by Lyle Lofgren
September 15, 2001
[Note: This was written 4 days after the World Trade Center attack, but before we started chasing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Someone sent me an e-mail quoting one Col. Lunev, formerly of the Soviet Union and a CIA consultant at the time, who said the terrorists were being backed and trained by Moscow, and that they were secretly directing the attacks. He also predicted biological attacks in the next few weeks after the WTC incident. On reading this six years later, I'm not surprised that Col. Lunev was wrong, but I am surprised at how much detailed information  we had already been given by the media.]

To start with, I agree with Col. Lunev that the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the dispersal of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons into the wrong hands, which, by my definition, is anyone's hands. I have read credible accounts of former Soviet engineers and technicians who run a black market in these items. However, as Col. Lunev points out, the terrorists are not stupid. The high-tech weapons the USSR (and US) were developing tend to require expensive and cumbersome delivery equipment. I don't want to minimize the danger of biological weapons, but they are not easy to handle. You need to take good care of the microbes, or they'll die before you can use them. Military nerve gas is expensive compared to a poison gas that can be produced by mixing chlorine bleach with ammonia cleanser. Super-hygenic housewives have killed themselves in this way, leaning over a hyper-clean toilet bowl. Or you can scorch people's lungs just by exposing Freon to an open flame, as several industrial accidents have demonstrated. You don't even need to import a nuclear weapon in a suitcase into New York City. Just fly a modern plane into the Indian Point nuclear plant upstream on the Hudson. It's "designed" to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, but then, so was the World Trade Center. From the viewpoint of a fundamentalist, this is preferable, because the radioactivity from a nuclear bomb dissipates within a few years, while it takes millenia for the radioactive materials of a nuclear power plant to decay.

If the current official US belief that the attack was directed by Osama bin Laden is correct, however, then Col. Lunev is wrong in identifying Russia as the training ground for these terrorists. Osama fought the Russians in Afghanistan, and there's no reason to believe he's changed his mind to think they're any less evil than we are. We were the ones who trained the terrorists. Our own CIA trained and funded bin Laden during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan (1979 – 1989). We supplied the various anti-Russian Afghanis with massive funds and sophisticated anti-helicopter weapons which can now be used against us if we decide to invade the country. At the time, I stated that we were making a big mistake (but who listens to me?). On the basis of looking at a map, something that our leaders must have neglected to do, I noticed that Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are contiguous, the basis for a new Ottoman Empire based on fundamentalistic Islam. We should have been backing Russia, helping to drive a geographic wedge into the fledgling empire. Fortunately, it looks like the Taliban folks are so nuts they won't even consider forming an empire, thus creating their own wedge.

As I've pointed out earlier, terrorism is how poor people conduct warfare. No standing army, tanks, nuclear weapons or jet fighters are required. Back in grade-school American history, I read how the American troops learned from the Indians to hide in the bushes while the Redcoats marched across the field in file, then mowed them down. I'm sure George III classified this as a cowardly terrorist act. A US soldier in WWII who made a suicide attack on a machine gun nest posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor and was lauded as a hero. Suicide missions are not cowardly acts. Dropping bombs on civilians from 50,000 feet is a cowardly act, because the perpetrators are not at risk.

What will our leaders do now that they've declared war on terrorism? I would hope they'd take time to develop a strategy, instead of the tactical suggestions we've heard so far, such as "get bin Laden" or "bomb Afghanistan." From what I can make out in the news, the first tactical steps we've taken is to arrest anyone named Muhammed.

It might be worthwhile to look at classical management theory, in which we have an heirarchy of goal, strategy and tactics. We pay managers to develop strategies. This is hard work without immediate results, and managers often take the easier job of developing tactics instead. That's also known as micromanaging.

An easy example from the technological world would be:

GOAL: Get something for nothing.
STRATEGY: Build a machine that produces usable work without using any energy.
TACTICS: Try different approaches to achieve the strategy. There have been numerous ones over the years, inventions using spring-loaded devices or machines trying to make use of Maxwell's Demon, who places fast-moving (hot) molecules in one chamber and slow-moving (cold) molecules in another chamber, then uses the temperature difference to run a heat engine.

None of the tactics that have ever been tried has fulfilled the strategy, so the goal remains unmet. The tactics and strategy are flawed because the goal is flawed. There are credible laws of thermodynamics that state the goal is impossible to meet, and therefore the CEO who devised it should be fired. If the goal had been a more modest "maximize output while minimizing costs," progress could have been made.

So what should our goal be against terrorism? I think that "stop all terrorist attacks" might be as flawed a goal as the one leading to the search for perpetual motion machines. "Minimize attacks that are costly to society" might be a more reasonable one. It would certainly lead to strategies that might produce workable and sustainable tactics. For example, armed guards on airplanes would be a more sustainable tactic than searching everyone for scissors. It would not stop every conceivable terrorist attack on an airplane (neither does searching everyone), but it would discourage future uses of aircraft as flying bombs.

Tactics to prevent bacterial or poison gas attacks are much more difficult to devise. It seems it takes a terrorist to demonstrate what is needed, and, once that tactic is implemented, it is usually easy to find another counter-tactic. Car bombs will probably always be outside our ability to prevent, but they tend to produce local damage, and other cities, such as London and Paris, have learned to take them in stride.

I read in the paper an interview with a resident of a Minneapolis "rough neighborhood" who, like the rest of us, was upset by the events on TV. When asked if she didn't have killings in her own neighborhood, she said, "yes, but we know who's doing the shooting and who they're aiming at. This is different."

Maybe we need to learn more about our enemies, so we not only know who's doing the shooting and who they're aiming at, but why, how and when they're shooting. Unfortunately, our history shows that we consistently confuse understanding the enemy with sympathizing with the enemy.