Terror response math

Suspect bomber Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev has been captured after a historic manhunt in the Boston metro area.  Part of what was historic about it was the response by law enforcement officials and politicians to the situation; they closed significant parts of the city.  Numerous educational institutions were closed.  Trains and buses were closed.  Residents were told to lock themselves in their houses and not go out.  A room full of experienced new correspondents were queried on the radio if they had ever experienced this type of response anywhere in the world; they all claimed it was novel.

Boston in lock down

Boston in lock down

So i am legitimately torn here.  i dont want terrorists to succeed.  This is a very dirty game, the use of violence on non-combatants to advance your political goals.  So perhaps this extraordinary response of locking down hundreds of thousands of people will be sufficiently discouraging that some other terrorists will not strike.  They may be dissuaded by knowing that their chances of disappearing into a crowd (for example) are greatly diminished because the feds are likely to use extraordinary tactics to catch them; including closing entire cities.  Were this to have a chilling effect on terrorist attacks this might well be a good thing.

But i remember a calculation which was done by Car and Driver magazine after speed limits were dropped from 70 mph to 55 mph in response to the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973.  Besides saving gas, one of the benefits that proponents of dropping the speed limit pointed to was the dramatically reduced number of auto fatalities that resulted from the reduced speed limit.  Car and Driver magazine then pointed out that for every life saved there were an additional 102 person years spent driving, because it took longer to get many places.  So we did save a life; and we spent a life and a half in the car driving to save it.

Wikipedia lists 26 terrorist acts in the US since the year 2000.  That is 2 attacks per year.  Let’s do some impossible math for a few moments.  Let’s say that this extraordinary response to the Boston Marathon bombings discourages half the attacks on the US, so that this rate drops to 1 attack per year.  Let’s say that 1/4 of the lives of the approximately 1 million people locked down for 11 hours was “lost”.  [The locked down region included the cities of Watertown, Newton, Waltham, Belmont, Cambridge, Arlington and the Allston-Brighton neighborhoods of Boston.] That works out to something over 300 person years lost to stop an attack a year.  Perhaps this is cheap.

They are all in search of a single man

They are all in search of a single man

What i fear is the state saying “we now have this new power to shut down the city’s infrastructure (transit, schools, health services) whenever we feel like the threat is great enough.”  Who will make sure this power is not used inappropriately?

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

4 responses to “Terror response math”

  1. Will Forest says :

    This is the kind of thinking I love to engage in, so it’s nice to see you doing it too.

    With regard to speed limits: yes, more time was spent driving. Unless you consider the time that’s spent dealing with accidents. Probably the single biggest contributor to serious traffic congestion is accidents, which dramatically increase the time people spend … driving. So, if going more slowly reduces accidents, then it can allow people to … drive more quickly! Going fast produces stop-and-go. Going slow produces smooth flow.

    With regard to the value of over-the-top response to terrorism: I don’t know how terrorists think, but here’s my opinion. The 3000 lives lost on 9/11 and the ??hundred billion?? cost of the Twin Towers etc. probably pale in comparison to the number of hours of people’s lives truly wasted in security lines, and the cost of the security measures. If I were a terrorist, I’d be factoring those impacts into the impacts of my actions. There’s no way to make a good estimate of the costs we’ve avoided by preventing some attacks, but it shouldn’t be too hard to estimate the costs of the measures we’ve taken to avoid them, and the costs are spectacularly large.

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Will:

      i love it when i can get you engaged in the blog comments, and i thought i would with this one. For cars, we are totally together – i actually want to create a drivers voluntary club called slow and flow (in contrast to stop and go) where you are driving to minimize accident risk and fuel use with slow starts and coasting stops. So in cars we are directly together.

      For the terrorist calculation, i think they vary depending on what the group is. In the case of 9/11 additional security lines and costs, and adventurist intl conflicts are fantastically expensive and since the dream was to bring the US down, this makes perfect sense.

      For these Chechan kids, it is far less clear. Unless they are deluded (or part of a yet to be revealed larger plot) there is no chance that their actions will ahve any meaningful influence on the culture – that advances their cause. We might have to start taking our shoes off again at airports and we might waste some more billions on security equipment and staff, But in terms of the liberation of Chechnia from the Russian yoke, sorry kids – total miss.

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