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.”


  1. Mick Jan 28

    Like the MBTA police are going to do anything, anyway.

    A friend told me that last year he saw a unattened backpack lying on the platform of the Orange line at Downtown crossing. Leaving the station he saw 2 MBTA cops, who told him something like “it’s not our responsibility”.

    F’ing great.

    I think part of the heavy police presense thing is to reassuare the public that everything is alright. The problem is how do U ID a terrorist?

  2. edward jahn Jan 28

    there is no technological solution to eliminating terrorism, and i would not want to see an anti-terrorism equivalent to the “lojack” system. that sounds too much like a “big brother” (total surveillance) or “minority report” (arresting criminals before they commit the crime) scenario.

    the only way to reduce terrorism is to identify the reasons why it occurs and address them. unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen as long as we have religious extremism coupled with poor people who have no hope for a better life. add to this the u.s. government invading iraq and the situation looks even bleaker.

    my pessimistic view is that we are always going to have terrorism. think about the london attacks from the point of view of the british government: only 50+ people died and the damage was relatively insignificant. as was the case with the attacks on 9-11, this sort of thing actually benefits the governments more than anyone else, because the fear it creates in the masses just allows them to push through their agenda even more expeditiously.

    it’s a vicious cycle that only perpetuates the roots of terrorism, and the leaders have little to lose because they’re not vulnerable like those unlucky few who were killed in london and in new york.

    very pessimistic indeed – and just the way i see things.

  3. edward jahn Jan 28

    i just spotted this article today which is making my exact point:

    although it goes against everything the neo-cons and republicans SAY they believe in (and i’m not convinced whether they actually believe it or not), the only way to reduce terrorism is to “back down” and address their grievances, namely, through changing u.s. and european foreign policy.

    on the other hand, the prospect of more and more muslim/arab countries entering the ranks of the first world, technologically advanced nations, and possessing nuclear capability is an entirely different problem. is at least some terrorism a reaction to the rest of the world economically oppressing these countries to avoid that end, resulting in poor and hopeless young terrorists-to-be who are only too receptive to anti-western propaganda and brainwashing?

    from that article:

    “An Associated Press survey of longtime students of international terrorism finds them ever more convinced, in the aftermath of London’s bloody Thursday, that the world has entered a long siege in a new kind of war. They believe that al-Qaida is mutating into a global insurgency, a possible prototype for other 21st-century movements, technologically astute, almost leaderless. And the way out is far from clear.

    In fact, says Michael Scheuer, the ex-CIA analyst, rather than move toward solutions, the United States took a big step backward by invading Iraq.”

  4. edward jahn Jan 28


    “He and most of the other half-dozen experts said the world’s richer powers must address “underlying causes” — lessen the appeal of radicalism by improving economies, political rights and education in Arab and Muslim countries.

    Combs cited bin Laden’s use of Afghanistan as his 1990s headquarters. “If we hadn’t been ignoring Afghanistan and instead offered real assistance, would it have become a base for bin Laden?” she asked.”

  5. sketch element Jan 28

    It seems worth pointing out the obvious fact that terroists win when the reaction of the society they are targeting is to restrict, to any extent, the freedoms of the citizenry, and I think the freedom to live without manufactured fear is a basic freedom we ought to have. We live in the yellow and orange shadow of terror alerts, we walk the streets apprehensively as police make their presence felt with ominous black RVs parked near subway stations. We fear that the government is monitoring our library usage or our online purchasing habits.

    It’s a double edged sword — as a society, we have to be vigilant, especially considering the current state of the world. But with the exuberant vigilance that our government has shown, we are doing exactly what terrorists want: we are living in fear.

    Springsteen (and you) make an excellent point about how the fight against terrorism can result in the terrorists winning by degrees, so to speak, as our collective fear turns our hearts black, and we kill the thing we love.

  6. UG Jan 28

    Maybe not deterring, but, by reason of knowing the next location, sometimes catching the terrorists and, perhaps even thwarting their missions.

  7. Adam Rosi-Kessel Jan 28

    UG: But that’s a totally different issue. My critique is not that the security complex is rationally attempting to identify the next target and protect it; but rather it is blindly pouring billions of dollars into securing particular assets based on the theory that the next attack will be identical to the last. I can’t urge you–or anyone–enough to read the book Beyond Fear for more insight into this problem. The attackers’ target is not air travel or rail travel, but rather to cause fear generally. Their tools were not box cutters or pocket knives, but surprise. If our threat model is box cutters on airplanes, we’ve totally missed the point, and by spending billions to prevent that particular modality, we’ve made ourselves less secure.

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