Tuesday, April 03, 2007

On “The Edge of Disaster”


Terrorists and even some nations often hold that their adversary governments can’t take a punch. The North Vietnamese used to maintain that the U.S. was a “paper tiger,” Saddam Hussein predicted swift U.S. withdrawal once the body bags started heading home in 1991, and the U.S. thought that without Hitler and later Castro, Nazi Germany and Communist Cuba would simply collapse.

Jihadists frequently use the “paper tiger” argument about the U.S., and it seems to have been a rationale for the 9/11 attacks: Cause enough bloodshed and terror—shock and awe, to borrow a phrase—and the U.S. will leave its Arabian bases, stop supporting Israel, et cetera.

The 9/11 attacks didn’t cause any such thing, but Stephen Flynn, among many others, worry that jihadis won’t stop trying. Flynn’s new book The Edge of Disaster details all the other infrastructure that remains exposed due not so much to poor security as sheer ricketiness and lack of maintenance: bridges, dams, the electric grid and, in one memorable scenario, a vulnerable Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia that, when bombed, releases a cloud of highly toxic anhydrous hydrogen fluoride onto the crowd at a nearby Phillies-Mets game.

Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer who has helped game out terrorist disruptions for years, doesn’t argue that the U.S. can throw a punch militarily; he worries that it can’t take a punch very well because terrorists + rickety infrastructure = unnecessarily spectacular civilian death tolls + weakened national will.

Update the infrastructure—rebuild the bridges and dams, move the refineries away from population centers as they age out, update the electrical grid—and you automatically lower the body count and disruptions to large, complex systems like the U.S. economy and polity, whether from terrorism or natural events like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Robustness, resilience, call it what you will; terrorists who take such pains to stake out their targets as al-Qa’ida does will be discouraged by the low return on their lives, and the systems themselves will be more reliable in natural disasters. Would-be terrorists will have to gravitate toward trying to disrupt higher-value targets which will tend to be better protected.

I’m about halfway through so far but am interested in Flynn’s arguments for resilience from a public-diplomacy standpoint. A United States that is rapidly updating its infrastructure and talking about that update is also improving its technologies and its ability to export them to other countries, helping those countries update their own facilities while indirectly stating that terrorists looking for the U.S.’s glass jaw will be disappointed.

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