Welcome Bruce Schneier (Schneier on Security) and Host James Fallows (The Atlantic) (new book: China Airborne)

Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Bruce Schneier is best known to the world, and probably to readers of FDL, for his trenchant sanity-based critique of the way America has responded to security threats through the post-9/11 era. His Schneier on Security is the standard reference site on this topic. When you hear the phrase “security theater” — or think of it when passing through TSA checkpoints or dealing with other features of the modern security state — you’re using a term usually credited to Schneier.

In my magazine, the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has profiled Schneier and his security concepts in one of the most popular articles we have ever run, “The Things He Carried.” He has also talked about Schneier’s emphasis on resilience as the core of a nation’s security strategy. That is: if you try to guard against every conceivable security threat, you can end up strangling a society and destroying the very liberties you are theoretically trying to defend. Instead it makes sense to take all reasonable preventive measures — but then shift your emphasis to the tools of resilience, so you can limit the damage and resume normal activities if some attack succeeds. In personal risk-management, this would be the difference between: (a) never leaving the house, and living in a sanitized bubble, so as to avoid any exposure to outside germs, and (b) maintaining good overall health so that you bounce back quickly when you do get sick.

I mention all this as prelude to Schneier’s latest book, Liars & Outliers, which is not directly about security-theater, the TSA, or other familiar themes, but which explores some of the deeper principles on which social health depends. The subtitle of the book conveys the main theme: “Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.” It is a systematic assessment of the conditions that allow people to assume the best rather than the worst from the others they encounter during the day. Or, if not strictly “the best,” at least assuming that people you deal with will maintain a basic level of honesty and, yes, trust-worthiness even when no one is watching to monitor their behavior. You can get in a taxi and assume that the driver will take you to your destination rather than robbing you; you can order a meal in a restaurant and assume that it hasn’t been poisoned; you can walk down a crowded street without worrying that any passer-by might be carrying a dagger and planning to stab you.

There are places around the world where you cannot take any of these things on trust, and life works differently — and worse — there. Schneier’s book involves trust in all walks of society, from the highest-level corruption and abuse of power to routine social interactions. He is not the first one to have considered this concept. In the mid-1990s, Francis Fukuyama examined similar issues in a book called Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. A few years earlier, a book of my own, called More Like Us, argued that something I called the “radius of trust” was a very important guide to a society’s ability to thrive. (When people trust only members of their own in-group — family, clan, tribe — social life is worse by almost any measure than when there are efforts to promote trust on a broader scale.) And back to Max Weber and long before, writers and political theorists have emphasized how much difference these “soft,” non-legislated parts of behavior matter. The run-on-the-bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life is all about what happens when people no longer trust that their money will be safe tomorrow if they leave it in the bank today.

How is this connected to security? How can an ever-more divided and unequal America deal with issues of trust? Bruce Schneier explores these themes in his book, and will handle our questions on them here.


James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is China Airborne.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

96 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Bruce Schneier, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive”

BevW June 17th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Bruce, James, Welcome back to the Lake.

James, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Dear Bruce:

Thanks very much for joining us here. Let me start with a question that I in fact know the answer to, having read your book, but that many people joining us may be wondering about. In my intro post, above, I remind readers of your very well-known work in security (in all its aspects). Could you say a word about how your interests and concepts in that area led you to the themes you explore in the very interesting ‘Liars and Outliers’?

I have a bunch of questions of my own, but I will give way to the FDL community as their questions come in.

Thanks, Jim Fallows

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Thank you for having me. I enjoyed interviewing Kip Hawley last month, and I expect I’ll enjoy being interviewed this month.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Some preliminaries. This is the book’s website. It has links to the complete Chapter 1 — and parts of three other chapters — a bunch of text, audio, and video interviews about the book, every review of the book I have stumbled upon, a way you can buy a signed copy, and a bunch of other things.

I’ll start with something for those who have not read the book. This is something I wrote for John Scalzi’s blog, for a feature about new books he calls “The Big Idea”:

My big idea is a big question. Every cooperative system contains parasites. How do we ensure that society’s parasites don’t destroy society’s systems?

It’s all about trust, really. Not the intimate trust we have in our close friends and relatives, but the more impersonal trust we have in the various people and systems we interact with in society. I trust airline pilots, hotel clerks, ATMs, restaurant kitchens, and the company that built the computer I’m writing this short essay on. I trust that they have acted and will act in the ways I expect them to. This type of trust is more a matter of consistency or predictability than of intimacy.

Of course, all of these systems contain parasites. Most people are naturally trustworthy, but some are not. There are hotel clerks who will steal your credit card information. There are ATMs that have been hacked by criminals. Some restaurant kitchens serve tainted food. There was even an airline pilot who deliberately crashed his Boeing 767 into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999.

My central metaphor is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which nicely exposes the tension between group interest and self-interest. And the dilemma even gives us a terminology to use: cooperators act in the group interest, and defectors act in their own selfish interest, to the detriment of the group. Too many defectors, and everyone suffers ­ often catastrophically.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is not only useful in describing the problem, but also serves as a way to organize solutions. We humans have developed four basic mechanisms for ways to limit defectors: what I call societal pressure. We use morals, reputation, laws, and security systems. It’s all coercion, really, although we don’t call it that. I’ll spare you the details; it would require a book to explain. And it did.

This book marks another chapter in my career’s endless series of generalizations. From mathematical security -­ cryptography -­ to computer and network security; from there to security technology in general; then to the economics of security and the psychology of security; and now to -­ I suppose -­ the sociology of security. The more I try to understand how security works, the more of the world I need to encompass within my model.

When I started out writing this book, I thought I’d be talking a lot about the global financial crisis of 2008. It’s an excellent example of group interest vs. self-interest, and how a small minority of parasites almost destroyed the planet’s financial system. I even had a great quote by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, where he admitted a “flaw” in his worldview. The exchange, which took place when he was being questioned by Congressman Alan Waxman at a 2008 Congressional hearing, was once the opening paragraphs of my book. I called the defectors “the dishonest minority,” which was my original title.

