Epaminondas and the Effectiveness of Domestic Security Efforts
Nicholas Johnson
Comments 7:48 and 7:49 Entered in the
Western Behavioral Sciences Institute
International Leadership Forum
(an online, invitation-only exchange on topics including "Terrorism" and "Domestic Security")


7:48) 25-DEC-2001 10:17 Nicholas Johnson

I have a sense that our increased effort at security measures must be having some positive result in reducing the likelihood of "terrorism."
 
And I recognize the difficulty of documenting what has not happened.
 
But have any of you seen any reports/guesses/estimates of how much good has come from what we're doing?
 
Consider:
 
1. Mary (my wife, Mary Vasey) told me the story of a friend of hers, in the 1960s, watching a passenger get on a plane with a hunting rifle which he put in the overhead bin. Because her friend was interested in guns, during the course of the flight he went back, introduced himself, and the two of them took the gun apart and inspected and admired it. Neither flight attendants nor other passengers expressed any concern.
 
2. "Locking the barn door after the horse is stolen." Our security measures always seem to be addressing the last threat, rather than the next. Maybe that's inevitable.

(a) We focus on the hyjacking of planes by those who want to live and use the planes for transportation. This leaves us unprepared for those who want to die and use planes as weapons of destruction.

(b) We screen passengers, and their carry-on luggage, and then discover that we'd better screen the checked luggage as well.

(c) We screen passengers through metal detectors to find guns and knives, and then discover that cardboard box openers are weapons.

(d) Now we confiscate nail clippers and tweezers, and are next confronted with human teeth as a weapon (the choice of the guy with bombs in his shoes to attack the flight attendant). How do you screen for people likely to bite their opponents? Do we forbid Mike Tyson to fly?

(e) We screen for metal bombs, and let a guy on a plane with plastic bombs in both shoes.

3. I'm reminded of the children's story of Epaminondas (Sara Cone Bryant, Epaminondas and his Auntie. If you didn't hear it as a child, it's available on the Internet at http://www.sterlingtimes.org/epaminondas.htm Politically incorrect by today's standards, change the dialect and it seems applicable to our topic.)
 
Epaminondas you'll recall (or discover) is always one item behind in its proper treatment: how to carry cake, butter, puppy, bread. He learns each lesson well, but only after the fact. He then applies the lesson to the next task -- for which it is wholly inappropriate.
 
4. My late mother suffered with arthritis. I would sometimes ask her whether a new medicine was helping. Her response: "How would I know?" (That is, how could I know how I would have felt without it?)
 
5. In a benefit-cost analysis, while the benefits of our anti-terrorism efforts may be beyond our ability to know, the costs are relatively easily calculated, and enormous: for example, payroll and overtime for additional security personnel, newly purchased technology, or the value of the time of those passengers who spend more time in airports. We are all willing to pay these costs. Any reduction in risk seems worth it. (And for anyone thinking of objecting, the social pressure to comply, to "be American" and "patriotic," is enormous.) This may well be rational "risk assessment" thinking. That is, while the risk of any given terrorist act we can imagine occurring is very small, the consequences if it were to occur are very large.
 
Which brings me (finally!) to my question/s:
 Is it possible to increase (meaningfully) our "domestic security" with measures directed (after the fact) to the consequences, rather than the causes, of terrorism?
Are there any ways of measuring the extent to which we have in fact increased our security with what we have done so far?
 
Is there any kind of education, or orientation, or training in "thinking outside the box," that might have enabled Epaminondas -- and our security and law enforcement personnel -- to anticipate reasonably likely risks before they occur?


7:49) 26-DEC-2001 07:53 Nicholas Johnson

The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has, once again, made a contribution to our discussion of domestic security with this morning's [December 26] column, "Naked Air." [http://www.nytimes.com]

Remember Jonathan Swift's suggestion that perhaps we might rid ourselves of the problem of children in poverty by eating them? In similar spirit, Friedman suggests that, given the variety (and unpredictability) of possible threats in the air, perhaps the only true airline security would be to require everyone to fly naked. He concludes:

"So there you have our dilemma: Either we become less open as a society, or the world to which we are now so connected has to become more controlled by us and by others or we simply learn to live with much higher levels of risk than we've ever been used to before.

"Or, we all fly naked."

It may be the wrong season to be making such a suggestion -- at least at the latitude at which I live -- but I did think it expanded nicely on the questions I was raising yesterday in my last comment.