Category Archives: Security - Page 2

Is What We Fear Most Each Other?

I expect this to be the last thing I have to say about gun control for, I hope, another five or ten years.

I’ve written, recently, to try and lay out a few facts about gun control and what we might do about it. The response to those pieces has been interesting. Most people don’t seem to care about why people like James Holmes go on their sprees. They don’t seem to want to really do anything serious to prevent future massacres. One side doesn’t want anything done at all, the other is only interested in banning AR-15s. (Very curious considering that James Holmes seems to have carried out most of his shooting spree with a shotgun. Why then is all the attention on the weapon that didn’t work?)

It was very baffling to me. These people are not, for the most part, stupid or malicious. Why, then, did they seem to care so much about the wrong things? Am I the one who’s wrong? (No way!)

My position is the same as it’s been for years regarding airport security; the tool isn’t nearly as important as a person’s willingness to use it to do harm. This seems so obvious to me that I’ve always been puzzled why other people don’t see it. But I think I’ve figured something out in the past few days.

This comic sums it up:

When we live in close proximity to thousands, tens of thousands, of complete strangers, we have to take it on faith that they won’t try to kill us. We, quite literally, aren’t built for this. Humans lived for millions of years in small bands of hunter-gatherers, in close-knit social groups where everyone knew everyone else. You might not like everyone else in the group, but if you had enemies you knew who to watch out for. These people could be trusted, those might try to harm you; no unknowns. (People from another band, of course, were enemies who would try to harm you. We haven’t gotten away from that bit of evolution either.)

Today, we live surrounded by people. We can’t know and trust more than a tiny fraction of them, but we can’t go through our lives constantly on guard against attack by every stranger we see. We have to take it on faith that other people have no interest in doing us harm. Our society can’t work any other way. When you get on a crowded elevator, you have to be comfortably certain that one of the other people isn’t going to stick a knife in your back. So certain that the thought never even enters your mind. Because if someone else on that elevator wanted to stick a knife in you, there’s nothing you could do about it. You’re standing there staring at the numbers over the door, waiting for your floor to light up, and there are five people behind you and if one of them decided to see what your insides look like, he can.

We trust our lives every day to people we don’t know, who we’ve never seen before and will never see again. Any other driver you see on the highway could crash into you at any moment. All that person in the next lane over has to do is yank the wheel and you’re dead. That nice person who compliments you on your beautiful baby might break your baby’s legs.

We have to believe that they’re not going to do that. We have to. Without a certain level of trust, of belief in the fundamental goodness of the people around us, we can’t function. Nearly everyone you see on any given day has the ability to harm or kill you; it’s only the fact that they don’t want to that keeps you alive.

We don’t think about this. We can’t; it would drive us crazy if we did. That’s why these mass killings shake us up so much more than a far greater number of traffic deaths. Traffic deaths are (mostly) accidents; we can take thirty of forty thousand of those a year in stride. We don’t even think about it.

A dozen people killed by a random stranger, though, strikes at that trust, that fragile assumption of good intentions, that holds our society together. It suddenly, at a very deep level, makes us fear that person behind us on the elevator. The delivery guy bringing a box into the office. We look at people differently.

We realize there is a chance that the stranger really is out to kill us. Not a huge chance, not likely, but it’s there. It can happen. We may not think about it consciously, but the fear is there.

Our civilization can’t work that way, though. We can’t live in cities together if we don’t trust the strangers who surround us. If our trust in strangers is shaken, but we can’t get away from them, what can we do? We’re stuck.

So our monkey brains patch around the problem, just as they’ve been doing for thousands of generations.

Some of us internalize the fear. Those people embrace the paranoia. They stroke their guns and think, “I would have been ready. I wouldn’t be a victim. No one will get me.” They arm themselves and so gain the strength to face the endless parade of potentially dangerous strangers.

Some compartmentalize it. It’s not strangers they have to worry about; it’s guns, or certain kinds of guns. They narrow the source of the danger, at least in their own minds, to a point where they can function without being afraid of everyone they see.

Some blame movies or comic books or video games. Get rid of those things and strangers won’t want to kill them.

That’s why some people cling more tightly to their guns in the aftermath these tragedies, while other people call for getting rid of those guns. It’s two different coping mechanisms for dealing with the same problem, the same fear. It’s unfortunate that the two methods are not just incompatible, but directly opposed.

There’s another thing we do: We forget. Within a few weeks, the memories fade and so does our fear and mistrust. We can again carry on our daily lives without fear, even though surrounded by strangers. It’s easy to mock how quickly we forget, but how could we carry on if we didn’t?

I still think that banning certain kinds of guns is the wrong solution, because there are so very many different ways that strangers can hurt you that it’s futile to try stamping them out one at a time, but I better understand the impulse now. Those people, like the rest of us, are just trying to find a way to get through their day.

If we are ever going to stop tragedies like the recent one in Aurora, though, we have to look past the tools and at the people. It’s not something we’re comfortable looking at. It forces us to admit that some of those strangers are dangerous, do want to kill us, and that’s very disturbing. That’s why we ignore it. It’s not the people, it’s the guns/movie/video games. Make those things go away and all will be good!

