A reader writes:
I am certainly no fan of security theater, at airports or elsewhere. However, I find this particular part of Bruce Schneier's argument unconvincing. The fact of the matter is that, bungling and over-compensating though it may be, there is a large amount of security focus at airports. Airplanes are already relatively hard targets. So, if the terrorists' equation is simply to shift to a softer target, why for the most part have they failed to do so? I don't see any metal detectors at movie theaters or malls, stadiums continue to be more focused on outside beverages than weapons, and don't even get me started about parades. But still there have been no terrorist attacks at these presumably soft targets, and the closest thing we've had (the Times Square car bomb attempt) was bungled almost hilariously. Why?
I suspect it is because planes continue to offer the best cost-benefit ratio for a would-be terrorist.
People are already predisposed to magnify the threat of airplane risk, and relatively small actions can lead to the deaths of hundreds through the crashing of a plane. To illustrate, consider the materials that Timothy McVeigh needed to assemble to pull of the Oklahoma City bombing. And horrific as that was, he only killed 168 people. The Lockerbie bombing, by contrast, consisted of a bomb in a suitcase and killed 270 people. Further, the folks who possess not only the will but the ability to carry out an effective attack are mostly overseas and require some way to get back here, which introduces air travel again as a necessary security filter.
So yes, one of these softer targets will probably be attacked at some point. But it will most likely be from a relatively incompetent individual (because it's harder for international terrorists to travel here) and have a limited death toll (because you simply can't kill as many people when you're not able to drop a commercial airliner on them).
Why haven’t terrorists been hitting public transportation, museums, shopping malls, movie theatres, etc? Either because there aren’t nearly as many terrorists as the security state apparatus and its apologists want us to think there are, or terrorists really do just want to hit airplanes. My money is on the former. I’ve long argued with friends that Al Qaeda has already shot its wad.
All you need to do to shut down the USA is five guys. Five suicide bombers who will detonate themselves roughly simultaneously one Monday morning or Friday afternoon on Boston’s MTA, New York’s subway, DC’s subway, Chicago’s CTA and the BART in San Francisco. Or five guys to leave exploding backpacks in five upscale stores in the same five cities. Or five baseball parks in the same five cities. Or five museums in the same cities, or five …
Bingo, America will react just like it did after 9/11 – total shutdown, panic, madness, new laws restricting civil liberties, billions of dollars spent on security theater. And that hasn’t happened, and not due to “If you see something, say something” PSAs on the trains. It hasn’t happened because they don’t have the guys. So when security experts say it’s just a matter of time till terrorists strike again, I shake my head: what are they waiting for? For the security experts’ paychecks to clear?