July 07, 2005

Defending the Subways

In the wake of the horrific London attacks today, Fred Kaplan has some thoughts on securing our own public transportation system here in America, but I'm not sure where he's going with this. A decent revamp of mass-transit security would cost about $6 billion, to which Kaplan says: "If President George W. Bush went on television tonight and called for a surtax to finance mass-transit security—the APTA proposal would cost about $20 per American—does anyone doubt it would pass in a flash?" Well, yes, I do. First off, the surtax wouldn't necessarily come to $20 per American, because the costs might not be distributed so evenly. What if they fell primarily on those who actually use mass transit, say, in the form of a fee hike? Now according to the APTA, Americans took 9.4 billion trips on the mass-transit system in 2003, so we're talking roughly a 64-cent hike per trip. To which I would say, "Oh hell no." And I don't think I'd be alone.

But hey, maybe the funding would work out as smoothly as Kaplan says. The more important point is this: it doesn't seem that there's any possible way of ensuring total mass-transit security, extra billions or no. If someone really wanted to blow up my 1BX bus in the morning, it wouldn't be very difficult at all, there's no conceivable security measure anyone could put in place to stop it, and a decent bomb could probably kill 30-40 people easy (it's a crowded bus). That's not to say that no security measures are prudent—presumably there's some sort of cost-benefit analysis someone can run on all of this, and obviously our critical infrastructure needs protection—but at some point one has to admit that terrorist attacks are pretty much inevitable if the will exists, rather than siphon off billions in Homeland Security funds every time we start worrying about another attack. An essay Stephen Flynn wrote a few years back describes best the sort of mindset that's needed here:
Today's terrorist masterminds know that the main benefit of attacks on critical infrastructure is not the immediate damage they inflict, but the collateral consequences of eroding the public's trust in services on which it depends. … As long as catastrophic terrorism is assured of generating a huge bang for the buck, current and future U.S. adversaries will make it the first arrow they reach for in attacking the country.

How much security is enough? For the foreseeable future, the threshold for success is when the American people can conclude that a future attack on U.S. soil will be an exceptional event that does not require wholesale changes in how they go about their lives. This means that they should be confident that there are adequate measures in place to confront the danger.

In other words, homeland security should strive to achieve what the aviation industry has done with safety. What sustains air travel despite the periodic horror of airplanes falling out of the sky is the extent to which the industry's long-standing and ongoing investments have convinced the public that it is safe to fly. Public confidence can never be taken for granted after a major jet crash, but private and public aviation officials start from a credible foundation built upon a cooperative effort to incorporate safety into every part of the industry….

Ongoing and credible efforts to confront risk are essential to the viability of any complex modern enterprise. Aviation safety provides helpful reference points for how to pursue security without turning the United States into a national gated community. First, it demonstrates that Americans do not expect their lives to be risk-free; they just rightfully expect that reasonable measures be in place to manage that risk. Second, managing risk works best if safeguards are integrated as an organic part of a sector's environment and if they are dynamic in adapting to changes in that environment. Third, government plays an essential role in providing incentives and disincentives for people and industry to meet minimum standards. Bluntly stated, security will not happen by itself.
I'd suggest reading his whole essay, but the crux of it is in that quote. The point of homeland security can't be to prevent all attacks from now until eternity. That's an impossible goal. The point is to minimize the dangers and fallout as best one can and ensure that the inevitable attacks don't "require wholesale changes in how [we] go about our lives."
-- Brad Plumer 10:19 PM || ||