What air crash investigations teach us about dealing with terrorism


IN the past few weeks, the Islamic State’s reach has spread far beyond the Middle East and into the heartlands of Western democracies. Sensing that their constituencies were stricken with horror and shock, the leaders of these states have felt compelled to beat the drums of war against terrorism, vowing to eradicate such threats within their own borders and expand their efforts in Syria — a region that, until now, many had sworn to stay out of. So what happened? Or perhaps more to the point, what didn’t?

Stratfor analysts have repeatedly explained how difficult it can be to find foolproof measures to prevent terrorist attacks against soft targets, even for the most sophisticated intelligence and police organizations in the world. It comes as no surprise, then, that some deeds like the Paris and San Bernardino attacks slip by undetected every so often.

What is a surprise is how consistently governments appear taken aback when an assailant is successful; officials seem to latch on to a different playbook after each new attack, rushing remedial measures through the gears of their particular democracies to appear responsive to their people. But if terrorists are a known threat whose eventual success is assumed to be virtually inevitable, what is keeping officials from forming an effective, well-prepared and proportionate response?

Plane crashes: An unlikely but useful model
Consider, for a moment, how calmly and methodically governments respond to plane crashes by comparison. On Jan. 15, 2009, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 made a successful emergency landing in the Hudson River when a flock of geese choked its engines shortly after it took off from La Guardia Airport in New York City. The media hailed the pilot as a national hero and labeled the incident a miracle.

But more important, though far less publicized, were the conclusions of the National Transportation Safety Board, which immediately launched a thorough and methodical investigation of the accident. The board’s report identified the specific safety features that prevented any loss of life and acknowledged the lucky circumstances that helped mitigate danger. It also firmly insisted that the crew’s professionally coordinated response played a crucial role in ensuring the success of his daring maneuver.

This excellence is the hard-won result of the mature safety culture that permeates the aviation industry. It has a long history of launching systematic investigations after every incident that, in turn, lead to incremental improvements in aircraft construction and flight crew training. As a result, aviation professionals take it as a given that only the timing of an accident should come as a surprise — not the course of conduct that follows.

What is it that keeps mature democracies from being similarly prepared to handle acts of terrorism that, much like plane crashes, can never be completely avoided?

The level of maturity that aviation safety demonstrates comes from the methodical approach that officials use to gather and analyze the facts, draw conclusions and ensure that countermeasures are implemented, regulated and inspected on a daily basis. The results of such investigations have continuously pushed advances in engineering to overcome technical problems like metal fatigue, fuel flammability, chafing in electrical wiring and the durability of composite structures. Human error remains the most common threat to aviation safety. The most notorious type of human error is assessment confusion, which stems from the overload of signals and information that comes during stressful flight situations. However, improvements in the design of cockpit interfaces and the training that has come with them have reduced this threat too, leaving just one lingering problem: the psychiatric state of the pilot.

A recent string of crashes classified as pilot-induced murder-suicides attests to this issue. Though relatively rare — there have been only about a dozen instances of pilots deliberately downing their planes over the past 20 years — this type of threat has claimed the lives of more than 700 victims so far.

It is no coincidence that similar suicidal impulses have also driven the style of recent terrorist attacks taking place outside defined zones of war. Suicides account for nearly 2 percent of deaths worldwide, a figure that is about 60 percent higher than it was 45 years ago. As a cause of death among society’s most active members (those between 15 and 35 years old), suicide currently ranks second only to involuntary accidents. However, only 0.06 percent of those who commit suicide take unsuspecting bystanders with them. In many of these cases, the victims are the perpetrators’ loved ones, killed out of desperation; only a tiny fraction of murder-suicides are driven by vengeance against unknown bystanders.

But as is the case in acts of terrorism, the horrific nature of the attacks and the lethality of weapons used in such rampages often propel them to the front page, garnering a level of media coverage that is disproportionate to the actual threat that they pose to society. Inevitably, politicians feel pressure to act in kind.

Human despair: The common thread
In nearly all murder-suicides, including those perpetrated by operatives who are only loosely controlled by organizations like the Islamic State, the motive is rooted in despair. Man is, first and foremost, a social animal. His lust to live life is fueled by an innate drive that must be constantly rekindled by positive interactions with those around him.

Disease can certainly snuff out this natural drive, leaving its victim into a deep sense of malaise that often proves difficult to cure. But more often than not, despair is the result of a persistent feeling that one simply does not belong. This feeling can be caused by an unfortunate combination of communicative handicaps that come from weak perceptual or cognitive capacities, or by the poor development of social skills that can occur in deprived, degraded or crippled communities. The climbing suicide rate indicates that the gap between what societies offer and what individuals need is widening. (It is noteworthy, though, that the rate of murder-suicides does not appear to have risen alongside it.)

Man is also inherently compelled to frame his actions within an interpretation of the world that makes sense, at least from his particular perspective. What shape this story takes, though, depends entirely on individual circumstances. For example, between the 1970s and the 1990s, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group drew its militant philosophy from a variant of Marxism-Leninism, while the motives of Ted Kaczynski (nicknamed the Unabomber) were outlined in a convoluted anarchistic manifesto. In more recent decades, other stories have emerged: Anders Breivik’s 2011 mass murder in Norway was driven by far-right militant ideology, and the Islamic State has relied on a literal strain of apocalyptic Wahhabism for its campaign of violence.

A variety of factors affects how man chooses his particular frame of reference, including the level of publicity certain causes obtain, what cultural hooks are embedded in them, and how personal urges for a reckoning fit with the content of the selected storyline. As long as the propaganda of the Islamic State, for instance, can perform relatively well on each of these three axes, the group will remain attractive to both dystopian Islamic idealists and those who have grown desperate enough to prefer the promised spoils of the afterlife over the meager pickings they have found in this one.

Steadying the afficial response
It is this underlying frame of reference, especially when it conflicts with our own, that can muddy the waters of an effective response to a terrorist attack. Too often, the public takes the world views of terrorists to be an existential threat to their own — an attitude that, when taken alongside graphic footage of the carnage inflicted, tends to inflate the sense of danger the public feels. People then demand a reaction, any reaction, from their leaders. They demand to be kept safe.

More often than not, politicians give in to their panic, turning to measures that do little to address the underlying threat. Yet what we need is the dispassionate methodology of the aviation industry and the effective, incremental improvements to security that it yields. Only then will our leaders have the true confidence of a pilot, calmly assuring his passengers that he has a firm handle on the threat lying ahead.



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