Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Normal" Fears and the Asymmetry of Terrorism

I heard about the rash of bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh for the first time yesterday. This is a little surprising, in that I still have family in Pittsburgh, but none are associated with Pitt. I don't often hear the Cathedral of Learning - Pitt's 42-story grand tower - referred to on the radio, so it caught my ear.

What's perhaps a little more surprising is that this has been going on since mid-February - nearly two months. To date, there have been well over 50 bomb threats resulting in building closures. This is a massive level of disruption, all the more remarkable in that it has involved no actual bombs.

There are, I think, a couple of lessons here. First, if your objective is to disrupt normal systems and engender a certain level of fear, that is remarkably easy to do. Occasionally a high school kid pulls something like this to get out of an exam; he is almost invariably caught within days, if not hours. This has been going on for weeks, and the full resources of the FBI have as yet turned up nothing.

This illustrates a key point that a lot of experts make about terrorism: its inherently asymmetric nature. Whoever is doing this is armed only with a laptop and knowledge of how to stay undetected. Granted, disrupting a large university is not the same as blowing up a major landmark. But what if you did this to the ten largest universities in the country? Or to a series of government offices, or the major businesses in a metropolitan area? The potential is clearly there for significant disruption at nearly zero cost. Which is precisely why "terrorism" (an extremely broad category) is so popular as a means for the less powerful to fight against the more powerful.

Second, I find it at least a bit remarkable that it's taken nearly two months for this to show up on the radar screen. I suppose the fact that no actual bombs have gone off has something to do with that - there is no "bleeding" to "lead" the headlines here. But does this say something about our having come to terms with a "new normal" of security precautions? It used to be that a bomb threat campaign of this magnitude would be national news. Now it just rates an article in the Chronicle? I don't know whether that's good, bad, or indifferent - though much of what we see as "news" is surely less significant than this.

I don't have any conclusions here. I do feel for the Pitt students & faculty - for them, this is a major, life-disrupting problem. Let's hope - given that hope is all we have - that this particular problem doesn't spread itself farther than it already has.

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