An article in the Herald on Sunday by academic and so-called resilience expert Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor really raised some questions for me:

You might be reading this in an Albany cafe or a Wellington hair salon. You might be in the Sylvia Park food court, a Riccarton outlet complex, a Westgate supermarket, waiting to bungy-jump off a bridge or even at the airport.

It has probably already occurred to you that, while doing these activities, you could be placing your life in the hands of terrorists.

Questions such as:

wtf am I reading

And also some more technical questions about how much we should be willing to pay for “insurance” against unlikely or unpredictable events. Dr Sullivan-Taylor continues:

Black swan extreme events — those that come as a surprise — have a major effect and are often inappropriately rationalised with the benefit of hindsight. The challenge is to be prepared for them…

Examples of this are the cyber threat to banks and other global systems from such things as Ed Snowden’s classified information leak from the National Security Agency over the past two years; Fonterra’s Chinese milk crisis that threatened our major primary market; and the Germanwings disaster a few weeks ago in which a suicidal pilot flew a plane with 150 people on it into the French Alps.

So basically, she strings together a small number of totally unrelated events into an argument that we’ve got to be prepared for the next low-probability event. In other words: the world’s a scary place, and you’ve got to be frightened wherever you go!

Dr Sullivan-Taylor argument seems to be that we have to be “resilient” to any possible threat, no matter how unlikely. That’s an interesting, if unrealistic, assumption that I want to revisit after looking at her recommendations for not getting victimised by terrorism at your local mall food court.

So how might this affect New Zealand consumers? Hardening or toughening soft targets could mean that if you are going to the mall, you might have your bag checked at the entrances, and there might be restrictions on how long you can stay in the carpark. Employees might require security passes, and purchases might be checked on leaving the mall.

If you’re going to the cinema, there could be more security screening, including bag-checking machines. You might see more CCTV or facial recognition software being used inside the mall and in carparks that are watching all your movements. Security or police staff might ask for proof of identification, carparks might be occasionally restricted directly under or on top of the mall, and we might see more information in the media informing customers about raised security threats at particular locations.

There are two problems with these recommendations.

The first is that there is almost no way that Dr Sullivan-Taylor’s recommendations would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. For comparison, here’s a review of a recent paper on the costs and benefits of protecting airports from terrorist attack:

Mark Stewart and John Mueller are here to alert us about the security at our airports. They want to warn us that it is too good. Or, at least, there’s too much of it. Their new paper is titled “Cost-benefit analysis of airport security: Are airports too safe?” The answer, the authors say, is most likely yes…

Stewart and Mueller calculated the cost of traditional airport security measures and compared it against the risk of an airport attack, the cost of the damage an attack would cause (in lives and property), and the efficacy of particular security measures in preventing an attack. Their finding: “Many of the assessed security measures would only begin to be cost-effective if the current rate of attack at airports in the U.S., Europe, and the Asia-Pacific increases by a factor of 10-20.”

In other words, the benefit-cost ratio for measures to protect airports from attacks is in the range of 0.05 to 0.1. That’s shockingly low even by the standard set by the RoNS. Given that airports are more tempting and systemically important targets than shopping malls and tourist attractions, it’s likely that costly measures to secure everything will be even less worthwhile.

According to Mueller:

“What’s your chance of being killed by a terrorist if you’re American?” he says. “It’s now about one in 4 million per year. Maybe that’s enough, maybe that’s not enough. Some people might say we can save some money and make it one in 3.5 million. What I’m trying to do is just apply standard analytic techniques to the hazards of terrorism.”

If we assume that New Zealanders are equally at risk of terrorism as Americansa pessimistic assumption, I hope – we’d expect one Kiwi to be killed by terrorism every year. We could probably save as many lives by upgrading half a dozen dangerous intersections or curves in the road as we could by totally preventing terrorism. In other words, the expected value of total “resilience” against terrorism is quite small, and dwarfed by other risks we face.

Professor Ramesh Thakur from the Australian National University made this point quite well in a Radio New Zealand report on the subject:

“Think of the attention that was given to the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Of course it was a serious incident. But, as I said, in terms of people who are killed on the roads in India and in India it is pedestrians and cyclists who are killed much more than people in the cars, or any other way you look at it, in terms of the real threats to people’s safety and security terrorism should rank way down in the scale.”

