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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Terror Smog

“The Department of Homeland Security has raised the security threat level to Orange.”
I have heard this repeated about one hundred times per day on every one of my twenty business trips this year involving air travel. (It’s the kind of announcement you stop paying attention to, of course, due to numbing repetition.) It seems to have stayed at Orange for a long time now – years? Terror is ever present, and may always be. Kind of like air pollution – call it Terror Smog.

The recent attacks in Mumbai (which I still don’t know how to pronounce) were an example of where we have been for the last 7 years. Or more. Before the rampage of ten gunmen for three days in December 2008, “there was a similar attack in 2006 on a train and killed a similar number of people” according to Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence. Go back to 2001 and there was an attack on the Indian parliament.

Who was responsible? The names change, the people change in and out, but there is no Carlos the Jackal anymore, no one hidden leader and controller hiding out in the hills, to be hunted down and neutralized and ending attacks forever.

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Well, before 9/11, there was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Not the same perpetrators? Well, depends how you define them. They define themselves in a very fluid and somewhat random way. All that is in common is a very loose and broad philosophy, into which someone’s particular beef (CIA support of dictators, failures to wear the veil, too many McDonalds’) can be slotted in.

Since 9-11, what’s the extent of the Al Qaeda war on the Western way of life? There has been a train bombing in Madrid (2004), a bombing in London (2005), and a resort bombing in Bali (2003). All of a piece, but so distributed as to make it clear that one of two things are happening. Stepped up security (and curtailment of civil liberties) has worked – there are only isolated attacks - or there has been no significant dent in the frequency of terrorist attacks in the last fifty years or so.

Except for Iraq, where we conveniently placed a huge army of Westerners and their administrative and journalistic hangers on to be targets for any unemployed terrorists who can get there. In Iraq, you have Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, taking on the general philosophy of killing Americans or anyone who likes them. But, despite the name, the attacks were not directed by Bin Laden, (who has been confined to his caves for the last 7 years,) or any central command.

So maybe what we have is a general rage and discontentment that exists and will always exist in a world where a smaller percentage of the global population is in want, yet still is growing in absolute numbers among a world population that won’t peak at 10 billion until about 30 years from now. That’s an enormous substrate of poverty and ignorance from which can and does emerge periodic groups of nut jobs to carry out the sporadic attacks. But there is no action the targets of the attacks can take to really in a blanket way take care of all the individual grievances.

And the attacks are not enough to change the business of the world. But enough to be an ever-present annoyance, and occasionally and randomly, a threat to health. Can you ever get it to zero?

It strikes me a lot like the situation with air pollution over the last 40 years or so. General levels of pollution are associated with a general level of health effects. Here’s a randomly selected example in New Jersey.

Table 1: Annual Public Health Damage from Fine Soot (PM 10) in New Jersey
Health Effect Number of Cases
Premature Mortality (age 30+) 2,300 to 5,400
Respiratory Hospital Admissions 5,100 to 7,800
Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions 2,700 to 7,500
New Cases of Chronic Bronchitis 450 to 9,500
Missed Work Days 460,000 to 530,000
Asthma Attacks 330,000 to 1.4 million
Restricted Activity Days 7.1 million to 9.7 million
Increased Symptom Days 14 million to 45 million

It is theoretically possible to reduce air pollution to zero, and thus eliminate the health effectds. But after 40 years, depending how you count, it is clearly not politically, socially or economically possible to do so. We have determined that we will live with an ever-present level of pollution and its consequences. Smog is with us forever. And at some level, so is terrorism.

The current Threat Level according to Transportation Security Administration is Orange. The paragraph that explains it (as of 12/24/08) reads:
Currently, there is no indication of plotting within the United States. We believe the arrests of extremists engaged in a substantial plot to destroy multiple passenger aircraft flying from the United Kingdom to the United States have significantly disrupted the threat, but we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted.

However, that particular plot alleged to have been disrupted has not been the reason for the elevation to Orange – it’s been Orange since, well as long as I can remember. The recording says “has been raised to Orange”. The last record I can find is that the level for flights from UK to US was raised in August 2006. But in fact the level is and has been Orange “all commercial aviation operating in or destined for the United States”.

After a Google search, I have now found that the levels have fluctuated since 9/11, but it’s hard to follow which are general aviation, which are other transit (trains after the London bombings), etc. But never below Yellow – Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks - and Orange – High Risk - for more than two years now.

And it’s not a conspiracy or mystery. It’s just what we live with in the 21st Century. It’s Terror Smog.

Source of table:

Source of Threat Level

History of Threat Level

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