Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norway and 9/11: Fighting the Last War

A common criticism of militaries is that they are always preparing to fight the last war instead of the next. The recent attack in Norway suggests that the same problem exists for the "war" on terrorism. The point is made clearer if we compare that attack to its closest equivalent: 9/11.

The attacks have two critical characteristics in common. The first is that the form of the attack was original. The second is that it was strikingly successful, from the standpoint of its objectives—did a lot of damage at a relatively small cost to the attackers. That is not terribly surprising, since an original attack is one that potential defenders do not expect and so fail to take precautions to prevent.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was obviously imprudent, arguably suicidal, for a political party to put a large number of its younger supporters, its future elite, on a not very large island with no guards. That created a situation where a single gunman could murder about eighty victims and badly handicap the future of a major political party. 

If the final point is not obvious, consider the equivalent U.S. case, scaled. The U.S. has more than sixty times the population of Norway. What would be the effect on the future of the Republican or Democratic party if more than 4000 of the most active members of the Young Republicans or Young Democrats were killed?

What was the cost of accomplishing that to the perpetrator? As far as we  know, he did it all himself. The shooting spree required one rifle, one pistol, and a lot of ammunition—total cost probably under a thousand dollars. The previous explosion, part of whose purpose was presumably to set up the opportunity for the subsequent shooting, cost one car, very likely rented, a lot of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, and some sort of detonator and timer. For a wild guess, total cost of the whole project between one and ten thousand dollars. 

Plus, presumably, life imprisonment, a cost balanced by the opportunity to get wide publicity for his political views.

Which gets us back to where I started. Most of what one can see being done to prevent terrorism, most obviously the exertions of the TSA, is aimed at preventing a repeat of 9/11. It ought to be aimed at the next, and entirely different, 9/11.

Which is a much harder thing to do, since we do not know what it will be.


49erDweet said...

Spot on comments, in my view. And I have no off-hand suggestions on what could have been done. what to do now, or how the process would appear if successful. It is an extremely challenging - and interesting - societal conundrum. How does a free society reasonably protect itself?

One initial soft spot could be the total eschewing in Norway of a death penalty under all situations. I understand how it's misuse and abuse over the years contributes to a desire to "be better than that", but unless something extraordinary occurs, because of his age news articles featuring this individual will be haunting hundreds of victim's family members every few years for probably half a century. That's too much control over too many other's deepest emotions for far too long for a society to so cheaply concede, I believe.

Gordon said...

At least according to a Norwegian I heard interviewed on NPR, the maximum sentence for any crime in Norway is only 22 years, so the cost would be even less than David supposes. (The interviewee seemed to imply that sentences for multiple crimes are always served concurrently, but that seems even crazier than the 22 year limit, so perhaps his claim should be discounted.)

David's point about "the last war" is a strong one; but there is still the problem that if you do not guard against old attacks, then they are just as good as before. IMHO, the problem with the TSA is not that it is protecting against an old form of attack, but rather than it is not a reasonable defense against the old attack.

RKN said...

I don't think the closest equivalent to the Norway attack is 9/11. I agree with what a number of people have been saying, it is much more analogous to home grown terrorism similar to the Oklahoma City bombing, in terms of tactics and, so far as we know now, motivation.

Plus, a report in my local newspaper said the maximum sentence for this crime would be 21 years, not life. I don't know if that's true, or if additional years could be added for being found guilty of separate crimes, but if it is true this perp could be free before he is 55 years old.

Daublin said...

One thing to keep in mind is that some things can't realistically be defended against. Any reasonable society is going to involve some level of trust, and trust is possible to abuse.

That said, one general strategy is to distribute power. It's not clear to me what in modern society really requires having a few thousand people running the rest of our lives.

Anonymous said...

A problem with "distributed power" is IMO increased risk.

In a world where every tiny little nation has nuclear weapons, a war or attack of some kind is vastly more likely. In a bi-polar (US vs USSR) were there is mutually-assured-destruction or monopoly-power (US post cold-war) scenarios there is much less risk.

Similarly, in a country where it's easy to buy chemicals such as those used for bomb making, or guns like automatic weapons, it becomes very likely for there to be shootouts.

Obviously it's all a trade off, and maybe it's good to have larger overall freedom at the cost of tail-risk scenarios.

49erDweet said...

UPDATE: As noted, sentencing laws in Norway apparently limit the maximum sentence to 21 years per offense, and all sentences served at the same time. Weakness and madness. They go hand-in-hand.

Along the lines Daublin noted, saw comments stating it took 90 minutes for armed police to respond to the island. Our second amendment rights look a little better today. Not saying it couldn't happen, but the odds of losses this extensive occurring in Texas are probably much higher. Sad, sad, sad.

jimbino said...

There's no doubt what the next war in the USSA will be: it will be an attack against the TSA itself, so deserving.

Anonymous said...

Kids are a easy target by definition.
The Dolphinarium bombing in Tel Aviv and the Beslan Massacre occurred in nations much more prepared for terrorism than Norway.

affenkopf said...

re: the maximum prison sentence in Norway

"There is controversy too over whether a sentence handed to Breivik will be increased to reflect his threat to society. Under Norwegian law Breivik faces a maximium 21 years in jail, but this can be extended under certain circumstances."


Adam S said...

#1 Why are we not arming our children? They are the most defenseless of all; if they had guns this would not have happened!

#2 I cannot wait to see the protests against the "Victory churches" being built in Oslo. I hope some news media out there is brave enough to report this religious extremism.

Adam S said...

Also, it's embarrassing that you blame them for having an island get-together. How many model UNs or young politician events have ever been attacked?

I suggest asking your son about the last cruise he went on, which probably had a net worth in the tens of billions and had very little security.

Peter said...

He claims that he spent 130 000 Euro on the project.

Mercy Vetsel said...

"#1 Why are we not arming our children? "

Oh, what brilliant sarcasm!

Listen, genius, this didn't happen in Texas.

Like all large mass shootings, it happened in a "gun free zone" in a country with more gun control than any state in the Union.

#2 "report this religious extremism."

Actually, they did MIS-report it.

That's why followers of the media herd like you are so hopelessly ignorant of the facts.

It turns out that rather than Christian fundamentalists the Norway terrorist holds religious beliefs in line with the Unitarian Universalists.


Anonymous said...

Excellent observations. They do not lead to any viable action steps -- e.g., as you note, TSA is in no position to predict what the next original form of terrorist attack might be. However, there is also value to invalidating current action steps that are next to useless (like the TSA trying to prevent a repeat of 9/11). When a horrific event happens we usually have an overwhelming urge to "do something," even if reason tells us there is little to do. God only knows whether the poor Norwegians will feel compelled to "do something" in the wake of this tragedy. If so, history teaches us that it will most likely be something irrelevant if not downright counterproductive.

David Friedman said...

"They do not lead to any viable action steps -- e.g., as you note, TSA is in no position to predict what the next original form of terrorist attack might be."

One could have, perhaps does have, projects to think up new and very cost-effective forms of terrorism and then see if there is some way of spotting someone setting up such an attack. I don't think there is a really adequate solution to the problem, but there might be one significantly better than nothing.

John T. Kennedy said...

To me, the fact that muslim terrorists have done very little in the way of attacking soft targets in America demonstrates how little threat they are.

Yet we've spent more than a trillion chasing them overseas and hardening our airports.