The solace of diminishing returns

Of course, the headlines of today are the apparent foiling by British authorities of a terrorist plot for the mid-Atlantic destruction of passenger aircraft bound from the UK to the US:

A plot to blow up planes in flight from the UK to the US and commit “mass murder on an unimaginable scale” has been disrupted, Scotland Yard has said.

It is thought the plan was to detonate explosive devices smuggled in hand luggage on to as many as 10 aircraft.

Police are searching premises after 21 people were arrested. Home Secretary John Reid said they believed the “main players” were accounted for.

High security is causing delays at all UK airports.

Chirol of Coming Anarchy reminds us of John Robb’s observation that symbolic terror attacks suffer from the law of diminishing returns:

Each subsequent attack has less of a psychological impact than the first. In order to compensate for this, a terrorism planner must make each subsequent attack even more damaging or symbolically devastating than earlier attacks. The result is a death march until entire terrorism campaign runs out of steam.

I suppose there’s a macabre sort of solace in the thought. The more elaborate and damaging the act of terrorism, the more complex and time-consuming the planning and execution and, presumably, the more likely it is to be foiled by vigilant counterterrorism efforts.

Terror attacks are cost-effective on a number of levels. So long as the rewards do not vanish completely there are likely to be repeated efforts until, eventually, one succeeds. While it may be appealing in a managerial, measure the results sort of way that you’ve prevented 99 attacks, that 100th attack with more casualties and more dramatic effect still bothers me. Zero defects is hard enough to achieve with a motivated, dedicated organization with high morale, a budget, and a mission statement that presents a clear mandate let alone in a government organization that will inevitably be subject to the vagaries of politics, changes in administration, and bureaucracy.

That’s certainly been true here. I haven’t noticed any particular willingness to make sacrifices, cut non-essential or even essential but competitive budgets, or, frankly, much of anything to produce solid counterterrorism efforts that will continue forever.

While a diminishing returns explanation for the lack of a repeat of 9/11 is attractive, I’m not convinced. As the Israeli-Hezbollah hostilities clearly demonstrate, terrorists are keenly aware of our 24/7 news cycle and eager and skilled at exploiting it. I don’t see that translates to their being the captives of that news cycle to the same extent that our own forces are. Our adversaries may simply be more patient than we are.

Secondly, while it’s tempting to think otherwise I doubt that the prospective victims are the sole audience for terror attacks or even the most important audience. I suspect that terror attacks by Muslim extremists are more valued for the political capital they secure for their perpetrators than for the psychological and physical harm done to the victims. The victims are just pawns in the game not the king.

Finally, I’m not convinced that Robb’s speculation that “Western populations (and the press) become inured to terrorism in much the same way they do with petty crime” is true even for petty crime. I think there may be certain energy or quantum levels involved which can be filled either by incidental, dramatic events or ongoing quotidian lower-level crimes.

Isn’t that what happened in New York City? After years of crime, violent and otherwise, the residents finally just got fed up, elected an administration that promised (and delivered) on a very low tolerance for crime, and, at least temporarily, succeeded in making the city safer.

That doesn’t suggest a situation in which terrorism vanishes because its lost its bite due to diminishing returns; merely that the conflict may have rounds.

5 comments… add one
  • I can agree that there might be an evanescent impact associated with symbolic terror acts. I would cite the relatively brief popularity of video-taped beheadings as exhibit A; these had staying power roughly equivalent to that of Brittany Spears’ career.

    The lack of a “repeat of 9.11” may very well be more attributable to positive steps taken since that event. These steps include (but are not limited to) rolling up al-Qaeda’s financial networks & leadership, denying them territory, establishment of TSA, etc.

  • Daniel Berczik Link

    I am under the suspicion that recent events are a combination of sideshows and window dressing: the Israel-Hizb’allah fight, the dry-run foiled in the UK, etc. This isn’t it, folks. Something much bigger is in the works and we are all being suckered into diverting our attention.

    Just a hunch of course, but I wouldn’t want to forget about the NK missiles that Dave has repeatedly asked about, or Iran’s coming response to the UNSC, or recent connections between Tehran and Caracas.

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