The second problem with Dr Sullivan-Taylor’s proposal is that the resulting cost, time, and hassle would dismember our urban life. Cities, by their very nature, concentrate people and bring them together in unpredictable ways. There have always been risks to doing so – consider the burden of disease in Victorian-era British cities or the impact of violent crime in mid-century American cities. Terrorism, or the perceived threat of terrorism, is just the latest high-profile risk.

People have chosen to accept a few risks from urban life because the benefits are far, far greater. Living around and interacting with other people gives you more choices about employment and more consumption options. It gives you better transport choices and more places to go. Frequent, incidental human contact makes us happier.

SHARED SPACES_6243

Putting a security checkpoint everywhere humans might gather together – from malls to the waterfront to buses to art galleries – will cost society much more than it will ever deliver in benefits. The added friction will make the economic life of our cities less efficient and productive and our social lives stultified and hesitant.

In short, Dr Sullivan-Taylor seems to be massively over-estimating the value of “resilience” and vastly under-estimating or ignoring the costs of her preferred solutions. We certainly shouldn’t ignore the risk of terrorism, but as with any other public policy issue, we need to address it in a cost-effective and considered way. Her sensationalised statements about the risk of terrorism at your neighbourhood cafe, and associated claims about the need to secure absolutely every public place, do not amount to a rational risk assessment.

Finally, while the Herald on Sunday never should have printed such an ill-considered take on a serious issue, it did raise the issue of how we value resilience against low-probability events in our cities and urban transport networks. How much should we pay for resilience? I’d like to say more on that topic, but it’ll have to wait for a future post…

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61 comments

  1. It’s the usual lack of perspective – terrorism vs heart disease, terrorism vs lightening strikes, heart disease vs active lifestyle etc etc. If we actually cared about the health and safety of people we’d lower speed limits, tax junk food, improve active modes, ban new suburbs, fund preventative health yadda yadda. But it’s more politically convenient to use fear to decrease privacy in the name of some imaginary threat.

    If policy was ever made rationally we’d be in a different world, but people are weird.

    1. you’re not completely incorrect.

      But I still think it’s worth highlighting that this was a particularly poor article. Any discussion of a topic related to risk-management which does not comment on both the consequences and probabilities associated with that risk are simply failing the basic test of usefulness.

      As Peter and you note, from reading this article we are left none the wiser as to 1) why the author is ratcheting up fears of terrorism and/or 2) what the relative risks of terrorism are compared to other potential risks?

      That’s not to downplay the awfulness caused by acts of terrorism, or the potential benefits of proactive measures. I actually think proactive measures to prevent terrorism are worthwhile. But as Peter points out, the relative benefits of preventative security measures, such as what the author of the article seems to be suggesting, seem to be rather low.

      1. Oh, I’m all for the article review here – someone needs to do this analysis because journalism here and elsewhere seems incapable. I was just summarising my cynical view of the whole terrorist debate. Terrorism is just this decade’s communism or whatever else is needed to scare people – I don’t believe western governments are necessarily evil and out to become some stasi like control system (though I am tempted sometimes..) – I think it’s the latest form of neoliberal politics – scare people and then propose policies that comfort them from those fears. Who cares if 10,000 people die of preventable health issues – as long as the populace feels the warm embrace of ‘security’.

        It’s the same with any problem – simplify issues in ways that people can understand at some emotional level and frame all arguments around it, then propose solutions, get support for doing the ‘right’ thing

        eg: re-enforce that people love cars but have too much traffic (frame the problem to suit)-> build wider roads (propose solution to problem)-> get votes (repeat)

        when the real problem is:
        we have finite space and resource to move people around, and it should be done efficiently and equitably (more realistic problem statement) -> invest in suitable transport solutions (forward thinking, financially and environmentally responsible solutions) -> 80% of the population hates you because they are used to driving everywhere (get voted out)

        Another fun analogy is music on the radio – you only hear the same 100 songs, so that’s what you like and that’s why it’s awful. Spotify and the like with auto-curation really seal the deal to make sure you never get out of your comfort zone. I read a great article a while ago but cannot for the life of me find it.

        The long and short is that politics are more controlled now by the population than ever, the trick is getting the population to ‘want’ better things so that the politicians will write policy to get their votes.

