Opinion: ‘By focusing on planes, terrorists take a calculated risk’ by UW Professor Andrew H. Kydd

By focusing on planes, terrorists take a calculated risk

There are easier targets with less security, but radicals believe that bombing an aircraft is the best way to their objectives.

Opinion:  January 24, 2010

By Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F.Walter

On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with plastic explosives hidden in his underwear. On Dec. 22, 2001, Richard Reid tried to blow up a transatlantic flight with explosives hidden in his shoes. Incompetent and poorly supported, they were quickly foiled by passengers and flight crew. But the fact that Abdulmutallab would try a variation of Reid’s attack eight years later raises some interesting questions about terrorist tactics.

One question in particular is, why airplanes? Anyone who has traveled on a train, subway, bus or ferry in the United States knows that anyone can board without much fear of being detained or searched.

Meanwhile, other terrorists have developed a brutally simple tactic, just opening fire with automatic weapons in crowded areas. The 10 terrorists in the 2008 Mumbai attacks claimed more than 170 victims, and Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is charged with killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, security surrounding U.S. airplanes has become tighter and tighter, yet terrorists still target planes, even if this means that their attacks are more likely to be thwarted. Why do terrorists continue to target airplanes when other transportation systems are less heavily secured and other modes of attack have proved successful?

Targeting civilian aircraft still makes sense, from the terrorists’ point of view, for at least five reasons.

First, nature is working with them. People don’t naturally fly 30,000 feet above the ground at 300 mph; it takes a very special machine. These machines are much more vulnerable than trains or ships. One person can easily carry enough explosives to blow a hole in the side of a pressurized aircraft, which may be enough to bring it down and kill everyone aboard. The same explosive on a train or ship would likely only cause minor damage.

Second, the costs of reduced air travel, or slower air travel, are borne by business travelers and those with money — exactly those people who are most likely to influence policymakers and government decisions. Terrorists aren’t attacking for the fun of it; they want to have an impact on government policy, and the way to do that is to target those who have clout.

Third, it is difficult for these travelers to switch to another mode of transportation, given the distances involved. Much as the folks at Cunard might wish otherwise, almost no amount of terrorism is going to persuade most people to take a passenger ship across the Atlantic for seven days rather than fly in seven hours. This means that demand for air travel is inelastic; travelers have little option but to bear the costs of increasing security, lost time and risks.

Fourth, people are already afraid of flying. Despite statistics showing that flying is safer than driving, people are still more afraid of hurtling through the air in a large aluminum tube than sliding behind the wheel for a trip to the grocery store. It’s easy to play on these fears, even with incompetent attacks that fail.

Finally, our political system is structured to overreact to attacks on aircraft and to underreact to other kinds of attacks, particularly shooting sprees. In reaction to the “shoe bomber,” we now all take off our shoes at security checkpoints. Because of the “underwear bomber,” we now may be subject to thorough body scans before boarding a flight. The 2006 plot to blow up seven transatlantic flights out of London cursed us with the inability to bring a bottle of water on board.

Security agencies feel duty-bound to do something, and politicians wring their hands about whether they are doing enough. In comparison, there appears to be no limit to the number of fatalities that can be inflicted by automatic weapons fire in the United States without generating a political reaction. Politicians limit themselves to expressions of sorrow for the victims and the families, and then the matter is quietly dropped.

One might think this provides an opportunity for Al Qaeda to easily kill large numbers of Americans, but that misses the point of terrorism. Killing large numbers in a way that is quickly forgotten is much less useful than killing a few or even none in a way that causes profound ripples of fear and costly overreactions on the part of the target group. Al Qaeda has no need to organize gun rampages against Americans if the occasional low-budget aircraft attack does the trick.

Andrew H. Kydd is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Barbara F. Walter is a professor of political science at UC San Diego’s Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. They are the authors of “Strategies of Terrorism.”

