the government just to be told it would keep them slightly safer.

So yeah, as crazy as it sounds, I'm really quite grateful that the people who would do us harm have egos that need to be fed.
posted by quin at 3:24 PM on August 8, 2007


One of the things that the DC snipers made me realize pretty strongly – everyone thought it was such serious business, and then it turned out it was some nut and a kid – was that society basically hangs on the very thin threads of hoping that everyone else will be nice and not kill you.

Because they can. People have cars. They could snap and run into you head-on, or run you over on the sidewalk, or fill them with fertilizer and whatever and blow them up. Some people have guns. More people have knives. You're walking past someone on the street ... they could shoot you. They could stab you.

They don't, of course, but anyone could. There's just one fragile pane of glass between civil order and civil chaos.


Well, yeah, that's kind of it. These three paragraphs should be taught in schools to help kids understand what society is really all about -- yet at the same time, people are afraid to say it out loud, because they think someone, somewhere will hear it and think "yeah, you know what? I CAN!" and start killing.

Economically speaking, actually, there IS at least a small number of people out there who are so close to killing (opportunity-cost-wise) that these words WOULD tip them over. Hmm.
posted by davejay at 3:31 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


One or two gunmen in lots of places, shopping malls, restaurants, Main St....anywhere. Have a semi-coordinated attack. Shatter the illusion that anyone is safe anywhere at any time. That's pretty much terror in a nutshell, and it wouldn't cost much or take a lot to pull off.

This is so patently obvious that the fact that this HASN'T happened already MUST mean that the threat is damn near nil. Right?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:32 PM on August 8, 2007


At the risk of getting a knock on the door from the FBI, I've also wondered by Al-Qaeda doesn't think (or isn't already thinking) about mid-sized American cities. They obviously want the symbolic power of hitting NYC or LA or DC, but they could probably do plenty of damage, if not more, in places with less visibility (and hence, security) in your Houstons and Miamis and Indianapolis's.

Kind of what quin just said.
posted by bardic at 3:33 PM on August 8, 2007


It's like Steve Jobs announcing the iBallpoint.

when did he announce this? holy shit, i wonder what it'll look like, that'll be totally awesome. i can't wait to see how apple's simplicity of design revolutionizes the pen. long overdue, imho.
posted by andywolf at 3:41 PM on August 8, 2007


quin writes "because it would be a lot easier for them to randomly set off some car sized bombs at malls throughout the midwest and sow some real terror. "

Malls are a bad bet. They have security, such that it is, cameras, poor access and the densest areas are hard to drive to. I'd pick elementry schools and remote control cars. In most cases you can drive right up to the school. They are of frame construction instead of steel and concrete. Occupant density is high right next to where you can drive cars. Security is low. They are widely distributed, my town probably has 10 times as many elementary schools as it does large malls.

Plus you get the OMG! Think of the children! multiplier. Parents would pull their kids out of school, especially if you spread the attacks out over a few days. People either have to stay home, take their kids with them to work or find emergency care. Massive amounts of effort would be wasted trying to protect every elementary school in the nation. A couple cycles of that and then transfer to high schools. Throw in a few non pattern targets: Libraries, pools, that kind of thing.
posted by Mitheral at 4:25 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


If I were a terrorist, I would rent a couple of trucks/moving vans (I'm thinking around 8) and load them up completely with explosive material. I'd park them on the highest level of the underground parking lot of the biggest building around and have them all go off at the same time. That would look pretty cool from the outside.

I'm also thinking the idea with having random shooters across the country isn't very good, because how would anyone differentiate that from any other day with a bit of a higher average of shootings?
posted by alona at 4:28 PM on August 8, 2007


I always maintained that the next big AQ hit would be in several tiny little towns across the country at once. If you really want to terrorise the populace, demonstrate that you can hit people even when they aren't in the big cities. Demonstrate that you're willing to kill even when you're only getting a smaller bodycount. While smaller bodycounts don't sell quite as well, annihilating the illusion of "I live in a small town, terrorists will never bother me" would be a tremendous victory.