That unifying example eventually faded into the background, to be replaced by a lot of separate examples. I talk about overfishing, childhood immunizations, paying taxes, voting, stealing, airplane security, gay marriage, and a whole lot of other things. I dumped the phrase “dishonest minority” entirely, partly because I didn’t need it and partly because a vocal few early readers were reading it not as “the small percentage of us that are dishonest” but as “the minority group that is dishonest” –­ not at all the meaning I was trying to convey.

I didn’t even realize I was talking about trust until most of the way through. It was a couple of early readers who ­ coincidentally, on the same day ­ told me my book wasn’t about security, it was about trust. More specifically, it was about how different societal pressures, security included, induce trust. This interplay between cooperators and defectors, trust and security, compliance and coercion, affects everything having to do with people.

In the book, I wander through a dizzying array of academic disciplines: experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, economics, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, game theory, systems dynamics, anthropology, archeology, history, political science, law, philosophy, theology, cognitive science, and computer security. It sometimes felt as if I were blundering through a university, kicking down doors and demanding answers. “You anthropologists: what can you tell me about early human transgressions and punishments?” “Okay neuroscientists, what’s the brain chemistry of cooperation? And you evolutionary psychologists, how can you explain that?” “Hey philosophers, what have you got?” I downloaded thousands -­ literally –­ of academic papers. In pre-Internet days I would have had to move into an academic library.

What’s really interesting to me is what this all means for the future. We’ve never been able to eliminate defections. No matter how much societal pressure we bring to bear, we can’t bring the murder rate in society to zero. We’ll never see the end of bad corporate behavior, or embezzlement, or rude people who make cell phone calls in movie theaters. That’s fine, but it starts getting interesting when technology makes each individual defection more dangerous. That is, fishermen will survive even if a few of them defect and overfish -­ until defectors can deploy driftnets and single-handedly collapse the fishing stock. The occasional terrorist with a machine gun isn’t a problem for society in the overall scheme of things; but a terrorist with a nuclear weapon could be.

Also –­ and this is the final kicker ­– not all defectors are bad. If you think about the notions of cooperating and defecting, they’re defined in terms of the societal norm. Cooperators are people who follow the formal or informal rules of society. Defectors are people who, for whatever reason, break the rules. That definition says nothing about the absolute morality of the society or its rules. When society is in the wrong, it’s defectors who are in the vanguard for change. So it was defectors who helped escaped slaves in the antebellum American South. It’s defectors who are agitating to overthrow repressive regimes in the Middle East. And it’s defectors who are fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement. Without defectors, society stagnates.

We simultaneously need more societal pressure to deal with the effects of technology, and less societal pressure to ensure an open, free, and evolving society. This is our big challenge for the coming decade.

dakine01 June 17th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Good afternoon Bruce and James and welcome back to FDL this afternoon.

Bruce, I have not read your book but it sure does seem as if we are rapidly moving down the path of not being able to trust ANY of the major political and societal organizations. Having come of age in the ’60s, I learned early on that I.F. Stone was correct with his All Governments Lie but anymore, it seems they really don’t care enough to try to hide it. Add in the corporations and industries such as Tobacco, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, MIC, and so on; we all know they are lying to us, they know we know they are lying to us yet they still promote the lies.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Now that is what I call a quick and voluminous reply! ;)

Here is a follow-up, given the interests of the FDL community in the evolving effects of economic and political pressures and dislocations, technological change, government security policies, and so on:

The issues of trust you talk about are in one way eternal questions. Since the beginning of civilization, people living in groups have had to figure out which behaviors they must police, and which can be affected and tolerated by social norms.

But these issues of “trust” and “defection” also change over time. Can you say more about how **current American society** — with the security issues of the post-9/11 era, the technological changes of the era in which surveillance is ever possible, and the cultural pressures caused by economic polarization — should think about these “trust” questions?

UPDATE: Question #6, by dakine01, gets at these same issues of current levels of distrust.

BevW June 17th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

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As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev

RevBev June 17th, 2012 at 2:20 pm
In response to BevW @ 7

Thanks, Bev..;)

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:20 pm


There is certainly a lot of mistrust in our society today, and you’ve ticked off just a few of the problems. These are important, but we are still very much a high-trust society. We generally don’t fear for our lives, or our property. We generally know that most of the things we do are safe. In some sense, this mistrust of large institutions — government, corporate, whatever — is in the margins. I’m not saying that it’s unimportant, but we’re very far from living in a war-torn country with no viable government at all.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:21 pm


Trust is what holds society together. Even something as simple as division of labor doesn’t work unless we can all trust that someone else will do the things we don’t do. This is true for primitive society, and it’s true for society today.

From a security perspective, the question is how society induces trust. Or, more specifically, how we induce people to act in a trustworthy manner. This is what the book is about. When I see today’s big problems, from corporations taking advantage of legal — and illegal — loopholes, to terrorists taking advantage of airplane travel, to Congresscritters using their public office for personal gain, I see failures in trust inducement. What I write about in my book is how we as a group can enforce trustworthy behavior amongst us all. There are a buch of mechanisms, and I don’t think we’re smart about how we deploy them.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:21 pm


Changes in technology are a huge issue, and one that I don’t think we as a society are very good at dealing with it. I think of a cooperative system as being in a delicate balance. Most of the system is cooperative, and there are some uncooperative elements. For a bunch of reasons — I explain them in the book — there will always be uncooperative elements. To put it in more normal terms, the crime rate may be low but it’ll never be zero.

What technology does is change that balance. Someone invents a new way of committing fraud, or someone discovers fingerprint technology, and that changes the crime rate. When that happens, society naturally rebalances itself. But there’s time lag. And if the time lag is too great, or technology changes too fast, the rebalancing may never happen.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Bruce, thanks, and let me draw out your two most recent replies.