    2. I agree with most of the issues you raised there in that first paragraph, however at the same time I’m against nanny state intervention into our personal lives, so thankfully government hasn’t stuck their nose into most of the realms (so far). Let people make some of their own choices in life.

      1. This is a serious question rather than a criticism: would you regard levying a higher tax rate on (say) junk food or dispersed suburbs as a “nanny state intervention into our personal lives”?

        From an economic perspective, this could be described as a “Pigouvian tax” that is aimed at ensuring that people pay the real cost of their activities. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigovian_tax) It wouldn’t ban people from doing what they like, but it would mean that they may have to pay more for activities that have negative externalities.

        I’m generally in favour of Pigouvian taxes as it seems that they balance individual choice with the need to consider social costs. In some cases regulations (e.g. a ban on some food products) may be easier to administer, though. What’s your view?

    3. Oh god, what useless worthwhile article. She must be terrified every time she goes to the supermarket. There’s always going to be danger in life, if we lived by her mentality, you would never leave the house.

  2. Editor’s note: It was necessary to delete this comment, as it made several inflammatory race-based statements. This violates user guideline 1, “Commenters are guests and are asked to behave accordingly. Treat other members of the community with civility and respect.” Any similar attempts to make sweeping generalisations about large groups of New Zealanders will also be deleted.

    In my view, it is inaccurate and unfair to assume that Muslims are especially prone to violence or religious bigotry. Remember, the biggest act of terrorism in New Zealand was the Rainbow Warrior bombing carried out by French agents.

    1. @Ricardo – Attitude like yours seriously pisses me off. You have tens of thousands of Muslims here in NZ and so far we have coexisted peacefully. I personally know a lot of Muslims from all walks of life who are really happy to be here and are contributing to their community.

      When the day comes when one person who happens to be a Muslim committed something terrible, people like you will then blame the other tens of thousands of Muslims in NZ as the bad guys who refuse to assimilate to NZ culture.

      Also, from what I remember – the most high profile NZ Muslim who support the Islamic State happens to be a NZ-born Maori. So much for your xenophobia about migrant Muslims.

      http://i.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/10690655/Maori-Muslim-backs-Islamic-State

      1. Xenophobia? Racism? Thanks for the labels. If you actually read what i wrote instead of grandstanding you would see that I said ‘core’.

        1. The first half of that sentence IS xenophobic. Specifically Islamophobic. It’s sweeping statement with no nothing to back it, personal opinion masquerading as fact.

          “there are no western countries that have ever rejoiced at taking in large numbers of Muslims, as most do not integrate…”

        2. Ricardo, as well as being xenophobic your comment was completely off-topic.

          This is a post about *terrorism* and how preventative measures might affect our cities, not religion.

        3. Editor’s note: This post was deleted in accordance with user guideline 1. As stated above, it is not acceptable to make sweeping negative statements about Muslims. (Or any other ethnic or religious group, for that matter.)

          In my view, condemning entire groups of people is not just inaccurate – it creates social misunderstanding and distrust. Please be civil.

        4. Completely meaningless sentence; why not replace the word Islam there with Christianity? Exactly the same applies. All ideologies create in the minds of some the right to kill. This is not a helpful addition to the conversation. Quite the reverse.

    2. Why are we even posting this. It’s not relevant at all. Why give air to ridiculous “experts”.

      I always thought the dawn raids of the 1970’s were among the worst acts of terrorism in NZ.

  3. Of course in that list of dreary suburban mall locations people are killing themselves with inactivity and overdoes of simple carbohydrates and ennui. A slow and depressing death that costs society dearly.

  4. Yes some guy on the door checking handbags really would have prevented 4 suicidal gunmen with AK47s killing 67 people at the westgate mall.

    Ive been in many many places where they do these security checks on the door and they are just about always pointless. You know your not carrying any thing. The guy checking you knows it unlikely. You open your bag. He shines a light in it for less than asecond pretending to look. Then you walk through the metal detector which goes off and you carry on your merry way into the mall feeling far less safe and slightly annoyed at the constant pointless beeping of the metal detector

  5. “We certainly shouldn’t ignore the risk of terrorism”

    I’m ignoring terrorism. Does that mean it’s no longer terrorism?

