Remember how the New York Times adopted a new blog this week? Turns out that kicked off with a bang, or at least with a concerted effort to destroy this country and all it holds dear. The post was called "If You Were A Terrorist, How Would You Attack?" as economist and savvy sociological weather-vane Steven Levitt mused on how best to effect maximum destruction and terror:
I'd start by thinking about what really inspires fear... I'd want to create the feeling that an army of terrorists exists, which I'd accomplish by pulling off multiple attacks at once, and then following them up with more shortly thereafter.
My general view of the world is that simpler is better. My guess is that this thinking applies to terrorism as well. In that spirit, the best terrorist plan I have heard is one that my father thought up after the D.C. snipers created havoc in 2002. The basic idea is to arm 20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrange to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn't be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.
Now that's thinking! But Levitt doesn't kid himself that he's the only evil mastermind out there — surely his readers could help?
I'm sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them.
Super-smart call, Levitt, even though you probably shouldn't tempt would-be terrorists by calling them "Shirley." Still, two heads are better than one — or, in the case of the comments posted to this blog post, 594 heads are better than one! Suggestions for terror, fire and brimstone poured forth (giving blog editrix and comment moderator Melissa Lafsky a fun first-day workout), along with bitter recriminations, sticks-and-stones insults that are totally not as effective as sniper fire (comment # 5 "You are an idiot"), and requests to actually discuss economics (comment # 10, though the suggestion in comment # 53 would probably disrupt commerce).
Reacting to the uproar caused by the post — because who could have predicted that? — Levitt wrote a clarifying post that was a tad more reasonable, if by "responsible" one means "well, I stimulated this giant outpouring of ideas for how to terrorize the nation, but since I don't think it's that big a risk, it's cool. But, sorry!" Except for the part where he didn't actually say "sorry." Also not sorry: The New York Times, which featured (and continues to feature) the blog post on the top of the homepage. (A request for comment from the NYT has not yet been responded to.)
Should Levitt be sorry? Well, not for exercising his right to free speech, dammit, and nor should the NYT be sorry for not pulling the post — that is, if you think that a clearinghouse for terrorist inspiration ought to exist forevermore in the NYT archives (whee, just in time to escape being blocked by TimesSelect! Because as everyone knows, TimesSelect thwarts terrorism every time). Even so, here at ETP we'd like to think that the work of a highly-acclaimed economist might rise to a standard just a tad higher than the de minimus First Amendment defense, like, say, answering the question of "what does this post add to the dialogue, other than excellent suggestions for carnage?" (and no, falling back on the old "hey, we're helping law enforcement know what to respond to" doesn't count, since if everyone knows what to guard against, terrorists will probably go in another direction. To paraphrase Abu Nidal, we need to be lucky all the time; they only need to be lucky once). The fact is, freedom of speech/healthy exchange of ideas aside, the post wasn't all that innovative (seriously! 9/11 was years ago, dude! You don't think there are a few think tanks working on this?) or enlightening (your dad, commenter #53 — people think about this stuff, sure (I carry a can of Diet Coke with me on every flight to whip at someone's head if need be**) but collecting it all in one place and making it a freaking brainstorming session does nothing — at least not for the good guys.
Which all leads us to the unfortunate and rather bizarre position of — gulp — agreeing with Fox News. I KNOW. KILL ME NOW. (Oh wait, Levitt's on it.) But seriously, though the whole liberal-media-hating-on-America thing is pretty tired, it's hard not to agree with John Gibson here (auuugh! Fifty lashes!):
What possible reason could an institution like The Times have for helping terrorists come up with ways to kill us? A public service? To point out our vulnerabilities?
Got me there, dude. Seriously. (But remember, you were the guy who wanted to blow up Paris, so you still don't qualify for reasonable quite yet). According to Newshounds, the banner throughout the segment read "Times Helps Terrorists." Well, it's a tad more apt than "Times Thwarts Terrorists," isn't it? (Thank goodness, my reasonableness returns with my non-agreement with this statement: "The Times doesn't want terrorists spied on, locked up or killed. It doesn't want terrorists blamed, because a good suit of blame fits George W. Bush so much better." We'd start with a hair shirt, at the very least.)
Anyhoo, lots of outrage, lots of pickup, and possibly one brand-new orange jumpsuit at Gitmo being freshly cleaned and pressed. If only we could think of an appropriate Rick James lyric for this circumstance.
UPDATE: NYT spokesperson Catherine Mathis kindly responded to my query, saying that no-one had canceled their subscription as a result of the post (bullet dodged, Janet Robinson!). When asked if the NYT had considered taking the post down as a result of the outcry, Mathis had this to say:
Given our commitment to free speech and to an open discussion of issues, we believe it was and is important to keep the post up. As I'm sure you know, there was a post subsequent to the original one that discussed measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of terrorism.
Thank you, Catherine!
If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack? [Freakonomics]
Terrorism, Part II [Freakonomics]
John Gibson rags on New York Times, ignores FOX TV's "24" [Newshounds]
Earlier, back when things seemed so bright:
NYT Gets Its Freak On (Omics) [ETP]
*With apologies to Fox News.
**Clarification re: Diet Coke: I've been doing this for years, but since they started confiscating liquids, I obviously have to find my weapon of choice elsewhere, either in a shop near the gate (though they favor bottles, alas) or sometimes on board in the form of an innocent and parched request to a kindly flight attendant. Point being, we've all thought about it.