Monday, October 14, 2013

Suicide attacks American style

Suicide attacks have occurred in the United States and will almost certainly occur here again.

The highest profile suicide bomb attacks in the U.S. occurred on 9/11 when a small group of terrorists used four jetliners as bombs to destroy New York's World Trade Center, to damage the Pentagon, and in a failed attempt to strike at the Capitol or the White House.

More commonly, individuals in the U.S. opt for handguns, rifles, or shotguns instead of bombs. The individual, who embarks on a shooting spree killing random persons, is the American equivalent of the suicide bomber in some other countries. Few, if any, of these shooters expect to survive the spree. If for no other reason, easier access to weapons and to ammunition than to explosives makes shooting sprees the preferred form of mass killing in this country.

No nation with over 300 million residents, thousands of miles of borders, and millions of potential targets (e.g., the U.S. has over 600,000 bridges each of which is a potential target for a suicide bomber) can confidently expect to prevent every potential mass murder.

Mentally ill persons commit some of these attacks. More commonly, the suicide attacker is a person who wants to destroy our community and our way of life. How should we respond and how can we best prevent future attacks?

Police needlessly killing the mentally deranged woman, Miriam Carey, who attempted to drive her car onto the White House grounds earlier this month, reflects the misguided militarization of the police and the mistaken belief that overwhelming force is the best way to deter or end incidents.

Instead, the best defense begins with people living courageously, prudentially, and temperately. Succumbing to fear of attacks implicitly incites subsequent attacks because the perpetrators anticipate achieving greater notoriety and results than would otherwise happen.

Prudential living entails taking effective defensive measures. For example, the two best defenses against airplane hijacking are (1) passengers taking action against hijackers, something that derailed the fourth 9/11 attack and that has disrupted several subsequent attempted airplane hijackings and bombings and (2) hardening cockpit doors. No other defensive measure, including air marshals and airport screenings, is cost effective according to extensive risk analysis by Mueller and Steward in Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The billions spent on air marshals and airport screenings would have benefited the nation far more had we spent those funds repairing our crumbling infrastructure.

Temperate living connotes recognizing that life is inherently risky and that no amount of courage and no set of defensive measures, regardless of how extensive they may be, can reduce the risk of suicide attacks to zero. Over reacting to suicide attacks cedes victory to the attacker; even if the authorities kill the attacker, or the attacker commits suicide directly, the community, by over reacting, provides an incentive for other misguided persons to emulate the attack.

A combination of courage, prudence, and temperance represents the best prevention against future suicide attacks, but is far from a guarantee that no such attacks will occur.

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