...of course, AQ's target audience isn't Americans, so.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:28 PM on August 8, 2007


Or shit, just raise the dead. Zombies oughta do the trick.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2007


I always thought stealing a bunch of cats, lighting them on fire and releasing them throughout western forests and fields would be particularly effective.
posted by rotifer at 4:33 PM on August 8, 2007


Malls are a bad bet.

I dunno. Pretty vulnerable soft target. Attacking malls would have tremendous fall out. You bring the wheels of commerce to a crawl.

You wouldn't need bombs at first. All you need to do is call in bomb threats. Like every fucking day. Maybe some arson. Then do the sniper thing. Then a small bomb or two. The important bit would be coordinating it across several cities simultaneously and be relentless. The terrorists would not expose them selves to risk at all. People would freak out.

This was the play book in Bosnia and was very effective in shutting down commerce and economic activity. A simple cheap tactic that put entire regions under siege.

People forget that groups like AQ have this odd Arab machismo about their attacks. Martyrdom, demonstration, and being very theatrical is a big part of it all. You get that with bombs and suicide attacks. Somebody mentioned it above it's more about PR than effect (Though on 9/11 they came god damned close to serious catastrophic effect if they would have hit the capital).

The Chechen siege of the Beslan School, while horrific, had the opposite effect they intended. They lost a great deal of sympathy for the cause with that nightmare. In fact the Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov immediately distanced himself from the attack. (though it COULD have been a Russian intelligence operation as some have claimed since it was used to justify rather extreme security measures by Putin).
posted by tkchrist at 4:56 PM on August 8, 2007


alona writes "I'm also thinking the idea with having random shooters across the country isn't very good, because how would anyone differentiate that from any other day with a bit of a higher average of shootings?"

Presumably because middle-class white people would be dying. That was how the DC snipers got everyone all worked up, wasn't it?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:00 PM on August 8, 2007


This is a pretty naive idea. The psychology of a terrorist is someone who is going to die for the cause. Their big coming out party better be huge and dramatic. Blowing up airliners and buildings dramatic. Not shooting a random GAP shopper. Even the terrorists aren't that commited. Essentially, they only get one chance to do their awful thing because either they die doing it or they get caught before they can do too much more damage. Wasting that chance shooting tourists wont appeal to the holy warriors.

There's little appeal of being known as the "GAP killer." Lets not ignore the vanity of terrorism.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:07 PM on August 8, 2007


I'd park them on the highest level of the underground parking lot of the biggest building around and have them all go off at the same time

moving vans in parking garages? where are you parking, gulliver? because here in lilliput 90% of garages have clearances less than 10'.
posted by Hat Maui at 5:41 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


rotifer: Did you think up that by yourself, or did you happen to read Mike Davis's "Planet of Slums"? Because there it's described to be the preferred method of slum landowners who want to clear land for construction, in, I don't remember where, somewhere in Southeast Asia, I think. They prefer rats and dogs, apparently, because cats burn out too fast. Douse them in gasoline, set them on fire, and let them run through the slums.

Highly recommended book in general, although not particularly relevant to the topic at hand.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:38 PM on August 8, 2007


If I were a terrorist, I would rent a couple of trucks/moving vans (I'm thinking around 8) and load them up completely with explosive material. I'd park them on the highest level of the underground parking lot of the biggest building around and have them all go off at the same time. That would look pretty cool from the outside.

I take it you've never seen Fight Club. The vans, ideally, would be parked at the bottom of the garages, near the support beams, so that the explosion destabilizes whatever parts of the structure it doesn't disintegrate in the blast. This is what the terrorists tried the first time they attacked the World Trade as well.
posted by ninjew at 6:48 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


moving vans in parking garages? where are you parking, gulliver? because here in lilliput 90% of garages have clearances less than 10'.

And even if they fit, I can guarantee that if you rolled up to the entrance of just about any garage under a corporate facility in a large commercial vehicle either unrecognized by the staff or without proof of some sort of very plausible appointment, you'll be introducing yourself to the host city's SWAT team before the kiosk even spits out your little ticket.
posted by jalexei at 6:53 PM on August 8, 2007


Also enjoyed how some of comments touched on standard book/movie scenarios that don't quite stand up real life scrutiny.