Your book is indeed a very rich examination, at both the historical and the theoretical level, of these “trust-inducing mechanisms.” I think many readers here will start with the assumption that overall social trust in America, while higher than in many countries, is in a period of rapid erosion.

1. Do you agree that social trust is on the decline in the US (albeit from a higher-than-the-Philippines starting point)?

2. Can you share with the readers a few of the practical measures you discuss in the book for replenishing the store of social trust?

RevBev June 17th, 2012 at 2:24 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 4

This causes me to wonder about people who seem excessively rule-bound; rigid, as it were—conformist. The kicker is that many of these people are the minority report who speak one way and act another as they break lots of rules.(Maybe Nixon, I guess.) Is this something you observe…Have studied?

hpschd June 17th, 2012 at 2:25 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 9

Do I trust Domino’s pizza, no
Do I trust Sam who owns the local pizza joint, yes

Do I trust the eggs (raw) from the supermarket, no.
I trust the eggs from the farmers market raw in a smoothie.

I trust the beef I get from the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. I know them personally and have seen their Black Angus cattle grazing.

Buying local makes trust easy. Corporations cannot be trusted.

Therefore, I look to local business and people on the front lines of their business for everything I can.

They need my trust, they earn it. They can trust me to support them.

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 2:26 pm

if you try to guard against every conceivable security threat, you can end up strangling a society and destroying the very liberties you are theoretically trying to defend

Yes, but you can also make a fantastic amount of money for politically well-connected manufacturers of security gizmos and providers of security services. You can also get the populace used to an increasing dimunition of their civil rights and civil liberties. My God, man, where are your priorities?


James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:28 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 15

If this is any consolation to you, the company that makes the bomb-screening devices that have shown up in every subway station in Beijing is run by (wait for it)…. the son of President Hu Jintao. Who says that China and America are so different!

For more details, you must of course rush to the fascinating ‘China Airborne’…. ;)

emptywheel June 17th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I’m part way in the book and find it a really refreshing take on security.

Intentionally or not (I actually think Bush avoided this better than Obama) we’ve turned Muslims into the reason to justify a lot of expensive investments in security theater. How does this fit in your model of trust?

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:30 pm
In response to James Fallows @ 12

I think trust is on the decline in the U.S. I can’t find the links right now, but there is good polling data that shows that our trust in both public and private institutions is at a low. The bifurcation of politics into two separate and non-intersecting reality streams exacerbates mistrust of the other side. And, basically, there are a lot of untrustworthy people in positions of power.

There is no magic to restoring trust — we have to do it. We as a society need to induce trustworthiness, basically through rewards and punishments. The reason people in power lie is because they can get away with it; if they couldn’t, then they wouldn’t. My worry is that we lack the political will to do that.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:31 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 17

Bruce, I would like to piggyback on this question: My similar-but-slightly-different version is that Obama has not made things any better on this front than Bush did. As you have well explained, there is a ratchet effect to security-theater “investments.” Once they start, politicians can’t “afford” to take them back. How do you judge the respective “contributions” of the Bush and Obama administrations to the over-mechanized, heavy-capital-expense aspects of security theater?

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 2:31 pm
In response to James Fallows @ 16

Thanks for your response. At the risk of appearing a little dense (not a China expert like you), am not sure I get the ‘China Airborne’ reference.

BevW June 17th, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 20
Siun June 17th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Fascinating topic – thanks Bruce and James for being here to talk with us.

And hpschd – yes! I think more and more of us are placing our boundaries locally for trust in many ways and yet we are more globally engaged than ever and often have relationships with others around the world that hold great trust as well. Is it local or structural?

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to RevBev @ 13

Following the rules is a very basic human need, and lots of psychologists have studied this. On the other hand, so is deception. So, you’re right. Most of us follow the rules. Some of us break the rules. And some of us break the rules while at the same time convincing everyone around us that we’re following the rules. (If you think about it, that’s the most successful strategy of all.) This tension between deception and detecting deception is older than our species.

Of course, humans are very complicated. Everyone breaks some rules, and no one breaks every rule.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 20

Sorry for obscurity on China Airborne. It is a book (a) that has just been published, (b) is by me, and (c) contains (among other things) the info about security-theater investments in China. This was in the form of a mildly self-promotional joke — but at least it was relevant to the security theater discussion!

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 2:34 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 18

The bifurcation of politics into two separate and non-intersecting reality streams exacerbates mistrust of the other side

My feeling is that the Baby Bush crowd (43, not 41) were past masters of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Fox News, their media adjunct, creates its own reality. Although I’m not wild about the Democrats, I feel, along with Thomas Mann and — Ornstein, was it? — that the R’s are primarily responsible for this state of affairs. Agree or disagree?

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 2:35 pm
In response to BevW @ 21

Uh-oh, I revealed my ignorance. Thanks, Bev.

And thanks to James as well.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:37 pm
In response to hpschd @ 14

Your examples are perfect illustrations about how trust works. I trust my local pizza joint. I trust that they won’t poison me. And, even weirder, when I was in the Atlanta airport two days ago I trusted pizza from a food court restaurant I had never heard of and would probably never do business with again. I think they were some national chain.

Why did I trust them? I didn’t know them. I didn’t know anyone who recommended them. It’s less that I trusted them and more that I trusted the systems that produced them: the airport that gave them a lease, the health codes in Atlanta, whatever. Trust is weird like that.

In our complex society we can’t just trust locally. We have to trust faceless corporations, politicians we’ve never met, and people we will never ever hope to meet (and don’t even speak the same language as). We need meta-systems of trust to make all those individual trust relationships work.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:38 pm


Snark aside, you make an important point. If you can make someone distrustful enough to be scared, you can sell them all sorts of things — products and policies — to make them feel better.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Mr. Schneier,

Why are both quantitative and qualitative risk analysis completely absent from every discussion of policy and practice relating to security?

