Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sensible countermeasures against mass casualty terrorism

I've pointed several times, in this forum, to a multi-institutional course about cybersecurity and homeland security that's being offered this term at UW, UC Berkeley, and UCSD. One of the things that comes up in the lectures (video and slides available online) is that there are, in fact, many simple measures that would mitigate the casualties from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks.*

It's commonplace, especially among conservatives, to say stuff like "you won't win the war on terrorism with defense --- you have to go on offense!" This is true, as far as it goes: in an open society, it's not feasible to defend every target against terrorist attack, which means that you can only prevent mass casualty terrorist events by using a mixture of diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, and military action. But this can't be an excuse for neglecting defensive measures, some of which would do considerable good.

For example, taking refuge in fallout shelters, even very crude ones, considerably mitigates the damage of a nuclear attack. Nuclear explosions kill people within a certain radius through raw blast force and heat, and there's not a whole lot you can do inside that radius. However, outside that radius, you want to be insulated from radioactive fallout for about 48 hours (by then, the fatality rate from radiation poisoning has dropped dramatically --- the most dangerously radioactive elements of fallout are also those that decay most rapidly). You can avoid radiation pretty effectively by putting distance between yourself and the radioactive dust outside: either take refuge in a shelter with thick walls, or move deep into the central spaces of a large building (far from the exterior surface).

So why isn't the Dept. of Homeland Security telling people in major metropolitan areas to prepare fallout shelters, and take other defensive measures? UC Berkeley public policy prof. Steve Maurer makes a good point on the course wiki discussion for a recent lecture:

It turns out that if you do something minimal like dig a hole in the backyard and put a door on top of it, that cuts down the radioactivity pretty dramatically. That's just physics, there's not much doubt it's true. But the last time the government tried to point this out in a big way was during the Reagan Administration. The problem with this pitch -- they called it "with enough shovels" -- was two-fold. First "everyone knows" that we will all die in a nuclear war, so everyone translated "with enough shovels" as evidence that Reagan "must be senile." Second, people like to avoid thinking about nuclear war. Saying "the government should do something" does that, saying "we'll all die" does that, but saying "you are the first line of defense" asks people to think which makes them anxious. So what you end up with is physically sensible advice that people would desperately want to know in a nuclear war but will create a huge political backlash if you bring it up in advance.

Now, during the Cold War, the most credible nuclear threat was global thermonuclear war, i.e. massive numbers of fusion bombs dropped on every major population center in America. In that context, I think that "we will all die in a nuclear war" was actually not much of an exaggeration. However, in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era, people generally believe that the most credible nuclear threat is a fission bomb (considerably less potent than a fusion bomb), stolen or manufactured by terrorist groups, and detonated in one city. In this context, American society would largely survive intact, but there would be many people in the attacked metropolitan area who have a good chance of either dying or surviving, depending on how they act. Some of those people will be downwind, in the path of the fallout plume; it's unlikely that we'll have enough road and transit capacity to quickly evacuate them all; and having plans to place people in fallout shelters would be a really good idea.

And fallout shelters are just one defensive measure among many. Biological attacks are even more subject to mitigation than nuclear attacks --- the behavior of carriers and potential victims can make all the difference in the propagation of an infection.

Why don't you and I already know about these countermeasures? Why don't we already know what to do in the event of a mass-casualty terrorist attack? Clearly, if America's political leadership were serious about defending America against terrorism, then undertaking a public education campaign would be part of their strategy, regardless of the political difficulty. Just as clearly, our leaders aren't doing this. Instead, we've gotten inscrutable color-coded "terror alerts" and vague exhortations to spy on our neighbors.

Of course, one can just add this to the long list of counterterrorism opportunities missed in the past four years. When you get down to it, our political leaders either haven't thought very seriously about counterterrorism policy, or else their thinking on the subject has been profoundly misguided, or both.

At this point, it would be incredibly easy, and appropriate, to segue into a broader rant against the ruling political party. But, I don't really have time to get into all that tonight, so for now I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

* Incidentally, of these four weapon categories ("CBRN"), the experts who've lectured in this course think that only biological and nuclear attacks ("B" and "N") have serious potential to be "mass casualty" events. The reasons are somewhat complicated, but in a nutshell:

  • It's hard for a terrorist to deliver chemical weapons in a way that causes hundreds or thousands of fatalities, as opposed to a few dozen.
  • The radiological attacks that terrorists are likely to be capable of executing don't generate piles of dead bodies. Rather, they increase the victims' lifetime probability of getting cancer by a few percent. This might have considerable psychological effect, but it's not a mass casualty event.

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