The article is available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/24/opinion/la-oe-walter24-2010jan24

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Center for Jewish Studies Scholarships Deadline March 15, 2010

The University of Wisconsin Center for Jewish Studies annually offers a series scholarships to the student body. For more information please contact the Center for more information at 608-265-4763 or the website at www.jewishstudies.wisc.edu

  • Submission Deadline: March 26, 2010
  • Faculty are welcome to nominate more than one student for a particular award, provided that they rank the nominations. Please include appropriate address for notification after the award has been granted. Applicants should be currently enrolled students at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1. The Robert and Beverly Natelson Family Award in Jewish Studies

Amount: up to $3,000/yr

The award will be given to the best undergraduate or graduate student working in the area of Jewish Studies. Criteria for selection will be a combination of merit and need. The application for the award consists of a paper written for a Jewish Studies course, a one page statement of interest in Jewish Studies which, if financial need exists, should be accompanied by a one paragraph description of that need, and letters of recommendation from two faculty members in Jewish Studies.

2. Robert Berman Family Undergraduate or Graduate Research Award

Amount: $1,000/yr

This fund will be used to support research for undergraduate or graduate students. The flexible funds may be used for research- related travel (including travel to resources [e.g., archives, oral history interviews, etc.] and to other venues essential for carrying out work on an undergraduate or graduate thesis, as well as travel to professional meetings or conferences). Funds may also be used for essential research materials (books, audio or video recordings but not required books or related materials for courses). An application consists in a transcript, a one-page statement by the student of the relationship between his/her research plans and Jewish Studies, a budget with an explanation of why the travel or materials are necessary for their research, and a letter of recommendation from a faculty member.

3. Mazursky Undergraduate or Graduate Research Fund

Amount: $3,000/yr

This fund will be used to support research for undergraduate or graduate students. The flexible funds may be used for research-related travel (including travel to resources [e.g., archives, oral history interviews, etc.] and to other venues essential for carrying out work on an undergraduate or graduate thesis, as well as travel to professional meetings or conferences). Funds may also be used for materials essential and specific to the research project (books, audio or video recordings), but not any materials required for course work or for general education in the area. An application consists in a transcript, a one-page statement by the student of the relationship between his/her research plans and Jewish Studies, a budget with an explanation of why the travel or materials are necessary for their research, and a letter of recommendation from a faculty member.”

4. The Ida and Isaac Lipton Certificate/Major Award (two available)

Amount: $2,500/each

Students wishing to be considered should submit a transcript, one letter of recommendation from a faculty member, and a one page essay on the value of Jewish Studies in an undergraduate education.

6. The Ida and Isaac Lipton Essay Award

Amount: $2,500

The essay used for this award should be a substantial paper on a Jewish studies topic. The paper should be accompanied by a short recommendation from the faculty member for whom the paper was written.

7. The Ida and Isaac Lipton Study Abroad Award (two available)

Amount: $2,500/each

This award will be given to support study in Israel. The application consists of a transcript, a one page statement by the student of the relationship of his/her plans to study in Israel to Jewish Studies and a letter of recommendation from a faculty member.

8.  Greenfield Summer Institute Award

Amount:  $125/each

This award is funded by Larry and Roslyn Greenfield who would like to provide the registration fees to interested students (totaling ten) to attend the Institute. For information about prior Institutes, please contact the Center. The application consists of a transcript and a statement from the student regarding their involvement in Jewish Studies courses. Please consider being a part of this wonderful experience.

Opportunity: Middle East Institute Summer Internship Program

The Middle East Institute

Washington D.C.

Internships are available throughout the year to undergraduates, recent graduates, and graduate students. Positions are available on a full or part-time basis with a minimum of 20 hours a week. The dates of internships correspond to the fall, spring, and, summer academic semesters.

The deadlines for applications are:

Summer Internship: March 15

Fall internship: July 15

To apply for an internship, please send a cover letter, résumé, college transcript, five-page writing sample, and a letter of recommendation to the address below. Interested applicants from all academic backgrounds are encouraged to apply; however, preference will be given to those applicants with superior writing, organization, word-processing, and Middle Eastern/European language skills. Please send your application materials in pdf format to mahmed@mei.edu * Any questions about the internship or application process should also be referred to mahmed@mei.edu.

For more information, visit: www.mei.edu/Home/Internships/HowtoApplyforanMEIInternship.aspx