Now This Log

Saturday, 15 September 2001 : "unthinkable acts"

We have been limited in our expectations of what bad people might do:

Unthinkable, Unstoppable by William Saletan [Slate]
Why did so many of them remain in their seats or in the backs of the planes while the hijackers took aim at buildings containing thousands of people? Because it never seriously occurred to those passengers that the hijackers would use the planes for that purpose.

This is one of the most important lessons of Tuesday's catastrophe. Our ability to prevent crimes is constrained not only by technical limits--money, intelligence assets, airport security administration--but also by conceptual limits. We can't prepare for what we don't anticipate. Furthermore, the range of scenarios we anticipate isn't limited merely by what we think others can do. It's also limited by what we think they will do.

After a terrorist attack, everything looks different. You realize that every plane is a potential guided missile and that every hijacker might be a kamikaze pilot. Yet nothing has changed except the range of your imagination.

Where will terrorists strike next? If you've got an answer off the top of your head, it's the wrong answer. To thwart a terrorist, you have to think like one.

This is one of the small things that I will take comfort in; now it will be much harder for this particular thing to be done again, at least for quite a long time. Even if no airport security practices were changed, the attackers have lost the crucial element of surprise. Anyone flying is now going to be wary and watchful; I certainly will be (though I have no flights in my future for weeks).

While it shouldn't automatically alarm people if 4 or 5 Arab passengers get on an airplane, once anyone, Arab or not, starts actually hijacking a plane, people will get busy fighting them, precisely because they know the likely alternative now. The likelihood that hijackers could steer the plane to a heavily populated area or structure without being interfered with so that they are overcome or they crash now is much lower now.

This probably means that the next attack (if it even gets through our security measures) will be of a completely different form. But I think people (especially in big cities) are on the lookout now, much much more than they used to be, and this makes me hopeful that whatever it is, it can be mitigated or stopped by attentive Americans.

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Steve Bogart

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