Mr. Hawley repeatedly asserted that the TSA protects me from horrible things, but provided exactly zero evidence to corroborate this claim, and further provided zero data about the real risk of those things they’re purportedly protecting me from. For the money being spent on all this security I should think it trivially easy to definitely state whether I’m more or less likely to be killed/harmed by a terrorist enroute to my destination or to be killed/harmed by a malfunctioning toaster oven. Yet, no such analysis of probabilities is ever presented.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Bruce, here is a new question if you are feeling under-interrogated at any point:

You are very well known for your original expertise in cryptography and all things digital-security-related. Could you say something about your book’s discussion of the state of “trust” as it involves our online lives. In specific:

- Are individuals too trusting, or credulous, about the ways they are exposing themselves in their digital lives? I am talking about “exposure” of all sorts — to “ordinary” criminals, government surveillance, advertiser-related intrusions.

– How should the lay public think about the often-rumored threat of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” or “cyber 9.11″ ? I know your answers on this, from your writings, but I think the group would find them interesting.

HelenaHandbasket June 17th, 2012 at 2:40 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 18

David Brooks said in his June 11 NYT oped, this loss of trust is because we’re bad followers. How can I be a better follower (cooperator)?

“I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.”

Phoenix Woman June 17th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for coming to the Lake, Mr. S.!

By the way — I think that part of the problem WRT trust is that we all know we’re being lied to about various things, but the problem is that the liars are so powerful and have so much money that they confuse people as to what is a lie and what is the truth. (And apparently, sometimes the truth is so horrifying that it’s easily ignored or suppressed.)

juliania June 17th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Thank you very much for being here, Mr. Schneier. Your book explores some fascinating areas in an important subject to us all.

You say in your preliminary comment (which is interesting and helpful to those of us who haven’t had a chance to read your book as yet), ” Cooperators are people who follow the formal or informal rules of society. Defectors are people who, for whatever reason, break the rules.”

As you then talk about security as it relates to societal trust, could you comment upon an idea of mine that our societal trust really began to erode seriously when the Supreme Court came up with their unaccountable and unconstitutional decision to award the Presidency to George W. Bush in 2000? For me, that was the first shock to the system – as much a shock as even the assassination of Kennedy. I remember exactly where I was when that Supreme Court decision came down.

Thank you.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

And, Bruce, here is one more for the “if you have any time on your hands…” category:

Last week the NYT ran findings showing that esteem for the Supreme Court was at its lowest level in half a century or so, with a large majority of the public feeling that the Justices were “deciding” mainly as political actors. Certainly the sequence of rulings that runs from Bush v Gore through Citizens United could lead to that inference.

Now, there are historians who say that this is actually the *norm* for perceptions (and realities) of the Supreme Court. If you took the century from Dred Scott through, say, Brown v Board of Education, you would mainly see the Court as another branch of standard politics. By this reasoning, it is unusual in the sweep of American history for the public to “trust” the court in any profound way.

Suppose the John Roberts-led court later this month puts out a ruling on “Obamacare” that seems to be a replay of Bush v. Gore. That is, a nakedly instrumental political ruling. That would have a profound effect on “trust” in our institutions. How, in practical terms, might we regain more trust in the judiciary if that happens?

UPDATE: I see that Juliana, @33, has this same issue in mind.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:46 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 17

Trust is related to in-group/out-group dynamics, and our trust — of people, institutions, and systems — depends on whether they’re “us” or “them.” Define a good “them,” and you’ve got an enemy that you can use to justify all sorts of things. The U.S. is good at this. For most of my life, the “them” were the communists. Now they’re the terrorists, or — unfortunately — Muslims.

Related, did people see my debate with Sam Harris about profiling Muslims at airports? Here’s Harris’s original post, here’s my rebuttal, and here’s our subsequent dialog on the topic.

hackworth1 June 17th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

When you refer to sec. theater, do you imply double entendre?

Theatre of the absurd. Theatre as in “for Show”

Donald Rumsfeld’s War Zone as a Theatre.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 2:47 pm

As an example…

I can definitively state that I’ve caught a cold or flu as a result of flying on an airplane, which has resulted in real harm to me and others, infinitely more often than I’ve been even remotely at risk of being harmed by a travelling terrorist. Yet for some reason the government isn’t spending any money at all to inoculate me against or screen me for airborne viruses or bacteria before boarding an airplane. This is doubly terrifying when you consider that the common cold and flu have killed nearly 500 times as many Americans over the last 50 years than all foreign and domestic terrorism combined.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:49 pm

To be fair, risk analysis is not completely absent from every discussion, just mostly absent from most discussions.

At to why, my guess is that it’s politics. I and others have been trying to turn discussions of security into discussions of risk, but it just doesn’t play well. When one side is saying “OMG we’re all going to die…unless we immediately do these specific policy things,” someone on the other side who talks about risk vs cost and relative probabilities of harm isn’t going to get any air time. Fear trumps rationality. Also, it’s in a politician’s best interest to exaggerate the threat and to overcompensate in security. The rational politician is branded as being “soft on crime” or “soft on terror” or “soft on whatever we’re supposed to be afraid of right now.”

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

P.S. I debated Kip Hawley on The Economist website a few months ago.

I made many of the same points you did.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 2:55 pm

As a subject for later discussion: some day we will understand why the risk of blowing up an airplane, which is obviously terrible, ghoulish, tragic, disastrous, and so on for the people involved, is SO MUCH more a driver of our public policy than other terrible events that would kill a comparable number of people. (I am taking for granted that, as Bruce S and others have pointed out, there WILL NEVER be “another 9/11,” because cockpit-security, plus an empowered flying public, means that planes can never again be turned into guided missiles.)

