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Shrink The Targets

We can’t defend everything. So we should take steps that protect against both terrorism and natural disasters

8 min read
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Civilized society is at far greater risk from natural disasters and industrial accidents than from terrorism, yet we behave as if it were the other way around. We spend billions on unproven technical remedies for imagined terrorist threats while skimping on known methods of mitigating the effects of hurricanes, floods, and toxic-waste spills, which occur with remarkable regularity and predictability. We should concentrate instead on defending against these more frequent and disastrous threats. By thus identifying our worst vulnerabilities and reducing them, we would reduce the size of the terrorists’ targets as well.

Our present efforts depend on bureaucratic organizations, but we should not expect too much from them. Two decades ago, in a study of industrial accidents, I sought to show that any organizational solution to a human problem that is complex enough to be interesting will necessarily be imperfect. Stated that way, my assertion might have seemed unobjectionable. Yet I noticed that people would always ask why no one had prevented a particular problem—typically the last one in a chain, hence the “proximate” cause of the disaster. For example, in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, in 1986, the blame was placed on those who failed to take into account the chilled O-ring that was the proximate cause of the explosion. Similarly, the company that neglected to trim tree branches in Ohio shouldered the blame for the shorted power lines that started a cascade of failures that plunged much of the eastern United States and Canada into darkness in the summer of 2003.

It was in part to address this mental illusion of operator error, as I regard it, that I coined the deliberately paradoxical phrase that became the title of my book: “normal accidents.” I showed how in complexly interactive systems whose elements are “tightly coupled,” great accidents are inevitable. In air travel, electric power distribution, petroleum refining, and nuclear reactors, thousands of things must go right to avoid disaster. One day a few inevitable failures will interact in an unexpected way, bringing down the system. We therefore must either give up on the many benefits we derive from complex, tightly coupled systems whose failures might be catastrophic or put up with occasional disasters. It is a question of coldly weighing the alternatives.

Terrorist acts differ from normal accidents in that they are caused deliberately. Terrorists need not wait for blind chance to turn up hidden weaknesses but can seek them out with energy and insight. Moreover, defensive measures taken against normal accidents will be less effective against terrorists who, as strategic adversaries, can evade them.

Any strategy must begin by taking into account both what terrorists can do, in principle, and what they are inclined to do, in fact. It is abundantly clear that they can do us far more harm than they have already done, without incurring costs greater than they have already proved willing to pay. Their failure to do so is astounding, and it merits investigation.

We can put down a portion of terrorists’ inaction to simple incompetence. When al-Qaeda dispatched a man to New York City to reconnoiter the Brooklyn Bridge, it had in mind a harebrained scheme to cut the cables strand by strand with an acetylene torch; the agent prepared for his mission by viewing photos of the bridge taken from the original King Kong movie, in 1933.

In the United States, terrorists’ inaction also reflects a lack of human resources. This is not the case in many European cities, where terrorist cells have been much more common.

Yet incompetence and lack of resources cannot explain the entire pattern, because sometimes the terrorists have shown considerable strategic sophistication. One example was the 9/11 plan of training pilots, hijacking airliners, and turning them into guided missiles; the terrorist network had even thought to assassinate the leader of the Northern Alliance beforehand, eliminating the chance that he would lend support to the gathering U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

The terrorists have also shown political acumen. Alâ''Qaeda appears to put more emphasis on showing prowess, making a statement, and recruiting activists than on merely raising the body count. Indeed, there is some evidence that Osama bin Laden and his associates did not intend to kill as many people as they did in the 9/11 attacks. They were also surprised by the result and criticized by some of their cohorts for the resulting invasion of Afghanistan, which deprived them of their main training facilities. A similar calculation of effects may lie behind the evident decision of bin Laden’s operational chief to cancel, in 2003, a chemical attack on the New York subway or the decision to bomb London’s public transit system rather than using the explosives to detonate toxic chemical storage tanks and railroad cars.

U.S. counterterrorism officials, in particular, seem to regard biological, chemical, and nuclear attacks as a main priority of terrorist groups. Certainly, judging from its funding priorities, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sees such attacks as a greater threat than the destruction of a city by hurricanes. But this thinking neglects the sheer difficulty of successfully pulling off such an attack.

The only two significant biological and chemical attacks by nonstate actors were, in the context of modern terrorism, feeble. These were done by the followers of the Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who spread salmonella in salad bars in an attempt to influence voter turnout in Oregon in 1984, and members of the Aum Shinrikyo group, who released the nerve gas sarin in Tokyo subways in 1995. The Rajneesh group sickened 750 people; the Japanese cult killed 12 and injured about 500. There is no evidence that nonstate groups currently have a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons capability.

The chances are extremely low that Middle Eastern terrorists will stage an attack on U.S. soil that kills at least 1000 people

In any case, the terrorists have every reason to fear that another far-reaching and heinous attack on the United States or Europe might be to their disadvantage, for it would merely strengthen Western resolve to fight back. Much more likely, I believe, are smaller, purely demonstrative attacks in the West—say, substituting a “dirty” bomb for a real nuclear one, with the aim of terrorizing rather than killing many people. We should expect the really big attacks to come not in Washington, London, or Paris, but in Riyadh, Cairo, or Amman, for al-Qaeda has always been focused mainly on effecting regime change in the heartland of the Arab world.

From these considerations I conclude that the chances are extremely low that Middle Eastern terrorists will stage an attack on U.S. soil that kills at least 1000 people or harms the economy as much as the 2003 blackout did. The chances are only marginally higher that such an outrage will happen in Europe. We should therefore concentrate on defending ourselves against nature’s wrath and against industrial accidents, which we know will happen. Some of these defenses will also help mitigate the damages from terrorist attacks.

