In This Issue
Terrorism
September 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 3
Volume 28, Number 3 - Fall 1998

An Engineering Response to Terrorism (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

Engineers have a major role to play in preventing or reducing the ravages of terrorism. Ultimately, of course, terrorism must be addressed at its roots: poverty, hunger, political oppression, and economic injustice. But it is unlikely we will ever eliminate it. There will always be new grievances, new hatreds, new causes that will prompt acts of terror and attract people willing to immolate themselves in the commission of those acts. Thus, defensive measures are imperative to thwart terrorism and mitigate its effects.

Engineers can also help put terrorism in perspective, for it is far more destabilizing when perception magnifies the phenomenon's lethality. To avoid overreaction, terrorism needs to be viewed in the context of other threats to our lives, such as natural hazards and accidents in the home, on the highways, in the air, and at sea. For instance, the disasters of TWA Flight 800 and of Swiss Air Flight 111 were not acts of terrorism, but grievous technical mishaps. Terrorism is a risk, but other hazards thus far have killed many more.

Putting in perspective certain acts of terrorism does not diminish the importance of addressing the engineering challenges they pose. Certainly, it does not mean discounting the potential loss of life from chemical or biological attack on a large city's water supply or from a terrorist's nuclear bomb. Mass destruction in urban areas, where so much of the world's population is concentrated, represents a far greater risk than acts of terrorism on a smaller scale, no matter how tragic those may be. Yet, we pay much more attention to the latter.

There are two key areas where technology can aid in the defense against terroristic acts. The first relates to detection of threats. We need to think about surrounding potential targets with networks of sensors. Such systems would provide an immediate signal before a water-supply system is contaminated or a toxic cloud is allowed to diffuse into a subway or building. Developing effective and cheap sensors of all kinds is a major challenge. The ability to reliably sense threats enhances not only the defenses against terrorism, but also basic technological prowess, with potential spin-offs to industry, the service sector, and national defense. A key part of the challenge is to develop policies that encourage the private sector to invest in the development and production of these new technologies.

The second relates to the design of structures. It is time for engineers and architects to get together to devise new structural forms that offer a higher degree of protection not only against terrorist attack, but also against other hazards. There is much to be learned from what happened in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in Oklahoma City, and at the World Trade Center. Similarly, retrofitting of existing structures needs to be studied systematically, as it can reduce, at modest or virtually no cost, the potential for damage. What is today an episodic, artisan-like approach can be made much more effective by policies that consolidate the market for retrofitting innovations. Retrofitting as well as new designs have been very effective against fires and earthquakes. There is no reason to believe that the same sorts of improvements cannot help us deal with the threat of terrorism in office buildings, production plants, power grids, pipelines, and harbors.

Engineering has a unique role to play in advocating appropriate policies of this kind, in demystifying terrorism, and in encouraging the public to assess intelligently the issues of cost versus risk. To reiterate, none of these actions will eliminate terrorism. They will, however, help reduce the chance of mass slaughter, help protect important elements of our infrastructure, and - it is hoped - enhance our defenses against destabilizing events.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor, Polytechnic University, and interim Editor-in-Chief of The Bridge.