I understand the argument that al Qaeda has an obsession with destroying airplanes that transcends the purely rational, so we have to respond in kind. But when you think of the people who die in other ways — schoolyard shootings, for a start, or car crashes — that we shrug off, while investing zillions in airport-related security, it is puzzling to say the least.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 2:56 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 32

It’s even worse than that. It’s not just that the liars have enough money to propagate their lies, it’s that our knowledge of psychology — and increasingly neuroscience — is so good that we can tell much more effective lies. We as a species might be getting too good at deception, and I don’t know how this will all play out in the future.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 2:57 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 38

I have a hard time understanding why any politician would be “afraid” of another terrorist attack happening, because exactly nobody got booted from office for “letting” 9/11 happen. Instead the cultural response is to vest ever more authoritative powers in political leaders with less and less oversight.

If anything I would expect that politicians would be doing as much as possible to ensure that another 9/11 happens whilst maintaining appearances to the contrary. See the “Drone War” as a perfect example of this.

That said, you’ve basically described that your discussions devolve into one side shouting down the other, and the shouting is mostly done by the fear-mongers. In that environment it seems less relevant that you get into a discussion of providing your own risk analysis statistics and pointing to them, and instead just continually shout them down with the same clear point (as clear as “OMG we’re all going to die”) over and over. Like, just call them out as being cowardly pansies who are deathly afraid of 14th Century goat herders, and that’s not the strong proud Amurika you grew up in.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:02 pm
In response to James Fallows @ 34

I agree that trust in the Supreme Court took a serious blow after Bush v. Gore — amongst half the people in the country. A ruling on health care could have the same effect.

I don’t think there’s anything we can “do” about it. The Bush v. Gore ruling was transparently a political one. The Supreme Court became less trustworthy because of it. Fixing it requires making the Supreme Court more trustworthy, which won’t happen by magic. It might require appointing more trustworthy judges to the bench. Does anyone think that is possible in today’s political climate?

More generally, I think the government of the U.S. is completely dysfunctional. We can’t even tackle small problems, let alone large ones. And we as a culture have some seriously large problems looming.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:03 pm
In response to hackworth1 @ 36

When I coined “security theater,” I meant it to refer to security measures that are only for show: measures that look like they’re doing something, but actually are not. It’s meant to be derogatory, but reality is more complicated than that. My 2007 essay, “In Praise of Security Theater,” tries to explain.

RevBev June 17th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 43

Do you have any remedy suggestions that seem feasible? Most of us would agree, Im pretty sure.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 3:06 pm
In response to James Fallows @ 40


I’m not as convinced that it’s puzzling. We shrug those things off because there’s not a multi-year propaganda campaign in place to keep us remembering them, glorifying, or vilifying them.

If anything it seems to me to be a stark and crystal clear indicator that our policies are completely unmoored from our politics, and that’s the direct result of our political system; manifested in our specific politicians.

Consider the common character of a politician or someone campaigning to become one. Have they ever struck you as being a Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., or Noam Chomsky type of person? It’s not that better men (or women) don’t exist. It’s that they’re never, ever exalted to be heads of state; for systemic reasons that I assume are obvious?

This is probably a derail, but hopefully it’s worthy of some further thought.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

There’s lots of research on how we we get fear and security wrong. We fear things that are rare and spectacular, like airplane terrorism, instead of the things that are really dangerous, like the taxi ride to the airport. We fear “bird flu” because it has a name and not regular flu, even though the latter is far more dangerous.

Some of the reasons are in this essay. There’s a lot more here.

Kevin Gosztola June 17th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Thanks for being here to discuss your book. I have a question that stems from the general premise of your book.

As part of your premise in the opening of your book, you seem to be arguing that it would be impossible to get rid of all threats. Now, with regards to terrorism, the US government is fighting a war against extremist groups that it claims engages in terrorism and want to attack the US. The US government also wants to target people who might be thinking about launching a terror attack in the future. These are people who aren’t “terrorists” but to the US government they could be one day. This all would seem to make who actually poses a threat needlessly murky.

That said, to what extent do you think the US has to learn to coexist with some of these groups that they claim want to destroy America? If one considers your argument, wouldn’t it be better to have a policy of containment rather than elimination? The current strategy seems to reinforce groups that are “threats” and create climates of distrust in societies that further increase possible threats.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 43

More generally, I think the government of the U.S. is completely dysfunctional. We can’t even tackle small problems, let alone large ones. And we as a culture have some seriously large problems looming.

Bruce, to pursue this: I think like many other readers I would be interested in the practical implications of your thorough conceptual arguments.

When I came back from a multi-year period of living in China, I did a long article in the Atlantic — it’s here — arguing that in most ways, America was poised for impressive resilience. But, I argued, the structure of its government had become a really serious impediment to national well-being, largely because (a) structures devised by practical-minded compromisers in the 1780s no longer made sense for the US of the 2010s, and (b) in recent history, as illustrated by Bush v. Gore, one side in politics had been more ruthless than the other in abusing the rules of play.

I am asking you to step out of your normal analyst’s role and tell us what you think readers of your book and web site should *do* to try to repair trust in our governing institutions. And I hope the answer is more than “pray” !

masaccio June 17th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 4

That sounds a lot like my experience with the world I saw as a lawyer. The defectors really thought they deserved to get away with whatever they wanted to do, and expected their lawyers to say and do whatever it took, and expected their accountants to do the same, and expected every other professional to do the same. They truly believe that money is the only measure, and that their hired hands will do anything for money.

And, of course, they are right.

Defectors defect until you lock them up and take their money. We haven’t tried that yet, so I might be wrong, but I seriously doubt it. If Jamie Dimon and Ina Drew and Bruno Iksil thought they faced jail for losing billions and lying about it, they wouldn’t have done it. If WaMu and Countrywide thought jail was plausible, they wouldn’t have filed false statements with banks.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Imagine two politicians. One tells the public that the terrorists are out to kill them, and that Draconian airport security measures like full body scanners and Muslim profiling are their only hope for safety. The other — me, maybe — tells the public to relax and stop worrying about such an insignificant threat.

