How afraid should we be?

John Robb, author of Brave New War, appears to take issue with my injunction to stop being afraid of our own shadows when it comes to attack by terrorism:

Unlike a year ago, any attack on US commercial areas (retail, transportation, etc.) will have outsized network effects. Here’s why. Due to a global economic collapse and excessive indebtedness, Americans have cut back on purchases to repair household balance sheets (this is a long running secular shift). This has put most retail facing firms on the edge of bankruptcy. Any attack on commercial crowds over a large geographic area would radically reduce already depressed revenues at these firms (and drive costs for security through the roof), as people stay away from crowds until they feel safe again.

If John is correct, and I’m not saying that he’s wrong, then we are doomed.  When any attack that inflicts a few hundred casualties can bring our country down, then it’s just a matter of time until somebody does it.

Our only hope is for Americans  to recognize this danger get ready now to deal with itwhen it happens.  Fortunately, there are a lot of people doing disaster prep, and I’ll leave the technical details to them.  However, there is one point that might be overlooked that must not be.  And that is, we cannot let ourselves be frightened into doing the terrorists’ job for them

What this means is that the physical damage they can do will likely be small — remember the 3,000/month we lose to traffic accidents.  So as John suggests, the real danger comes from network effects that exploit the increased fragility of our national economy.  In Brave New World, he outlines some actions we can take today.

Here’s another must-do item that I hope we’re thinking about:  While 9/11 took many in our government by surprise, we can’t afford hours of paralysis this time.  Our national, state, and local leaders must lead, even if it means some danger to themselves. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, it’s the least they can do, and probably the most important.

And we need to stay as close to normal as possible — no shutdown of the airlines, no F-15s boring holes in the sky, no draconian security measures at shopping malls and office buildings.

This is going to take some preparation; otherwise military leaders and local officials will err on the side of caution, and the sum of their efforts will be as John suggests.  I suspect that President Obama’s instincts will guide him to exercise strong leadership, even though he may have to overrule his well-meaning security staff on occasion.

So one question to ask every candidate for every office in the land is:  If there is an incident, a really bad incident, are you prepared to live in your home, go to work, go shopping, travel, go to church, and so on, with no more security than the incumbent has right now?  Be sure and record their responses.

If the other side is prepared to die for their cause, while we’re afraid even to go on with our lives, then as Martin van Creveld has often pointed out, they’re going to win.

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