Bruce Schneier is a well-known cryptologist and computer security
expert. So it's worth paying attention when he offers his opinion
on terrorism; he's not totally unqualified.
But his latest effort, entitled "What the Terrorists
Want" is a misfire. In fact, the overall thesis is
very similar to James Fallows' Atlantic article about which I
Briefly: by definition, terrorists hope to accomplish their goals by
provoking fear in the populace; this is causing us to overreact and
engage in counterproductive behavior.
Schneier's essay is condescending ("I'd like everyone to take a deep
breath and listen for a minute."), simplistic, and confused. He advises
against "panic"—as if anyone's for it. He advocates
thinking "critically and rationally"—he's no doubt
in favor of regular exercise and a good diet, too. Like Fallows, he
points to policies he doesn't like as being based on "fear", but
doesn't really show that they are.
Schneier cites a number of false alarms that caused evacuations,
redirected flights and delays. The unstated assumption is that
the real culprits are "fear" and "overreaction."
But any security system will have
false alarms that have to be checked out; the only way to avoid them is
to have no security whatsoever. Schneier knows this, almost certainly;
it does his essay no credit to pretend otherwise.
I also found this ironic: he links to a 2004 essay of his as to
what he says "our government
and should do to fight terrorism", which includes:
The only effective way to deal with terrorists is through old-fashioned
police and intelligence work - discovering plans before they're
implemented and then going after the plotters themselves.
… which is, more or less, exactly
what happened recently
in Britain. But apparently, the 2006 version
of Schneier can still find room to pooh-pooh:
In truth, it's doubtful that their plan would have succeeded; chemists
have been debunking the idea since it became public. Certainly the
suspects were a long way off from trying: None had bought airline
tickets, and some didn't even have passports.
Schneier is very
demanding about "old-fashioned police and
intelligence work", I guess. It's fine, unless it works too soon
i.e., before tickets are bought on the planes you're planning on blowing