Thursday, August 10, 2006

Mass Murder on an Unimaginable Scale

Today's big news:

LONDON - British authorities said Thursday they thwarted a terrorist plot to simultaneously blow up 10 aircraft heading to the U.S. using explosives smuggled in hand luggage, averting what police described as "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
What's so unimaginable about that? Ten airliners stuffed to capacity is about 5000 people. How is that unimaginable? 9/11 was about 3000. Genocides go in the millions. To call that "unimaginable" shows a lack of imagination.

Other early reports are describing the plot as follows:
The plot had been in the works for months, and its goal was horrific. One after another, planes would have exploded in the sky, sending hundreds of men, women and children to their deaths.

Counterterrorism officials said Thursday the plan thwarted in London appears to bear the fingerprints of al-Qaida, and may even have been "the Big One" they have been dreading since Sept. 11, 2001, particularly as the five-year anniversary of the attacks on the United States approaches.
Horrific, certainly. "The Big One," not even close. I'll give three reasons:
  1. The death toll wouldn't be much higher than 9/11.
  2. Property damage would be much smaller than 9/11. A new commercial airplane goes for about $250 million. So 10 airplanes are $2.5 billion and change. That's not much compared to 4 airplanes, two skyscrapers, and a chunk of the Pentagon, to say nothing of the economic impact of 9/11 associated with the loss of the ability to generate economic activity in New York City after 9/11. (See this report for a discussion.)
  3. Most importantly for terrorists, there would be little to no sensational video. To match 9/11, they would need to be on a par with airplanes smashing into buildings, those buildings collapsing, and innocent people jumping from those buildings to their deaths. How are they going to get that with detonations over the Atlantic? Would they risk the mission by waiting until the planes were on approach over the Eastern Seaboard? I doubt it.
So let's be grateful that the plot was thwarted and try our best to get through the added burden imposed on us, but let's not confuse this with "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" or "The Big One."


Daniel Kahn said...

Apparently the terrorism futures market (scuttled after media outrage) lives on, but only by shorting the airlines...

Anonymous said...

I have to agree, a nearly identical plot was foiled in the mid-90s so who would find it unimaginable? This is a re-run.

Anonymous said...

Writers pander to the ignorant 65% in order to generate a buzz which in turn sells news.

The aware 35% simply needs to remember to keep it normative, correct mistakes in a rational way and keep pushing for sanity and progress.

Anonymous said...

Did they say where they planned to detonate? If on approach to landing, over heavily populated areas, the fallout from the explosion could magnify the damage exponentially.

Anonymous said...

I think the prospect of SEVERAL planes going down in a short span of time would have a profound effect on travelers. I agree that much greater numbers of people have died in other events, but the public has been able to rationalize them--pick any of the last few holocausts: Armenian, Herrero, Belgian Congo, Germany in the '40's, or Ruanda--for the vast majority of people, there's nothing to connect them to the tragedy. Most people in the US have been on a plane, however.

I understand that what was planned does not rise to the level of "mass murder on an unimaginable scale", but the fact that so many of the public could very well "imagine" themselves as being victims, might be the key factor.

Steve Hayes said...

As you say, it is indeed quite imaginable, and has been going on in the Near and Middle East for the last 2 months and more. Hype from journalists is one thing, hype from police officers is a bit more disturbing.

Arun Khanna said...

The hype reminds me of the O.J. Simpson trial which was termed trial of the century (20th century) by the media. By any objective standards the trial of the 20th century was Nuremberg trials.