Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Perfect Ticking Bomb (Not!)

This latest terrorist plot seemed made to order for the ticking bomb scenario. A terrorst plot has seemingly been thwarted. Large numbers of brilliantly disguised bombs, powerful enough to destroy an airplaine in flight, are being sent out on multiple planes to multiple targets. The plot can't be aborted because the bombs have already been shipped out. Sure, we've stopped some of the bombs, but how do we know there aren't more out there? And now a suspect has been arrested? Can't we torture her to find out if there are any more bombs out there and, if so, where?

I was going to write a post explaining that no, not even this was a true ticking bomb. Granted, it comes remarkably close to what I have called the three essential conditions of a ticking bomb: (1) an immediate, known danger that we lack one critical piece of information to stop, (2) a suspect in custody known to have that information, (3) no possibility of finding the critical information to stop the attack other than torture. This actually does look remarkably like the first aspect of the ticking bomb -- a crystal ball with just one clouded spot. In this case, we have mostly thwarted the plot, but there may be more bombs out there. And we had the suspect who mailed the bombs.

So I was preparing to argue that the final condition -- no other way to find the bombs -- had not been met. The fact is, we now have a huge amount of information, rapidly growing. And, more importantly, we know what to look for and where it came from and that, too, cannot be changed now that the packages have been sent off. Yes, searching every package to come out of Yemen for that past few days will be a huge hassle, but it is doable. The inconvenience it causes is the sort of thing people can tolerate, considering the danger.

That was the post I was preparing to write, but events got ahead of me. It turns out the suspect was not, after all involved in the plot, but a simple victim of identity theft. Case closed.

(PS: Oh, and kudos to all the people, across many countries, who stopped the plot. A job well done!)

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