Devils and Dust

As I sit on the MBTA commuter rail train, hearing the n-th “watch out for terrorists” warning of the day, I’m reminded of the chorus from the title track to Bruce Springsteen’s new album (short ogg sample):

We’ve got God on my side,
We’re just trying to survive,
but if what you do to survive
kills the thing you love—

Fear’s a powerful thing,
it will turn your heart black you can trust.

(full lyrics)

The verse works so well, I think, because it doesn’t answer what happens “if what you do to survive kills the thing you love…” He just leaves it hanging.

I hope this song can reach some people who are otherwise completely captive to irrational fear. This album is going to be discussed later tonight on On Point (a locally produced National Public Radio show).

I also want to clarify a point I made yesterday about intelligently predicting attacks rather than blindly protecting against the identical attack that just happened. It’s not going to do much good, even if we figure out that the last attack was on a subway and the next one is planned for a shopping mall. So long as any security measure acts just to shift a planned attack to a new target, there’s no net benefit to society and a huge waste of resources. We need deterrent and preventive measures that reduce attacks overall, not ones that just protect particular targets.

A good example of this, described by Bruce Schneier, is The Club versus the LoJack system for protecting your car from theft. The Club makes the attacker move on to the next car that doesn’t have one; with LoJack, the attacker can’t tell whether the particular car he is looking at it is protected or not, and his risks increase considerably. Apparently LoJack has reduced car theft in Boston by 50 percent, while presumably The Club has had only a negligible effect if any. The Club might be effective if 100% of cars used it, but that is a lot less efficient than having LoJack selectively and secretly implanted in a sufficient number of cars to make a car thief think twice about his line of work.

I don’t know what the national security equivalent is of LoJack, but I’m sure there is something more effective than covering our subway and commuter rail systems with a heavy police presence. There are a finite number of police, and concentrating them in one place means they aren’t somewhere else. This seems like classic “shifting” rather than “deterring.”