Fast forward five years. If there’s another terrorist attack, I’m out of a job. And if there’s no terrorist attack, the other guy gets to take credit for it. Overreacting to the threat is much safer politically. It’s safer for elected officials, and it’s safer for bureaucrats.

It’s why there are so many people on the no-fly list. Everyone wants to put suspicious people on the list, but no one wants to take anyone off — just in case they’re wrong.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 3:13 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 43

This much seems clear to me. It’s very, very difficult for me to understand why any American has any faith in the process or procedures that establish our national government (and many of our state governments). People still have these absurd letter-writing campaigns, or donate their pittances to their team’s favored candidate, etc.

For what it’s worth I was pushing for a Perry Presidency on the faint hope that he’d let Texas vote itself out of the Union on the understanding that if they did it, and he overturned it, he’d have a Texas sized target on his back for the remainder of his days. Sadly he didn’t last long enough to vote for him in the Republican primary in Oregon. Which reminds me I need to change my party affiliation back.

norecovery June 17th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I am most interested in what the American Government has been doing to other people through its various wars and foreign policies that causes them to hate us and want to attack us. Ounce of prevention.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 3:14 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 51

I understand that rationale. I just completely disagree that historical data provides any evidence of it. Which members of Congress were ousted for 9/11?

Obey June 17th, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Hi Bruce,
I’m sorry to say I haven’t read your book, but after reading your introduction I have every intention of doing so. It sounds intriguing and important. I’d like to ask you to elaborate on one point, if you could.

You say, “We as a society need to induce trustworthiness, basically through rewards and punishments.” And when you say “we” I wonder who you have in mind, and what mechanisms you have in mind.

Because many of the solutions bandied about regarding the breakdown in social institutions ring hollow, since they often appeal to action

on the part of the very institutions that no longer function properly


To take a common example, one solution to dysfunction in the Senate involves getting senators to vote – the very people whose incentives are so perverted – to reform their own rules.

Do your solutions avoid this kind of circularity?

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:17 pm
In response to Kevin Gosztola @ 48

In general, the best security strategies are the ones that learn how to coexist with the threats. Herds of half a million gazelles learn to live with a few hundred lions constantly circling them. Societies learn to live with a non-zero crime rate. We all learn to live with some spam in our e-mail boxes. It’s when the defectors get too large or too powerful that the system collapses.

That’s the general theory, but the devil is always in the details. With regard to Muslim terrorism, I think we’d do far better devoting resources into dealing with the geopolitical climate that fosters terrorism in the first place. I don’t like it when we do things to promulgate the “us vs them” meme. This is why I hate the “war on terror” metaphor. Wars have two sides. I much prefer the “terrorism is a crime” metaphor. Criminals don’t have a “side”; they’re criminals — obviously harmful to all societies.

Organized terrorism — not the lone nutcase kind — requires support to be effective. I want us to do what we can to deny the extremists that support.

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 3:17 pm
In response to James Fallows @ 40

I’ll make one last comment, and then stop hogging bandwidth:

I believe the answer to your question is found in the concept of “hazard and outrage,” a term coined by Peter Sandman. Basically, it says that people get more upset when a risk is an outrageous one. For example, if farmers spray pesticides on their crops, we’re furious about that. If, say, peanuts have a bit of mold on them, we’re concerned of course, but we don’t go all torches-and-pitchforks about it because it’s a naturally occurring risk, not one that someone is making a profit off of.

In this case, the risk is scarier, not more outrageous, so I think that helps to explain why people put up with the lavish expenditures for it. In saying this, I suppose I’m just echoing what Bruce Schneier said earlier.

TarheelDem June 17th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 38

There’s another issue here. The trump card that is always played is “what’s the cost of a human life”? How do value a human life in cost-benefit analyses? This is fundamental putting a non-economic risk analysis into an economic frame, something that we didn’t used to do so self-consciously when cities deployed fire departments and police departments originally. Were there then any complaints about the cost?

The whole idea of applying risk analysis to serious governmental expenditures goes back to Robert McNamara. How did that turn out for him?

That is because most risk analyses in practice get fudged because there is some data on risk that is not available, uncertainty over the cost, or hidden agendas. And most folks know it but have no better way to disarm the “experts”.

hpschd June 17th, 2012 at 3:20 pm
In response to Siun @ 22

FDL feels pretty local to me, I and trust a whole lot of people here (like you :).

This is a very special community here. Huge thanks to Jane and all.

So I trust this community, which is global. From here I can make new connections which can lead to more trust. I can get help on which corporations are more trustworthy, or less. I have connected with great books and authors – like today. (I’ve got
“Liars & Outliers” on hold at the library (another community)).

Things spread out from here in amazing ways.

GlenJo June 17th, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 51

Bruce, thanks for being here. James, thanks for hosting.

So as a follow on to your previous example (which I think is excellent), let’s suppose the “event” was the financial collapse in 2008. In this case, I would argue, Congress did not “fix” the problem and we will have more economic difficulty (as we are having now with high unemployment, etc).

How come the “play it safe mode” was not to over react with regulation, hearings, laws, studies, and lawsuits, instead we have had nothing real done, and as time goes by, everybody knows it (which one could argue is one of the major components to why Congress is so distrusted.)

Why did we get such a different outcome?

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to James Fallows @ 49

I agree with you here. Elsewhere I have called the modern representative democracy the best form of government mid-18th century technology could invent. “Because travel and communications is hard, we have to choose one of us to go all the way over there to make laws on our behalf.” Now that travel and communications are easy, this no longer makes sense. The political structures developed in the late 1700s don’t make sense today, both because the world has changed and also because different groups have gotten too good at gaming the system. And yes, one side is much more ruthless at abusing the system than the other.