But it’s not the things. It’s us. We have to gain some understanding into why some people want to commit these atrocities, maybe even find some way to identify them beforehand and stop them, help them.

Because if we don’t, the killing will go on. No black rifle is as dark as the evil that might lurk in the heart and mind of the stranger standing next to you.

9/11 + 11

In New York, we’ve created a monument to our loss of the War on Terror, a celebration of fear and pointless, oppressive security. News stories everywhere urge us to ‘never forget.’

Here’s the best way to commemorate the 9/11 terror attacks: Forget. Move on, enjoy your lives. Live, without fear.

Never Say Never Again

“Never again” is a stupid, expensive, and ineffective way to do security. But lots of people like expensive and ineffective things.

The best counter-terrorism is still to not be terrorized.

Well, Shit

“This tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut wouldn’t have happened if assault weapons were banned!”

“Assault weapons are banned in Connecticut.”

“Oh. Shit.”


~ ~ ~

Real world problems are often hard, without easy fixes. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; just that we have to try hard, and maybe try different things.

Putting It All Together

Since everyone is running around right now asking, “What to do!?” about mass murder incidents (but not really wanting an answer; it’s a rhetorical question, since they already have an answer and usually don’t want to listen to any alternatives) I thought I’ll pull together what I’ve written in various places on the subject.

So, you say you want to stop school massacres? Okay, here’s what you do.

First, secure the schools. I’m not necessarily talking about really expensive systems here; even just locking the fucking doors would be a start. (One in three school administrators admits to leaving doors propped open. ) Right now it’s harder to get into a computer data center than into most schools. What does that say about our priorities?

Second, make sure that the various mental health facilities and organizations update the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check) database, like they’re supposed to. I mean like really make sure they do it. As in, if some head-shrinker doesn’t file the required reports, and the person goes on to kill someone, the negligent head-shrinker, or administrator faces criminal charges as an accomplice. That’ll perk ’em up.

Third, spend some money and fix our broken mental health care system. These mass killings started after Reagan butchered the system back in the ’80s. It’s time to fix it. Colorado, is at least, making a decent start.

Fourth, stop making celebrities out of mass murderers. When someone runs onto a baseball field, they cut the camera feed from the field so as to not give that person any publicity, and encourage others. But if someone kills a bunch of people, they become the most famous person in the world, at least for a few weeks. Let’s stop doing that; do not mention the criminal’s name, do not show their picture. Instead of becoming celebrities they disappear, unworthy of mention.

Fifth, create a smart database of firearms-related purchases. This one requires a little explanation. The idea is that, as I’ve said in relation to other security problems, there are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people. The most dangerous weapons you can imagine–an armor-piercing semi-automatic nuclear missile with a bayonet, hollow point, and a cyanide coating–isn’t going to do anyone any harm if the holder doesn’t want to do any harm. But practically anything is dangerous if someone does intend harm.

So, watch for people who intend to do harm.

So, put all those transactions into a database. Guns, ammunition, accessories, training classes, all of it. Let people buy what they want (within the limits of current laws, of course), but track it. Any unusual purchases–someone who’s never bought a gun before goes out and buys five in one week, for example–throws up a flag in the computer system and that person’s information gets routed to a special investigative division of Homeland Security, who would then check this person out. A flag would also be thrown in the NICS database, putting a freeze on any firearm purchases by that person. If their address comes up in the NICS system flagging another household member, they get flagged too.

Here’s the thing; this can’t be some ordinary beat cop, some TSA package-grabber, who does the investigating. The investigator has to be more psychologist than cop, because the idea isn’t to determine what the person has done, or what they’ve bought, or what they may be guilty of. We already know that what they bought, and they may not be guilty of anything, yet. The idea is to determine their mental state, to try and get an idea of what they might do.

In other words, if someone starts buying a bunch of guns out of the blue, send a smart person over to talk to them and try to find out if they’re a fucking nutcase who’s about to flip his shit and kill a bunch of people.

Why do this rather than simply ban dangerous guns? Because banning dangerous guns is not only hard, it’s ineffective. People right now are calling for a ban on ‘assault weapons’ to prevent another Newtown shooting, but Connecticut already has a ban on assault weapons. The shooting happened anyway. Gun control alone doesn’t work. Guns aren’t even the most dangerous thing an attacker can use, though you wouldn’t know that from the news coverage. We need to think harder, try harder, and come up with something more effective than one-note rote responses. We can do better.

These things aren’t perfect. Nothing we can implement is going to be perfect. People are inherently imperfect, and some bad people will always find a way to hurt other people. But this plan would, I think, work better than any other proposal I’ve heard. We can stop most of the bleeding, and I think we should.

A Murmur From The People

This is an interesting poll. It would appear that, at least according to this Gallup survey, the common people think that increased school security, better mental health care, and changing the media’s depiction of violence would all be more effective than an ‘assault weapon’ ban. Even 33% of self-professed Democrats think that such a ban would not be very effective.