Officials of the Department of Homeland Security have argued that some of its measures do perform the double duty of preventing natural and terrorist disasters. Among them are the hiring, training, and equipping of ambulance drivers, paramedics, firefighters, and rescue workers. However, most of the new expenditures are ostensibly useful only against terrorism, as in securing borders, ports, and transportation hubs; putting citizens, organizations, and telecommunications under surveillance; deploying radiation and biohazard sensors; and coordinating feuding intelligence agencies.

Not only does this spending do nothing to guard us against the natural and industrial disasters that are certainly coming our way, it has to some extent been carved out of the budget for such safeguarding. And quite apart from the funding tug-of-war is the change in emphasis, some of it plainly perverse. The effort to check vehicles for explosives delayed the arrival of aid in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. Doctors and other workers who came at their own expense were often sidelined until they could prove that all their baggage had been checked and their paperwork completed. Some rescuers were shunted as far afield as Texas to undergo classes on avoiding sexual harassment.

The response to Katrina falls below even that predicted by my theory of normal accidents. Clearly, the terrorists have no monopoly on incompetence: the government, at both federal and local levels, should have handled things better. Yet the problem was so big that even with the best imaginable leadership, the outcome would not have been much better. We should not allow masses of people to live in places that are fundamentally unsafe.

Our best bet is not to protect targets but to reduce their size. We cannot move people in California away from geologic faults, but we could have avoided filling in San Francisco Bay with tall buildings built, basically, on mud. As there is no pressing need to have so many people living in the Bay area or New Orleans, public policy ought to encourage them to live elsewhere. Yet actual governmental incentives go quite the other way. Federal flood insurance now covers millions of people, some of whom have built homes in places that private insurers will not touch. In one egregious case, the government reportedly paid some US $800 000 to rebuild, again and again, a Texas house appraised at less than $120 000.

Other vulnerabilities that cry out for systematic reduction abound. Deregulation of the electric power industry has reduced the incentive to invest in redundancy, and grids in the United States and Europe are now clunking along with equipment that is inadequate, outmoded, or both. All this makes us extremely vulnerable. We could change the financial incentives to induce the power industry to plow some of its profits back into the grid. I would start plowing it in around the electrical interconnect between California and Oregon, which is very vulnerable. If a study showed that disaster would ensue if someone took out two or three transmission stations, then it would be simple enough to build three more. Redundancy works, at least to a point. But we have to be willing to pay for it.

Other concentrated targets include milk pooled in immense tankers, any one of which could easily be contaminated with a noxious agent or pathogen. If this were to happen, thousands of children in entire sections of the country could be made ill. Again, the problem could be solved by breaking things up a bit, perhaps starting with the breakup of dairy distributorships into smaller entities.

Environmental groups might be mobilized. They have, on occasion, advocated reducing the size of chemical storage depots and removing them from centers of population. But our landscape is strewn with many other potential weapons of mass destruction that terrorists can exploit in situ, among them levees, bioisolation laboratories, and nuclear reactors. The scope of environmental groups should be expanded, and they should recognize that the threat comes from nature and terrorists, and not just accidents.

The United States could try to do as well as some European countries. Take the response of the Netherlands to the threat of flooding, which reached a three-century crescendo in 1953, when freak storms breached the dikes, flooded huge swaths of territory, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes. Since then, the country has shored up dikes, installed elaborate moveable gates, experimented with floating homes, and taken property from people and turned it into wetlands to absorb the annual floods of the Meuse river. Most of all, it has reduced the size of the target by preventing large pockets of population from clustering in vulnerable areas.

Minimizing the targets can limit but not eliminate the depredations of the weather, of industrial accidents, and of terrorists. Terrorism particularly will retain much of its force because, as a deliberate human act, it cannot fail to touch its victims in ways no innocent accident can manage. Here, too, the experience of European countries is instructive; they accept that there will be terrorist acts and do not respond with dubious bureaucratic initiatives. The United Kingdom responded to terrorism after 9/11 not by shoving 22 agencies together to create a dysfunctional, centralized behemoth, but by improving coordination among strengthened independent agencies.

Organizations in our critical infrastructure will inevitably fail; the greater the concentration, the bigger the consequences. But the public is unaware of our basic vulnerabilities in the chemical industry, electric power industry (including nuclear plants), the 90 percent concentration of Microsoft Windows operating systems for computers, and the predicted increase in the concentration of Internet access as the number of ISPs declines. In the 1970s, before the deregulation of such industries began, we had more aggressive antitrust activity; we now have additional reasons to reestablish and extend those policies. The United States’ weakened regulatory agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, could be given back their strength. Perhaps we should even disassemble the Department of Homeland Security and establish a Department of Homeland Vulnerability to publicize our juiciest targets—terrorists already know them all—and call for legislation that would make them less attractive.

Human nature can better withstand a dozen small disasters than a single great one, even if the casualty total is the same. Protecting our big targets is next to impossible; we should instead downsize them to make them less consequential and easier to protect. 

About the Author

Charles Perrow, professor emeritus of sociology at Yale University, is the author of six books and more than 50 articles. His new book, Disasters Evermore? Our Vulnerability to Natural, Industrial and Terrorist Disasters, will be published by Princeton University Press next spring.

To Probe Further

The book that established Charles Perrow’s reputation was Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies, published by Princeton University Press in 1984 and revised in 1999.

His recent work includes “Organizational or Executive Failures?” one of three articles in “A Symposium on the 9/11 Commission Report,” published in Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, Vol. 34, no. 2, April 2005, pp. 99-107(9).

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