ZenPundit
Monday, August 14, 2006
 
CHIROL'S TERROR TREE AS AN EXERCISE IN SOLVING A WICKED PROBLEM

Chirol of Coming Anarchy had an incisive post on terrorism " The Terror Tree", one that has already caught the attention of Dr. Barnett. An excerpt:

"If you take any given terror plot and look at it through the chart. If it fails but gets media attention like today’s, it still wins in terms of system disruption and creating fear. It would have done the same had it succeeded. The question is one of degree.

...Given the results graphed above, the only total failure is a plot which elicits no reaction. What would such a plot look like? Probably like something we’ve already seen, something that’s yesterdays news, something we are already checking for. Thus, no change is necessary

...When a terrorist can invest a few thousand dollars in a plot, even tens of thousands, and cause a hundred or thousand times more damage, things don’t look good but this is where network resiliancy comes in, but that’s a job for Dan and Mark. "

Dave, Jeff and I have been discussing "wicked problems" and Chirol's graphic is an excellent visualization of the "wicked problem" represented by terrorism, which has the potential darwinian dynamic of "heads they win, tails we lose". That is not the feedback loop the United States or the West should accept, and as Chirol has already noted, attention to the principle of resiliency offers a chance to mitigate, minimize or thwart the negative effects of terrorism. Resiliency will not solve the problem of terrorism but it helps limit the potential damage.

To respond to Chirol's request, the ideal solution to counter system disruption attacks is to engineer all your physical systems, networks, grids, first and second responder plans with multiple layers of redundancy so that no particular "hub" represents a systemic "choke point" whose elimination brings the system in question to a grinding halt. In a country with, in some areas, two centuries of established infrastructure, this would be a financial nightmare to retrofit from the top down. The ideal solution ain't going to happen here, but in rapidly developing nations, they might consider building all their new systems with great attention to lavishing resources on redundancy. The initially higher costs today ( which can be amortized) represent billions saved in terms of disasters avoided.

The practical solution for the U.S. is to build, as cheaply as possible, decentralized systemic alternatives to the most critical elements existing infrastructure, gaining redundancy by overlaying duplicate systems on top of one another. For example, a national wireless broadband network in addition to the heavily land-based internet-communications network. Being neither an engineer nor a high tech guru, there are more qualified people than myself to offer concrete examples or identify the most critical systems; but economically, given the size and complexity of the diverse systems used in United States, we need to shoot for cheap and simple solutions in order to increase our resiliency.

For more on enhancing resiliency against terrorism, I suggest looking at some of the past posts by Steve DeAngelis at ERMB - in particular, this one and this one.
 
Comments:
It seems to me that resiliency hits certain limits in terms of infrastructure. While we can put in back-up systems for something like telecommunications, which is a must, other infrastructure entities such as hospitals and power plants become more difficult and more expensive to have robust back-ups. And still others, such as industrial centers, make up the next level where it becomes very difficult to have a resilient system if attacked. We absolutely should pursue redundancies where possible, but we need to balance that with a keen awareness of where our limitations are and devote resources for the security of those elements.
 
I think you must mean something different by “practical” than I do, Mark. The practical but heinous and completely unacceptable solution to the problem of Islamist terrorism is kill all the Muslims (or at least enough that environmental degradation would do the rest). It's well within our capabilities. Have you looked at the inventory on our nuclear arsenal lately?

Redundancy as a strategic component of a defensive posture has an impractically large overhead. And there's no redundancy possible for individuals. How many people killed at the same time would it take to cause our legal system to collapse? If too many more than the 3,000 who died on 9/11 had been victims, that could have done it. And we've done nothing whatever to refurbish our systems to address the problem.
 
Hey Von,

Good point -there is a definite and fast approaching point of economic diminishing returns with this sort of countermeasure.

Hi Dave,

I think my response here was heavily skewed toward Chirol's specific question regarding resiliency and not the overall problem.

And we have done very little to refurbish anything.
 
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