Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

More than Pop-Guns

Posted by hyperpat on January 5, 2007

Is there any real defense against nut-case terrorists? So far, almost all terrorists acts have been carried out with fairly mundane ‘weapons’: guns, knifes, bombs, airplanes, etc. But there have been a few that have used some more esoteric things: the Japanese Sarin case and anthrax come to mind. But the actual number of available types of weapons is much larger.

The Russian spy plutonium poisoning case is an example of something that could be quite deadly and cause a great amount of havoc if distributed more widely, and this material is apparently not so difficult to get a hold of, along with other types of radioactive materials. Of course, there’s also an actual nuclear explosive device, which regardless of yield or whether designed to spread nasty fallout everywhere would cause great havoc. Happily, at least so far, these things have been difficult to get.

The sarin nerve gas is just one member of a large class of such agents, many of which are far more deadly, and some of which are not too difficult to make or obtain. Pure poisons outside of the nerve agents are often obtainable by the trainload (assuming you have enough money), and distributed into a city’s water supply could sicken/kill a good portion of the population – and many of them are either not readily detectable or are not tested for by municipal water suppliers.

Disease agents, in general, don’t seem to be a good choice for your wanna-be terrorist. Most diseases that are deadly and highly communicable (i.e., transmittable either by air or water from one infected person to another) either have good medical treatments for or are monitored for on a regular basis. There are some diseases, though, that are not really deadly, but might still cause considerable financial havoc by putting a good percentage of the population in bed for a few days.

Which leads to a wholly different type of weapon – the computer virus and variations thereof. Directed at financial markets, such items could cause some serious harm. Even if only deployed against the internet communication pipes, they could cause some real disruptions. But these types of weapons, to get through the various levels of firewalls and other software security, require some serious brainpower to develop, which a lone terrorist type is unlikely to have. But large organized terrorists groups may very well have the wherewithal to develop such things.

Now, for each item listed above, there are various defensive plans/facilities/counter-measures/detection methods in place already, and some very good minds are busily trying to improve current defenses. But the fact remains that all sensitive places, from water supplies, server farms, and nuclear reactors to airports, train depots, and slaughterhouses cannot all be fully defended and monitored 24 hours a day. There will always be some level of risk that someone, somewhere, will decide he doesn’t like his fellow humans at all, and will do his damnedest to get rid of them, and unfortunately, he just might succeed. The real question is, just how much effort, time, money, and other resources are we willing to spend to reduce this risk? And just what level of risk are we willing to tolerate? Is the cure worse than the disease – no right to privacy, a government police state? People need to get used to the idea that there is no absolute security, and determining for themselves just how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve a marginally ‘safer’ world.

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