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John Lott: Should a Web Site Post Best Ideas for Successful Terrorist Plots?

Should a Web site post the best ideas for successful terrorist plots? Should we even discuss publicly how to stop terrorist attacks? This week, New York Times blogger Steven Levitt publicly posted terrorist plot suggestions. He claims that "by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.”

Levitt clearly assumes that terrorists have already figured out the best ideas, but that our side has not. If anything, the reverse is probably true. There are vastly more Americans than terrorists possessing detailed information on American infrastructure, traffic flows, policing practices, etc. So terrorists could easily learn something. To make matters worse, there are also many home-grown mental basket cases who could get ideas on how to obtain worldwide attention.

Many people have commented on Levitt's post by suggesting a Web site on how to catch terrorists more easily. But even that is as problematic as terrorism, just like war, is similar to a chess match where both sides try to plan many moves ahead. Terrorists have a strategy; we try to anticipate; in turn, terrorists try to account for our defenses; and so on.

Two points are clear. Terrorists can change their plans, and there is a very long list of vulnerable targets all across the United States.

A few years ago we had information that the New York Stock Exchange was being specifically targeted by terrorists. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we figure out some way to protect the New York Stock Exchange from virtually every type of attack. Would publicizing such a fact make America safer? Hardly. Telling the terrorist that fact would simply mean that was the one place terrorists wouldn't attack. The NYSE is an obvious target, but there are important financial centers, such as the Chicago Board of Trade, in other cities.

Indeed, it would be in our best interests as a nation to fool the terrorists into believing that we had not figured out a way to protect the NYSE. That way, they would be exhausting their resources and get disillusioned as their efforts to strike at Americans failed.

But let's analyze Levitt's own suggestion for the terrorists coming from his father…"to arm 20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrange to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable...”

Surely, the D.C. area sniper attacks must be something that the terrorists have already thought about, but Levitt is wrong about the consequences of such an action. He argues that generally in Israel, "If terrorists want to engage in low-grade, low-tech terror, we are powerless to stop it.”

Israel has indeed had remarkable success in stopping terrorist gun attacks. Israelis realized that the police and military simply can't be there all the time to protect people when terrorists attack. There are simply too many vulnerable targets. And even when the police or military are nearby, terrorists wait until the police and military leave the area before attacking. If attacks still go forward, those who are openly carrying a gun for protection become the first targets that the terrorists try to take out.

So how did Israel solve the problem? By encouraging Israelis to carry concealed handguns. After the policy changed in the early 1970s, terrorist gun attacks have been rare.

Today, about 15 percent of Jewish adults in Israel have permits to carry concealed handguns. Thus in large public gatherings, many citizens — who are unknown beforehand to the terrorists — are able to shot back at terrorists. During waves of terror attacks, Israel's national police chief will call on all concealed handgun permit holders to make sure they carry firearms at all times.

In contrast, about 5 million Americans across 40 states have concealed carry permits, just over 2 percent of the adult population. In other words, concealed handguns would have to be about 7 times greater in order to get up to the same level as in Israel.

Still, even at this lower level, U.S. concealed handgun use has had a beneficial effect against the types of attacks most similar to terrorist attacks — multiple victim public killings. Bill Landes of the University of Chicago and I studied all the multiple victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999. We found that deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell by 80 percent after states passed so-called “right-to-carry” laws. To the extent to which attacks continued in those states, all but the smallest attacks took place where concealed handguns were banned.

Levitt thinks that the most likely reason that the U.S. hasn't been hit with a terrorist attack since 9/11 is that "the terrorism threat just isn't that great.” But what if he is wrong? Unless he only posts ideas that are already well-known and relative ineffective, such as the shooting spree idea, he could potentially do great harm.

John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.