  6. I think we should be building resilient cities, but not in the way that she thinks.

    The greatest risks to New Zealand are from disease (including accidental death and injury), natural disasters, and climate change. Each will inflict billions of dollars of damage this century, and injure and kill thousands.

    It’s important that our buildings, transport, and communities are designed to minimise the risks to members of the community. It’s also very important that we design so that when these do occur, we’re able to respond and get back to a state of healthy normality relatively easily.

  7. I tend to agree with most comments on here.

    The way to stop terrorism is through intelligence operations, not bag checks. If a terrorist really wants to attack an event they will find a way. Most of the security checks we use now are ineffective and a waste of everyone’s time.

    1. I’d add a few things to that list. Good police work, which includes well-considered intelligence gathering but is not limited to it, is certainly crucial to responding to the risk of terrorism.

      Good mental health and social services are probably also very important. When you look at cases of domestic terrorism in the US (e.g. the Unabomber) it often seems like the perpetrators are not psychologically well. It’s possible to treat that in advance rather than deal with the consequences.

      Finally, I think that it’s essential to maintain an open, democratic society rather than being intimidated or panicked into overreaction. Tolerance of dissent and difference after a tragedy is always difficult, but in my view it makes it easier to resist more widespread radicalisation and conflict.

      1. yes I think Peter’s hit the nail on the head here.

        Society would be far better off from investing its limited resources into improving Police and mental health services rather than the types of mass checkpoints advocated in the Herald article.

  8. This attitude is pervasive in America. Now, you can make the case that they have a particular reason, or reasons, to be cautious (I sure can), but when it gets into the culture like it has there, it’s pernicious. “Fear is the most effective tool of power,” an old sage said, and it is, without a doubt. That’s why the right wing in the US never saw a military or police solution they didn’t love. America serves as the model for many things, some of which are very positive. This time it isn’t. As said here, promoting a culture of fear leads to paranoia, suspicion, distancing from one another, limited experience of the world, and an economy that relies on the security industry for its viability.

    Militarily armed and trained police forces, enhanced by a culture that reveres guns, are the most obvious example. But people like Taylor have a political agenda and look for as many real-world manifestations of it as possible so she goes around poisoning other wells.

    Fact is, all of her suggestions are half measures. The nature of terrorism is that it is unconventional, asymetric, and capable of pinpoint targeting. No matter how many such countermeasures are put in place, someone can always think of a way around them, exploit a hole in the net, or develop new technologies. My fear is that the leap from reasonable caution to a closed society a la North Korea is not as short as we would like to think, but some people want to believe the worst and take extreme measures.

    BTW, it has been documented that the CIA *made up* so-called terrorist threats (that they skillfully thwarted) to keep tensions in the US high, and justify their and other’s surveillance and torture programs.

    Anyway, NZ is no where near the target the US is and never will be.

  9. I’m terrified of my wife and son riding their bike’s on many of Auckland’s roads. There are people on the roads with weapons (cars) who kill hundreds of people each year using these weapons. Are these people terrorists? If not, why not?

    These people are hiding everywhere. A few of them are Muslim, a few Irish, but most of them look like you and me. Shouldn’t we have security guards at every driveway checking for these terrorists?

  10. Compare the number of people killed in NZ over the last 10 years by terrorism vs the number that died in car accidents and that will tell you where you should be spending your money.
    Follow advice from noted security guru, Bruce Schneier and “refuse to be terrorised”.

    1. “Compare the number of people killed in NZ over the last 10 years by terrorism”

      In the last ten years, none. Ever that I can recall, 2.

        1. If you are meaning road toll over the 40 year time span Nick R is mentioning you are well under- it was 22,420 people to end of 2014

        2. So this is the extraordinary hold driving has over us all. That sort of carnage from any other source would be considered an extraordinary tragedy and national emergency requiring a complete halt of all factors contributing to it. A few crazies with guns or bombs are just a joke next to that figure. That’s like casualties from an entire major war.