Release a virus with a high mortality rate that spreads easily? One of those atributes generally precludes the other, which is of course why nearly everyone gets colds but very few come down with, say, ebola.

Poison the water supply? A several million/billion gallon reservoir is going to do a pretty good job of diluting even the most toxic of substances, so you'd probably need a few tanker trucks of something that's probably hard enough to find in medecine dropper doses.

My 2 cents: Go north of NYC and destroy/disable the aquifer that feeds water to the city - There was a New Yorker article a few years ago about how vulnerable and ancient New York's water infrastructure is that still gives me the shivers.
posted by jalexei at 7:16 PM on August 8, 2007


Joakim Ziegler writes "They prefer rats and dogs, apparently, because cats burn out too fast. Douse them in gasoline, set them on fire, and let them run through the slums."

In the Bible, Samson preferred foxes. Which just proves the Bible is sick, because who in their right mind sets sexy women on fire?
posted by mullingitover at 7:16 PM on August 8, 2007


jalexei writes "Poison the water supply? A several million/billion gallon reservoir is going to do a pretty good job of diluting even the most toxic of substances, so you'd probably need a few tanker trucks of something that's probably hard enough to find in medecine dropper doses."

Botulinum toxin
would do the trick easily:
It is possibly the most acutely toxic substance known, with a median lethal dose of about 1 ng/kg[1], meaning that a few hundred grams could theoretically kill every human on earth (for perspective, the rat poison strychnine, often described as highly toxic, has an LD50 of 1,000,000 ng/kg, and it would take four hundred tons to kill every human).
Yep, that's ng/kg. Fortunately, it's some exotic bacteria that's really hard to get. Oh wait...
It is also remarkably easy to come by: Clostridium spores are found in soil practically all over the earth.
posted by mullingitover at 7:22 PM on August 8, 2007


A chemical plant would be very dramatic and awfuly easy.
posted by homunculus at 7:53 PM on August 8, 2007


I thought ricin was even easier to come by than botulinum.

Waiting for a hot dry summer and planting timed incendiaries all over the US would probably have a brutal toll in lives and dollars, but there wouldn't be the suicide mission aspect.

Infrastructure attacks on large power transformers are one of the things I worry about, as I've heard they take 2 years or so to order replacements.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:07 PM on August 8, 2007


"My 2 cents: Go north of NYC and destroy/disable the aquifer that feeds water to the city - There was a New Yorker article a few years ago about how vulnerable and ancient New York's water infrastructure is that still gives me the shivers."

Doubt it. You'd cause a huge inconvenience and massive repair or replacement operations, but no one would die thanks to bottled water. You might mess up New York for a while, but it lacks the spectacular deaths.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:54 PM on August 8, 2007


alona writes "I'm also thinking the idea with having random shooters across the country isn't very good, because how would anyone differentiate that from any other day with a bit of a higher average of shootings?"

This is easy. Silver plate your bullets and alert the authorities. They'll be on the look out for the silver plated bullets. It'll help if all your shooters use the same bullets, say .300 Winchester Magnums from a specific manufacturer.
posted by Mitheral at 8:56 PM on August 8, 2007


Does the TSA still let Chuck Norris on airplanes anymore?
posted by HyperBlue at 9:29 PM on August 8, 2007


Not US-based, but I'd plant a roadside bomb on the route of the Tour de France and remotely detonate it, wiping out the peloton. The Tour has hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of undefended and undefendable public exposure, and is broadcast to a global audience, making it almost 100% certain the explosion would be captured on camera and transmitted around the world.

Nobody could be that evil, of course. It's a cycling race.
posted by Ritchie at 9:30 PM on August 8, 2007


Paint children's toys with lead paint or add something to pet food to make animals die. Kill people by adding diethylene glycol to cough syrup.

Oh wait.....
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 9:39 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nobody could be that evil, of course.

