Giving terror events less frightening names may ease fears

by rthieme on October 19, 2014

Giving terror events less frightening names may ease fears

by Richard Thieme

Acts of terror are primarily intended to 1) degrade trust by a people in the ability of their government to defend and protect them and 2) deliver blows to the economy and bleed critical resources into protecting against attacks.

By that measure, Sept. 11, 2001, was a success. Billions of dollars shifted to the national security enterprise, diverted from other productive uses, and a good chunk were devoted to what Bruce Schneier calls “security theater,” the Transportation Security Administration at airports, for example, showy activities intended to reassure the public that all is well.

In addition, 9-11 triggered a policy that is extraordinarily expensive and not a little controversial: Once it was decided that all attacks must be prevented, and the long coastline of national life, an interface with countless bays and inlets, must be defended in its entirety, that no casualties are acceptable, it became imperative to intercept and process all communications, all the time, all over the world. If one must stop every attack, one must know every plot.

We still don’t know how to debate all that properly. The distinction between foreign and domestic disappeared as the world of digitized information and communications became ubiquitous. That meant that prohibitions against “unreasonable search and seizure” became blurry.

The context of our lives has so changed since that amendment was added to the Constitution that its application is confusing in a world without walls. The FBI, intended as a national police force, has operations all over the world, and the CIA, created for intelligence gathering and covert action in all countries except ours, now operates domestically as well. The implications of the computer revolution made that inevitable — all identities, all structures, all political boundaries, have been transformed.

In this looking-glass world, when is an act of terror not an act of terror?

An act of terror is aimed above all at the mind of society. That mind’s perception of events is as important as the events themselves. Therefore, turning an act of terror into an anomaly, an accident, a criminal act, alleviates the particular fear that follows an act of terror. Accidents happen, after all, it’s an imperfect world, and when they do, we may not like them, but we don’t cower in fear or assail the government for not preventing them.

Shortly after 9-11, I was alerted to two interesting phenomena.

A friend from one of the agencies suggested I take a look at train derailments. I did what I could to do the research and learned that they had increased and often involved toxic payloads such as chemicals. I learned that implements designed to do nothing but derail trains had been stolen from federal yards. Where did I learn this? Exclusively from small local newspapers.

It took digging around to find the stories and soon they disappeared. They never made it into the national media, which might have amplified the stories, imprinting them indelibly on the mind of society as it did after 9-11 with repeated showings of the towers falling, giving the nation post traumatic stress. All of those incidents were ignored or reported as anomalous facts or turned into “accidents.” As a result, they were not “acts of terror,” nary a one, and they vanished from the forgetful mind of society which is in any case so easily distracted.

The second alert from my friend concerned the number of exotic diseases carried by people crossing the Mexican border. “Looks like they’re up,” he said. “Why? I think they’re practicing.”

Keep in mind that even more than dirty bombs, more than cyber attacks, many charged with defending the homeland fear biological attacks above all else. When I am asked what keeps me awake at night, I respond that a senior technologist at CIA told me he can’t sleep. What keeps him up? Reading FISA intercepts that detail the hopes and dreams of terrorists, what they want to do, what they are trying to do. At the top of the list of his nightmares are biological attacks.

My friend was suggesting that some of those apprehended at the border with unusual pathogens in their bodies were trying to be “suicide carriers.” Dying by a sudden explosion of a bomb attached to your body or dying by a disease is sixes to someone committed to being a martyr.

Think of the current enterovirus epidemic or the raging plague of Ebola. Then think of the impact of the spread of such diseases by design, using weaponized pathogens. It’s not easy, but if death can be delayed long enough for carriers to scatter, then spread disease through contact, a suicide carrier will have done his or her job.

I am not suggesting that terror is behind those two outbreaks. I am not suggesting that all train derailments or epidemics are intentional. Let’s not connect dots prematurely, like so many blogs and shout shows. Diseases do happen. We flinch, then wash our hands. We take the next train.

But when such events are intentional, it takes the terror out of terror to characterize them as “natural.” And I am suggesting that such plots are at the top of the list of attacks that would meet the objectives of terror defined above.

So it seems to be a successful strategy to label events with less frightening names. A man beheads a co-worker but of course he did not get the idea from an ISIL tape. A man takes down the air traffic control system but of course it wasn’t “a terror attack” — no, both guys just…snapped.

Move on. Nothing to see here.

And for heaven’s sake, keep spending. Consumer spending is 70% of our economy (a suicidal path by itself in a world that honors production, not consumption), so keep shopping, as President George W. Bush urged after 9-11. Add to debts that will never be paid, and — oh, why go on. It’s all just life, isn’t it? Things just happen to happen.

And, hey — how about those Packers?

Richard Thieme ( is a Milwaukee-based author and professional speaker. He has spoken about security issues for the National Security Agency, the Secret Service and the FBI as well as speaking for Def Con 19 years. He recently returned from keynoting conferences in Australia for corporate and government security pr

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