Thursday, January 04, 2007

Turning up the notch on fear, again

Now that the holidays are over and that people have returned to their normal lives, the time has come to strike some fear into them lest the spirit of the holidays unduly spill into everyday life. After all, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, people in the West have come to expect that there are dangers lurking somewhere in the background. Governments tell them so. But perhaps the alleged plot to bomb aircraft at Heathrow Airport in Britain was already receding too far into the past. Something needed to be said — in the absence of something being done — to resuscitate the fear in people’s heart.

Cue, therefore, on Jan. 2, a report by the Canadian Press based on a document released by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in October through an Access to Information (or is it Disinformation?) request.

According to the CSIS study, it is “quite surprising” that terrorists have not yet detonated a “dirty bomb” — known in the trade as a radiological dispersal device (RDD) — given that making such a crude weapon is, according to CSIS, relatively easy and the materials required to make one readily available to ordinary citizens.

“The technical capability required to construct and use a simple RDD is practically trivial, compared to that of a nuclear explosive device or even most chemical or biological weapons,” the study says, adding that the Sept. 11 attacks had raised fears that terrorists would try to crash airliners into nuclear power stations or find ways to disperse radioactive material with the intent of causing economic damage by rendering an entire area off limits.

CSIS claims that the detonation of an RDD is “undoubtedly the most likely” terrorist scenario involving radioactive sources, adding that “it is quite surprising that the world has not yet witnessed such an attack.”

This, again, is mere fear-mongering on the part of the authorities, as it uses that which cannot be demonstrated to create a monster on the wall. A closer look at the phraseology and choice of words in the report shows how shallow the assessment is. By saying that a dirty bomb is undoubtedly the most likely terrorist attack involving radioactive material, it is simply stating that other methods — breaking into a nuclear power station and somehow finding a way to cause a detonation, or building a nuclear device and managing to smuggle it to a targeted area — are more onerous. And they are. Putting a rifle in one’s mouth and pressing the trigger is also undoubtedly the most likely way someone would end his life — more likely than achieving death by waiting for UV rays from the sun to cause a fatal skin cancer.

What the report conveniently fails to mention — and this is the reason why it expresses surprise at the world having yet to suffer such an attack — is that physical aggression is contingent on two factors: capabilities and intent. Clearly, if building and detonating a RDD is so easy — after all, the materials required to build one are at hand in medical laboratories and universities — the variable that has been missing is intent. What the report also fails to mention is that would-be terrorists could also fairly easily build conventional explosives using ammonium nitrate — fertilizer — and other available chemicals to commit a deadly attack. That this hasn’t occurred in Canada is also a result of lack of intent.

The CP article then mentions that certain parts of the report were too sensitive to have been released through the Access to Information request. This likely is nothing more than the means by which CSIS leaves doubt in the public’s mind. What is that material that is so secret it cannot be made public? Could it be information about individuals known to CSIS who have been building such a device? By leaving black holes inviting wild fantasy, CSIS ensures that the information it gives is just enough to feed nightmares. In reality, however, this so-called sensitive information is probably little more than foreign agency information on which the CSIS report is based. The truth is, it is not the information itself that is of a sensitive nature — after all, everything in the report can be sourced in open — that is unclassified — material. The sensitive information is likely the name of the foreign agency which provided the information. In the name of good relations with its allies, CSIS is bound not to reveal the identity of the foreign agencies it deals with, and any reference thereto for public disclosure will consequently be sanitized.

Despite this renewed attempt on the part of Canadian authorities to increase the level of fear that there are terrorists out there picking apart a discarded X-ray machine to build a radiophobic’s worst nightmare, Canadians need not worry. There is a multitude of means and ways by which people with bad intentions can wreak physical, human and economic havoc. Modern society is filled with technologies that can be turned against us. In fact, certain martial artists make it their pride to transform everyday objects into deadly weapons. Murders can be committed using a pair of scissors, a pencil — heck, even a door stopper would do the job. Are the daily front pages plastered with such stories? No. Why? Lack of intent.

The fact that a RDD attack has not materialized is not for lack of opportunities. It simply is lack of intent.

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