This is in sharp contrast to the political class, which is all about, and only about, gun laws. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as they get a better sense of how the voters are leaning.

Good Sense

As usual, Bruce Schneier talks good sense.

This essay from 2007 that he links to in that post is particularly apt.

If you want to do something that makes security sense, figure out what’s common among a bunch of rare events, and concentrate your countermeasures there. Focus on the general risk of terrorism, and not the specific threat of airplane bombings using liquid explosives. Focus on the general risk of troubled young adults, and not the specific threat of a lone gunman wandering around a college campus. Ignore the movie-plot threats, and concentrate on the real risks.

Attacks like the one in Newtown are ultimately not psychology problems, or gun problems, or school problems. They’re security problems, and may or may not have elements of those other things. The problem isn’t as narrow as how to ban guns, or how to help crazy people; it’s how we can increase our security. Don’t just make up your mind on a solution, regardless of the details of the problem; focus on the problem and come up with a real solution. Or find you may not need a new solution at all.

But Who’s Counting

Here are some causes of death of children under 12 years old, from 1999-2010.

Firearms: 3,505
Fire: 5,671
Drowning: 9,047
Vehicle accidents: 19,838

If the goal is really saving lives, what would you focus on?

Profiling The Shooters

William Kiphart makes some interesting points. I wouldn’t call his research proof of anything conclusive, but it’s interesting and I think more work should be done.

Two things jump out at me from his numbers. First, of the 124 school shootings he was able to find, going back to 1927, 114 of them have occurred since 1982. Guns are much, much, more strictly controlled now than they were in the 1920s (when anyone could readily buy a Tommy gun or Colt Monitor–AKA, the Browning Automatic Rifle), so what’s changed? Why ten school shootings over 55 years, then 110 in 30? That’s huge. I think that’s the most important question we can ask about these shootings, because it’s key to understanding and preventing future ones, but no one seems to be interested in asking it, much less answering.

Second, there’s this:

I have not located ANY active shooter/murderers with the school house shooter profile that occurred with armed security or police assigned to that location. And there are plenty of schools with such security or resident officers in place.

Now, 124 incidents is not a very large sample size, so it’s hard to draw any hard conclusions. I would not say that, “If we allowed staff to carry guns in schools, we’ll never have any more school shootings.” The data is not nearly that conclusive. It is interesting, though, and points the way to further investigation. It also fits one things that we know about school shooters; they’re specifically targeting the softest of all soft targets, the place where there are the fewest people will be able to fight back and the most helpless victims. In nearly all cases the shooter surrenders or suicides as soon as the police show up, rather than face someone capable of fighting back.

(This points up a flaw in early police tactics when responding to a school shooting. The idea was–and this has only recently begun to change–for the first officer responding to not immediately engage the shooter, but to wait until the SWAT team showed up. At Columbine police waiting till the shooting was over before going in. Now the idea–a much better one, I think–is to engage as soon as possible, with any force available. Often just the sound of sirens is enough to end the killing.)

Securing our schools is a security issue. Stopping mass shootings is a security and mental health issue. We need to start looking at the causes, instead of just trying (or pretending) to treat the symptoms.

Risky Business

Bruce Schneier is beating the risk analysis drum again this time with some help from Famous Author Jared Diamond


Consider: If you’re a New Guinean living in the forest, and if you adopt the bad habit of sleeping under dead trees whose odds of falling on you that particular night are only 1 in 1,000, you’ll be dead within a few years. In fact, my wife was nearly killed by a falling tree last year, and I’ve survived numerous nearly fatal situations in New Guinea.

I now think of New Guineans’ hypervigilant attitude toward repeated low risks as “constructive paranoia”: a seeming paranoia that actually makes good sense. Now that I’ve adopted that attitude, it exasperates many of my American and European friends. But three of them who practice constructive paranoia themselves — a pilot of small planes, a river-raft guide and a London bobby who patrols the streets unarmed — learned the attitude, as I did, by witnessing the deaths of careless people.

Traditional New Guineans have to think clearly about dangers because they have no doctors, police officers or 911 dispatchers to bail them out. In contrast, Americans’ thinking about dangers is confused. We obsess about the wrong things, and we fail to watch for real dangers.


While it’s universally true that humans exaggerate rare and spectacular risks and downplay mundane and common risks, we in developed countries do it more. The reason, I think, is how fears propagate. If someone in New Guinea gets eaten by a tiger — do they even have tigers in New Guinea? — then those who know the victim or hear about it learn to fear tiger attacks. If it happens in the U.S., it’s the lead story on every news program, and the entire country fears tigers. Technology magnifies rare risks. Think of plane crashes versus car crashes. Think of school shooters versus home accidents. Think of 9/11 versus everything else.

My own example is that someone is much, much more likely to be killed in a traffic accident on the way too or from school than murdered at school–about 1,000 times more likely. But the thousands of kids killed in traffic accidents every year don’t get huge amounts of nationwide media attention. Our instinct is to evaluate risk based on what we see, not on the underlying data.

That’s why we have brains; to dig into the real data, get the facts, and make intelligent decisions based on facts and rational analysis, not fear and panic.