How can science and engineering contribute to making the nation safer against the threat of catastrophic terrorism?
Where will the responsibility lie for defining those responses, investing the needed resources, and implementing the strategies?
How can a strategy for mitigating the threat of catastrophic terrorism be sustainable in a democratic society whose political system is known for its short attention span?
Given the reality that most of the targets of terrorism are privately owned, and many of the vulnerabilities are the result of firms maximizing efficiency at the expense of security externalities, how can a public-private balance between private efficiency and public vulnerability be found?
To understand how science and technology might contribute to countering terrorism, we must evaluate the nature of the threat, the vulnerabilities of targets in civil society, and the availability of technical solutions to address the vulnerabilities that are most likely to be exploited by terrorists.
India and the United States, the world’s two largest democracies, are both vulnerable to terrorist attacks. As an Indian participant in the workshop said, “The most vulnerable states are those with open societies that tolerate dissent.” So far, India and the United States have faced rather different forms of terror attacks.
Let me distinguish two forms of terrorism, which I shall categorize as tactical and strategic. Tactical terrorism is characterized by the use of conventional small arms weapons plus explosives (often in the form of car or truck bombs) against individuals in an attempt to put political pressure on a government that has proved intransigent regarding the political objectives of the terrorists. India has experienced a great deal of this kind of terrorism, as has Israel, and the United Kingdom (from the military wing of the Irish Republican Army). Strategic or catastrophic terrorism, on the other hand, seeks to inflict maximum damage against targets that are ideologically despised by the terrorists. In this case the terrorists wish to draw attention to their cause, to inflict maximum damage on the legitimacy of a government, and to inflict major economic penalties on the nation or nations in question. The attack on the World Trade Center by al Qaeda fit this pattern, as did the attack in the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo. Such terrorists do not seek to shock a government into making concessions through negotiation.3 Thus the U.S. concern for catastrophic or strategic terrorism is different—and presents a broader spectrum of opportunities for science and technology to reduce the nation’s vulnerability—than is the case today in India. However, given the demonstration of catastrophic destruction in the September 11, 2001, attack in New York City, India, like the United States, a nation that plays an important role in the world, must assume that the day will come when such attacks might be inflicted upon her. The
There is, of course, no clear line between these two types. Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605, the destruction of the Reichstag, attributed to Hitler’s brown shirts, and the Chechen attack on the “Palace of Culture” in Moscow in October 2002, lie somewhere in between these two types.