        3. WWI was about 16-18,000 and WWII 11,900. It’s like we need a day of remembrance for our road dead too.

        4. And don’t forget Neil Roberts. ie Wanganui Computer Centre, front door thereof… He may have been the only casualty, but he was still committing a terrorist act. Or making a point. Or standing for something. And he gets the best goodbye line ever:
          “For too long, we have been maintaining a silence closely resembling stupidity”

          I think he’d be glad not to see the readiness that people freely submit all their personal details to the Facebook Computer Centre…

        5. I remember Neil well at university. I argued with him at length; he was in an extremely nihilistic place. He saw no value in an human relation. He was smart and lucid but there was a negativity at the heart of his world. It all ended in very sad yet somewhat poetic but ultimately pointless act.

  11. It occurs to me that our shopping malls are sitting ducks for asteroid strikes. Perhaps we should compel mall owners to take precautions against falling asteroids?

      1. Carl Sagan had an interesting corollary to the threat of asteroid strikes. He argued that any defensive system capable of targeting and neutralizing an asteroid (i.e. some kind of orbitally stationed nuclear tipped interceptor vehicle) could more easily be targeted to the earth itself, and therefore represented a greater risk to humanity.

  12. ““Many of the assessed security measures would only begin to be cost-effective if the current rate of attack at airports in the U.S., Europe, and the Asia-Pacific increases by a factor of 10-20.”
    This is stupid. If there was no security maybe the rate of attacks would go up by that much. I stopped reading after that.

    1. It’s not about no security but what’s the right balance. We screen passengers and their luggage at the airport but we don’t do it when catching a train yet there have probably been just as many train attacks as plane attacks – and a full train has many more passengers than a plane. I think a lot of our security is for show and making people feel safe. The original article, though not the intention of the author, points out the obvious, if we really want to stop the possibility of any terrorist acts then the measure undertaken will be so ridiculous that becomes absurd.

  13. The irony of the 150 killed when a suicidal pilot flew a plane with 150 people on it into the French Alps was only made possible because of the anti terrorists precautions demanded by the ‘experts’. To use it as an example of why we need more ‘precautions’ seems a little disingenuous.
    My guess is that Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor is looking for a big fat consultancy fee.

    1. London Transport got it right with their Routemaster buses. A separate door for the driver and no passageway between the driving compartment and the public. Aeroplanes could easily be designed like that, just give the pilots a toilet and a microwave oven.

      1. Thus ensuring that the next time BOTH pilots get sick, there will be no hero story of one passenger with a pilot’s license flying the plane home. The plane will just crash while the rest of the passengers and crew curse the person who had the bright idea not to have any door connection at all.

        Overcomplicating, adding endless extra rules to deal with the latest rare scenario – but ignoring the really changeable things, that is our problem. Like (for ground traffic) ensuring appropriate vehicle speeds and sufficient distances between metal and meat.

  14. Bruce Schneier wrote an excellent book on this very subject ‘Beyond Fear’ (sub title “Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World”). In essence, the security response to 9/11 was, in his informed opinion, way out of scale to the relative threat. The title is a reference to his belief that if you understand the real threats you can move ‘Beyond Fear’. IIFC there was plenty of speculation that there were more road deaths in America in the years after 9/11 than there otherwise would have been as people choose to drive rather than fly, exposing themselves to a far more dangerous transportation method.

    If you look at this chart (which doesn’t specifically outline terrorism as a cause and is in America so likely that firearms related deaths will be higher than here) it’s really boring things that kill people.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/02/daily-chart-7

    Spending money on fixing the boring things would be way more cost effective than trying to stop a random attack. As Peter points out about better mental health services would reduce the number dying by suicide as well as potentially helping identify and treat the sort of person who might undertake such a ‘lone wolf’ attack.

    There’s also the question of whether by restricting people’s freedom in the ways suggested, even by a little bit for a lot of people, terrorism has won.

  15. Thanks for bringing this up Stu. When I first read the article it made my blood boil. We let 50 tonnes trucks speed 1 meter from a kid on a bike. When the inevitable happens we call it a fatality, we call it an accident, inevitable. Well it’s fucking evitable. But if a crazy fanatic goes out on a killing spree or smashing his plane against a mountain, we call that evitable.

  16. The laws of unintended consequences in full play.

    How many lives were saved post 9/11 by strengthened plane cockpit doors? Precisely zero.

    How many lives were lost because of the strengthened doors? At least 155, possibly more.

    Intended Consequences: 0 Unintended consequences: 155 and counting.

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