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[ I wrote this post for the Massachusetts political blog Blue Mass Group. ]

Boston and Massachusetts officials, and some people here at Blue Mass Group, have tried to justify Boston's overreaction to some hanging lights last week by saying, "what if they hadn't done what they did, and a real bomb went off?"  This makes as much sense to me as trying to justify the Iraq war by asking, "what if we had not invaded Iraq, and there were another terrorist attack in the US?"

Or, they say, "people were just doing their job!"  Why, they ask, are we second-guessing the actions of the bomb squad, who were responding to a call?  Keeping with the Iraq analogy, this is the "support the troops" tack: It equates criticizing bad policy with attacking the police officers (soldiers) who carry it out.

Boston is not under a serious threat of bombs, but it does have a process of random panic that is supposed to protect us from that threat and is actually the problem, itself.  Follow my reasoning, below the fold.

Let's focus on the real issues:

  • What threat are we trying to protect ourselves from?

  • How serious is that threat?

  • How would a city protect itself from it?

  • What are the effects of the process we currently have in place?
    • Is it effective?
    • What are its drawbacks?

  • Something clearly went wrong - what should we change?

Protecting Us From Nothing

The threat this activity aims to protect us from, they say, is this: A terrorist, fanatic, or violent person of some sort wants to set off a bomb or bombs in Boston, to kill people or disrupt the city or both, and cause fear.  Well, the fear's already here and probably doesn't need help, but leaving that aside, let's think about what such a person could do.

If you want to cause death and destruction and terror with a bomb, you could put it in a backpack stuffed with papers and clothes.  Dress up like a student, and go sit down in Harvard Square eating a sandwich.  Get up, "forgetting" your backpack (you could receive a cell phone call at an appropriate moment if you want to dress up the acting), and walk away into the crowd.  Nobody would notice anything suspicious, nobody would call the police.  A few minutes later, when you're safely through to the other side of Harvard Yard or on a bus, the bomb could go off, killing people, blasting shops, and closing down part of the red line.

Or, you could take the express bus from Waltham, and get off in Newton, before the bus gets on the pike.  Leave your bomb under the seat (again, in a backpack stuffed with papers & clothes).  Time it to go off about when the bus is in the I-90 tunnel near Copley - or have an accomplice watch near the entrance to the tunnel and use a remote trigger, so you don't have to worry about traffic delays.  Or, do what the 1993 World Trade Center bombers did: rent (or steal) a van, and pack it with explosives.  Drive it up to a big building and leave it to explode there.  Boston has no shortage of buildings vulnerable to that attack.  You could close down some major roads that way, too.

None of what Boston did last week shows that they can protect us from this threat, for the simple reason that none of what Boston did bears much relation to what needs to be done to protect us from it.  Boston's freak out started in response to a call about a strange object, and it's highly unlikely that such a call would come in the case of a real terrorist bomb.  Protecting us from terrorist bombs requires that we develop a process for spotting them, not that we react in the extreme to the occasional phone call.

Does this make you feel safe?  It makes me feel safe.

Really, I mean that.  I'm not going to say it's "easy" for a terrorist to plant a bomb, but it's certainly doable and not particularly complex.  And if someone does plant a bomb, chances that anyone will stop it are tiny.  Given that, and the fact that years have passed since 9/11 with no bombs going off, the lesson is clear: Nobody's trying!.

... and that's the best protection there is.

How to Protect Against Bombs

In Israel, the threat of terrorist bombs is real and prevalent.  Israeli authorities and processes are extremely effective at countering it: they catch and prevent real bomb plot and attempts every month - in times of higher tension, multiple times a week.  I'm from Israel, and though I've lived most of my life in Boston, I did spend several summers there in the 80s and 90s, enough to be familiar with some of what they do.

In Israel, any unattended portable object is a "suspicious object", including the equivalent of a backpack left in Harvard Square or on the 553 bus.  Most everyone, except some tourists, knows how to respond.  Someone calls "khefetz khashud" (suspicious object); people clear the vicinity of the object; an announcement is made if it's somewhere with a PA system; the bomb squad arrives and destroys the object; they make sure there's nothing dangerous around, and call the all clear.  The whole process usually takes about 15-30 minutes, and affects a single restaurant, bus stop, building, or intersection, while the rest of the city keeps going.

Most bombs and bomb plots get stopped well before they reach the stage where that process is necessary - it's in place as a safety net for when intelligence fails.  There are other processes to handle suicide bombers, again as a safety net to catch the ones intelligence fails to stop.

The Israeli process of protection against terrorist bombs has a lot of pieces.  Intelligence networks, investigators, rapid response, an informed population, well known procedures, and lots of practice.  It requires the participation of a majority of people, on a daily basis.  It's a lot of hassle, and a big expense.  People do it because they know the threat is real and prevalent, and because they know it works.  People do it because the cost of not doing it would be bombs blowing up every week.

What's the Risk?

If we wanted to really protect Boston from terrorist bombs, we'd have to do something like what Israel does.

And yet...  Sometimes, bombs do blow up in Israel cities.  Every single year, some plots slip through all the safety nets and succeed, while every single year, zero terrorist bombs blow up in Boston.  Why?  Because in Israel, somebody's trying.  Israel's process, as effective and robust as it is, is missing the most important piece: the political & social.  The only true way to protect your city from terrorist bombs is to have a political & social situation in which terrorists aren't trying to plant bombs.  That's what we have here in Boston.