I think the only thing we can do is to hold those in power accountable. We have to vote, and — more importantly — we have to agitate. The 99% movement was a good start, but we have to keep the pressure on. It can’t be that we support our side regardless, because if we do that our side learns that they don’t have to do anything to receive our support.

This is hard. I’ve been fighting for Internet privacy for years, and it’s demoralizing when the other side has all the money and the ears of all the legislators. But I don’t know what else I can do.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

After 9/11, everyone moved to the Right. Congress passed the Patriot Act almost unanimously, because almost no one wanted to stand up against the FBI. Congress let the NSA spy on whomever they wanted, because no one wanted to be soft on terror. Even so, the Republicans used fear of terror to bludgeon the Democrats with — and they’re still doing it.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:26 pm
In response to masaccio @ 50

There are lots of examples of penalties turning into costs of doing business. In my book I talk about some Scandinavian countries that index traffic penalties to income. The idea is that to a millionaire, a $100 speeding ticket isn’t much of a deterrence, but a $50,000 speeding ticket is.

realitychecker June 17th, 2012 at 3:28 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 61

“It can’t be that we support our side regardless, because if we do that our side learns that they don’t have to do anything to receive our support.” LOL You better duck, Bruce.

juliania June 17th, 2012 at 3:28 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 43

Thank you for your response. I was following your reasoning from the quote that I mentioned,

” Cooperators are people who follow the formal or informal rules of society. Defectors are people who, for whatever reason, break the rules.”

I’m not trying to entrap you, but I am a bit confused as you end your analysis by saying that we need defectors and Occupy is an example of this. But it seems to me that the true defectors were the Supreme Court judges who decided to take the vote out of the hands of voters in 2000, with political reasons that Occupy is justly protesting against now – the rule of the 1% over the 99%.

I would say that more than just those who didn’t get the outcome they wanted in 2000 should feel less secure now and probably do, when it comes to electoral politics. I don’t have a solution either to the slippery slope, but it seems a larger problem than just our concerns about nuclear proliferation – or rather, it simply ties in with what happened when we tried to elect our way out in 2008.

If we have any formal rules left, do they not reside in the Constitution of the United States, which every president swears they will uphold? (I realize I’m being rhetorical; thank you for your comments.)

TarheelDem June 17th, 2012 at 3:31 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 62

Comment on how the Amerithrax attack stampeded Congress into the Patriot Act.

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Bruce, I know there are many issues on the table, and I don’t want to distract you as you’re working your way through them.

But if you have time, before we end this session 30 minutes from now, there is an interesting tension emerging between a stream of questions (from me and others), and your very sensible replies. Here’s the dialectic, as I see it:

You remind us: trust really is essential to the long-term functioning of society.

People say: Yes! That’s right! And it looks as if our (America’s) institutions for ensuring trust are in serious trouble

And you say back: Yes, they are….

And I think people are wondering: And therefore, in practical terms, what would you have your readers do? Are you thinking of a revving up of the Occupy movement? Is it something like “original sin,” where we content ourselves to the reality that our political system is flawed, and adjust our hopes and expectations? I know that you are not primarily , or at all, a partisan-political figure. And this may not be the kind of discussion you expected to have! But since your book raises first-principles questions of the future of a democracy, I think we would all like to hear even more abuot what you think *citizens* should be doing now.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:32 pm
In response to Obey @ 55

One of the big problems with reforming any system is that systems become entrenched, and those in the system have a strong vested interest in it not being reformed. This has been the big debate about the cloture rules in the Senate; neither party wants to change the system when they’re in power, because they want the system in place when they’re not in power.

I have lots of ideas to reform government to work better, but they’re all irrelevant — because there’s no way to get from the current system to them.

Lots of political scientists say that revolution is the only way to enact large-scale change. That’s so far outside my expertise that I hesitate to even have an opinion about that. I wish I did have a better answer, though. I think we’re embarking on some large-scale social experiments in our country, and no one has any idea how it will turn out.

juliania June 17th, 2012 at 3:33 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 56


realitychecker June 17th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 62

If naked physical fear is acknowledged to be the strongest motivator by far, as you do, then at what point, if ever, does it become reasonable or necessary to level such fear BACK AT THE ONES WHO HAVE BENEFITED FROM WIELDING IT AGAINST US SO LONG AND SO SUCCESSFULLY?

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to TarheelDem @ 58

We as a people are very squeamish about “what is the value of a human life” conversations, but I think we need to have them. We need to have them when we talk about airplane terrorism, or speed limits, or pesticide bans, or product safety. Insurance companies know how to have these conversations; it’s their job. But we as a people do not.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:38 pm
In response to GlenJo @ 60

You make a good point: why did we overreact after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but basically do nothing after the 2008 financial collapse? The answer has to do with security theater.

After a disaster, the reaction is along the lines of: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” In both cases, things were done. In both cases, they were largely security theater. But in the latter case, there was a lot of money and power behind ensuring that the things done were only security theater. In the former case, the money and power was behind increased police and military powers, and selling expensive security solutions.

So in both cases, the pressure was for politically visible “solutions” that demonstrated that our elected officials were on the case. And in both cases, the solutions were deflected by other considerations.

Nathan Aschbacher June 17th, 2012 at 3:39 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 62

Which stands to reason that people could come out against these things now, and then when some future event occurs they can move right again to cover their asses. Because opposing the government and it’s officials is unAmerican in the wake of such things.

GlenJo June 17th, 2012 at 3:40 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 72

Thanks, that makes sense. I do agree that the precautions taken after 9/11 were draconian and ultimately self defeating.