You underestimate humans, they do evil really, really well.

And the more I think about it, the more I think Mitheral had it right upthread; I still think that malls might be viable, but targeting schools would really brilliant, and forcing the parent to stay home is a particularly elegant move.

I don't like thinking this way, but knowing about where we are weak, whatever form future attacks take, I'm betting that the interstates and shipping containers on semis will probably play a part. It's a huge gaping hole in our security, and one that can freely move wherever it wants without anyone batting an eye.

[clever segue from one thought process to another goes here.]

The trick to using terrorism effectively is to make your target believe that they and their loved ones are constantly at risk.

And as such, the trick to 'beating terrorism' (where this means that it's a tactic that is no longer effective) is for everyone to understand that there is really virtually no chance that they will ever be directly harmed by terrorism.

There will be more terrorism used in the United States. It may be foreign, it may be domestic, but it will happen. The best strategy to overcome it is just to understand the numbers; over the long haul, sharks, lightning, and bees are far more dangerous to the average American than terrorism.
posted by quin at 10:01 PM on August 8, 2007


G. Gordon Libby wrote a very detailed article for Omni back in 1989 which described relatively simple ways to cause enormous damage to the US, including bringing down the power grids in a rather long-lasting way. His recipe for mayhem was so comprehensive, I'm rather surprised no one has ever tried it.

Then there's also Richard Clarke's more recent set of hypothetical terror attacks. He mentioned the malls but also mentioned the obvious time for those attacks: during the crucial Xmas season.

My favorite for sheer creativity is the idea of destroying the earthen dam at Ft. Peck, Montana, causing a domino effect along the western rivers, destroying several dams along the way, and innundating cities as the water travels towards the Mississippi and, ultimately, the Gulf.
posted by pandaharma at 10:04 PM on August 8, 2007


chlorus wrote: After all, the Columbine kids Harris and Klebold had plans after shooting up the school to hijack a plane and crash it into New York City. Then Condoleeza Rice had the audacity to claim that nobody could have ever predicted it.

And a pissed off FedEx employee actually tried to crash one of their jets into FedEx's headquarters in 1994. Well beyond the planning stage, that.
posted by wierdo at 11:04 PM on August 8, 2007


How about ramming the space shuttle with a blimp?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:15 AM on August 9, 2007


I think Levitt fails to understand the motivation behind the al Qaeda attacks. They are not designed to scare us, but to glorify al Qaeda in the Islamic world, to show that Islam is not impotent in its battles. They are show and the audience is Islamic. The attacks give legitimacy to the organization and over reaction in retaliation helps their recruiting. The bigger the attack the bigger the effect. A bunch of pot shots in the heartland may scare the people here but won't play big in the Islamic world.
Well, that's the best explanation I've heard so far on why we haven't seen any of these (frankly pretty obvious) plans -- any of which would be more disruptive than attacking something like the WTC or even the Pentagon (I mean, do you really think the military hasn't planned for a decapitation strike?) -- and it's certainly more compelling than the "Islamic terrorists just don't understand American society" line that's being spouted by folks in the NYT article comments.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:36 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sorry to recycle my own posts here, but the 9/11 attack does not seem so unprecedented when you realize it's a synthesis of two tactics that have been used by terrorists for decades: the airplane hijacking and the car bomb.

I can imagine the Al Qaeda strategy sessions:

Bin Laden: Listen, people! I brought you here, because you guys knew how to take jihad outside the box. I want some paradigm-stretching here, people!

Random Al Qaeda Guy #1: Check it! How 'bout we do a car bomb...

Random Al Qaeda Guy #2: It's been done! Worst. Idea. Ever.

Random Al Qaeda Guy #1: Dude, let me finish. How 'bout we do a car bomb, but with a plane?

Bin Laden: Wow, you're just blowing my mind! Pass the hookah.
posted by jonp72 at 3:30 PM on August 9, 2007


Haha, jonp72, did you read the comic I linked or did you come up with that conversation on your own?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:44 PM on August 10, 2007


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