We're safer in Boston.  But it's not because we don't face a terrorist bomb threat.  Actually, the thing most likely to cause sudden death or injury to a typical Bostonian, and to a typical Israeli, is the same: a traffic accident.  Even in Israel, cars kill more people than terrorists, by a long shot.  We're safer in Boston because Israeli drivers are crazier, and their accident rates are higher.  Israelis are safer than Italians, who, in turn, are safer than residents of Nairobi, Kenya (which has one of the highest car accident death rates in the world).  On the scale of risk we face, terrorist bombs don't come close to competing with many people's daily commute to and from work.

Incidentally, bumper to bumper traffic on a highway increases accident rates.  Accidents in a bumper to bumper portion of a highway tend to be low speed and don't cause injury, but if portions of a road are clear and portions are clogged, accidents at the transition points can be serious.  When you close or divert major roads during high traffic times, you increase the risk of injury to a lot of people.

What are we protecting ourselves from, again?

Random Panic

But let's get back to those hypothetical bombs in Boston, the ones that don't exist but that our city claims to be protecting us from.  Why, exactly, did they decide to kick in maximum "protection" when they found that first Mooninite?

It's not because the Mooninite sign was more likely to be a bomb than countless other objects in the city.  Sure, the Mooninite could have been a bomb, but so could just about anything else that's lying around.  If anything, these cartoons were much less likely to be bombs than millions of other things we see lying around.  Making something with lights and a pattern to draw attention, and hanging it somewhere visible, aren't exactly on a would-be terrorist bomber's priority list.  So why wasn't Chinatown closed down last weekend because of the crate of vegetables some delivery truck left on the sidewalk, that I walked by.  Don't tell me a crate of vegetables can't be hiding a bomb.

Why did the cartoons lead to a panic when many other things much more likely to be bombs did not?  Because they were weird.  And because they were weird, someone called to report them as being weird.  As Boston officials have said, and commenters on this blog have echoed, "what if we hadn't responded to the call, and then something happened?"  Nobody says, "what if we hadn't called the alarm over that crate of vegetables in Chinatown, and then it turned out to be a bomb?"  Nobody says, "what if we hadn't shut down Harvard Square because of that stray backpack, and then it turned out to be a bomb?"  Why?  Because those things aren't weird, and therefore nobody called about them.  The process we have isn't about protecting us from terrorists, it's about covering the city's ass.

How likely is there to be a correlation between actual bombs, and calls reporting weird objects?  First, real bombs are highly unlikely - we haven't had even one yet.  Second, if there were a real bomb, there's little chance of it being weird and prompting a call.  Third, there are a lot of weird objects around that aren't bombs but could prompt calls.  Therefore, the correlation is probably negative.  In today's Boston, given what we know and how we act and think, if someone calls about an unusual object, it's almost certainly not a bomb, and is in fact less likely to be a bomb than some other object that nobody called about.  The Aqua Teen Hunger Force attack is an illustrative example of this.

We have in place a process that responds to such calls with hysteria, spectacle, and a major disruption of the city.  It's a response that, as we've seen, has major costs - not just the $1 million the city says it cost them, but the disruptions and delays for millions of other people.  And yet, despite all this cost, it's a response that is triggered essentially at random, with no positive correlation to the (almost nonexistent) threat it's supposed to be a response to.  That's why I call it "Random Panic".

What Should We Do?

First, we need to understand the situation:

  1. We're not under a serious threat of terrorist bombs.

  2. If we were, the process we have now would not protect us from it at all.

  3. We're basically safe, but we suffer from the process that's supposed to keep us safe.
Once we understand the situation, we can stop looking for outside scapegoats.  Turner is not to blame.  The ad agency is not to blame.  Sean and Peter are not to blame.  The vegetable truck delivery people are not to blame.  The student who forgot her backpack is not to blame.  We have a broken process that does us no good, and that is where we need to shine the light.  Step back a bit, and tune our "response" to better suit the value it provides (which is, very little).

Then, we can weigh the tradeoffs involved in putting in place something that actual would protect us from bombs.  It should be obvious to us that in our current situation, it's not worth it.  We can't go the Israeli way without a major investment, not just on the part of the city & state, but on the part of most residents - and residents simply aren't going to stick to such a program unless they see the threat.  Not just abstractly, but for real.  Since it's not real, it can't work.

If someone calls about a suspicious object, investigate.  But don't assume it's a bomb without evidence - and understand that the fact that someone called about it does not constitute evidence.  If someone calls in a specific bomb threat, that is evidence: respond accordingly.  But even in that case, don't overreact.

If and when we turn out to have an active, ongoing threat of terrorist bombings, then and only then, start learning how to counter it from places like Britain and Israel.  In the meantime:

    Admit that the city screwed up in a big way.

    Apologize to the people.

    Apologize to the artists.

    Investigate and fix the broken process.

    Investigate the implementation of that process in this particular case: how those in charge acted.

    Apply some accountability to city authorities if appropriate.

    Drop all threats & court cases against the scapegoats.
Stop digging the hole we got ourselves in, deeper.

Originally posted to cos on Fri Feb 09, 2007 at 09:03 AM PST.

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