Terrorism and advanced technology

On 9/11/01 I stood at Newark airport in New Jersey waiting for my flight to Toronto, which never flew. The airport was in clear sight of the World Trade Center 10 miles away across Jersey City and the Hudson River. As I watched the towers fall, I had a curious sense of detachment from the moment — but I distinctly remember thinking, and pointing out to my wife, that this was a major test of the American character. If those towers were back up by 2010, I opined, it would say a lot about us. If they weren’t, it would say a lot too, and not in a good way.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Re-enter Servant

What say the augurers?

They would not have you to stir forth to-day.
Plucking the entrails of an offering forth,
They could not find a heart within the beast.

— Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 2:ii

In the meantime, it seems, the reaction has been to post guards everywhere, restrict people as much as possible, and in general to worry that any given technical advance would be seized on by terrorists. In the optimistic 60s, Arthur Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic, and the clear implication was that we were heading into a magical future. Today it seems that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from terrorism.

Even if a terrorist attack were to succeed every year with the full death toll of 9/11, it would raise your chance of dying by a factor of 0.0012. You’d be 11 times more likely to die by suicide than an attack — and 220 times as likely to die of heart disease. The reality is a lot lower. So why are we spending so much more than a tenth of a percent of our time, energy, and angst on terrorism?

The latest scare seems to be EMP from a rogue nuclear device, which could fry the roughly 300 100-MVA transformers that form the backbone of our power grid. How are we going to shield ourselves from this?

It seems to me that there are two major ways to go. The first is prevent anyone from being able to do anything, so that the bad guys can’t build bad gadgets. The other is to do just the opposite, so that when attacks happen, they are opposed by greater capability, cause less damage, and are more quickly rebounded from.

After all, EMP isn’t the only way to fry a transformer. Natural solar Carrington events would have the same effect. They could be blown up the old-fashioned way by explosives — or even explosively shorted out by shooting giant steel arrows into them from catapults.

Turns out these transformers begin failing spontaneously after 40 years of service anyway.

Rob Freitas and I once did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that a fully-developed molecular manufacturing capability could rebuild the entire infrastructure of the US in somewhere between 1 and 2 weeks. If you have that kind of productive capacity available, you can stand lots of shocks with equanimity. If the twin towers had that kind of productive technology built in for active maintenance, repair, and expansion, they’d still be standing.

Back in the present, reality is, as usual, somewhat ambiguous. A new tower is under construction, groundbreaking was 2006. It’s scheduled to open in 2013. This construction time is approximately the same as the original towers, which were broke ground in 1966 and 1969, accepted tenants in 1970 and 1972, respectively, opening officially in 1973.

Is there a heart within the beast after all? Time will tell.

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