Edited to emulate proper English…

billyc June 17th, 2012 at 3:40 pm

“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.” ~~ Pres. Dwight Eisenhower

According to numerous sources, we have spent $57 billion on the TSA since 2002 – and they haven’t caught one terrorist with their security measures. Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber, was arrested in Dec., 2001. Since Reid’s arrest it has been estimated that billions of airline passengers globally have been forced to remove their shoes before boarding a plane – and no other shoe bomber has been discovered since 2001.

My question: to what degree does our security allow for the intentional introduction of deception into our security apparatus? Both the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber were reminiscent of something we DFHs did in the 60′s which we labeled as “mind fucking” – one of the biggest that comes to mind was when we threatened to levitate the Pentagon in 1967. Our response to both bombers bordered on the absurd.

Thanks James and Bruce for visiting with us today!

realitychecker June 17th, 2012 at 3:41 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 71

I would say that many corporations have that conversation about the value/cost of a human life, as part of deciding whether and at what price to put certain products and services into the marketplace. They use the damage awards in wrongful death suits as a guide. What kind of disadvantage do we “fleshies” put ourselves at when we insist that each life is too precious to put a value on?

juliania June 17th, 2012 at 3:42 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 62

This really doesn’t fly, Bruce, with respect. People are pretty aware that important items that were on the Democratic agenda before the election suddenly disappeared afterwards. The expectation was that changes would be initiated – given the huge surge of excited voters. It wasn’t the Republicans who changed the issues; it was the Democrats. The elections in 2010 would have resulted in even more seats for the Democrats had they instituted the changes and the frogmarches folk were expecting. Instead, we got Bush Three, and we did not vote for that. I do not believe security issues would have changed had there been further terrorist actions, particularly if Obama had taken the position you correctly take that these are not war issues but crimes, not perpetrated by warriors but by criminals.

TarheelDem June 17th, 2012 at 3:42 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 71

Most folks find those conversations unsatisfactory and not just out of squeamishness. In all the cases where institutions have these conversations, the answer comes out to be a function of what specific people can afford. Airplane terrorism is not as big a risk for someone who flies privately as someone who flies a commercial carrier. And if you have a federal budget, you can have Air Force escort and Secret Service. So the value get framed in terms of the resources available to protect the person.

So what questions do we need to be asking instead of the conventional ones when we have these conversations?

eCAHNomics June 17th, 2012 at 3:44 pm
In response to realitychecker @ 76

Kenneth Feinberg knows all about the value of life. Just ask him. /s

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:45 pm
In response to realitychecker @ 70

I consider this question to be above my pay grade.

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 3:46 pm
In response to juliania @ 69


Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:46 pm
In response to juliania @ 65

I’m being fast and loose here with my terms, so maybe it makes sense to step back. When I use words like “cooperators” and “defectors,” I’m not making any absolute moral claims. From my perspective, these two security problem are basically the same: 1) a city trying to ensure that its residents cooperate by not stealing instead of defecting by stealing, and 2) a criminal organizing trying to ensure that its members cooperate by not testifying against each other instead of defecting by testifying. In both cases, the groups are trying to impose their interests on individuals. So in a society of slaveowners, those who try to free slaves are “defectors.”

So, yes, judges who put their own personal and political interests ahead of their oath to uphold the law are defectors. But, and this is why it’s really hard, we often can’t tell the difference between good defectors and bad defectors. Sometimes it takes the hindsight of history to recognize that someone who broke the rules of his society was in fact more moral.

juliania June 17th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 72

But actually, if the end result was security, wasn’t the political reaction after the financial collapse strictly in favor of megacorporate wellbeing and the devil take the population in general? I don’t see where this was even a pretense at security for Main Street, but rather a very obvious raid on public wealth. But perhaps I am not seeing the big picture. And of course it would qualify for your definition of security theater, which definition I do believe many folk saw the veracity of when they voted in 2010. Or didn’t.

And yes, I would love any solution that anyone has out there to what is ahead of us. Third party voting is my stopgap measure, and if enough would do that, we just might get somewhere. So, recognizing security theatre, oops, theater, is very important indeed.

Thank you so much for coming.

BevW June 17th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Bruce, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and trust in our society.

James, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Bruce’s website and book (Liars & Outliers)

James’ website (TheAtlantic) and new book (China Airborne)

Thanks all, Have a great week.

Happy Father’s Day!

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

James Fallows June 17th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Bev, thanks for setting this up and including me.

Bruce, thanks for all you have done to clarify our thinking on public affairs.

Visitors, thanks for your questions and insights. Happy Father’s Day indeed.

TarheelDem June 17th, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Thanks James and Bruce for the good discussion.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 3:56 pm
In response to billyc @ 75

Deception has always been a big part of security. Animals try to deceive each other all the time. If I can convince you that I’m stronger than I am, maybe you’ll back down and not fight with me. It’s a much safer strategy.

Think about airplane sky marshals. It’s not that they’re on planes that has any affect on security — the odds they’ll be on a flight the terrorists target is small — it’s the idea of them that affects security. I’ve long argued that as long as we convince everyone that we have sky marshals, we can disband the program. There is a common belief that Israel has two sky marshals on every El Al flight. Is that true? Does it even matter? As long as the bad guys believe it, it’s good enough.

The problem is when security deception intersects with deception in public policy. Deception runs counter to democratic (small “d”) ideals. When the government lies about the effectiveness of a particular security system — an anti-missile defense, rendition and torture, whatever — they’re not only deceiving the bad guys, they’re also deceiving the people in whose name they’re governing. And that’s really bad.

juliania June 17th, 2012 at 3:58 pm
In response to TarheelDem @ 78

And increasing numbers of us, not being able to fly since we have become residents of the lower 99 percentile, realize there are other ways to travel, particularly when one is aware of the pollution aspects. Personally, I travel amazingly cheaply via the internet, nifty stuff, science!

realitychecker June 17th, 2012 at 3:59 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 80

LOL Seems like everybody does. Unfortunately, my handle reflects my curse, that I tend to get to the essence of situations, even when they are really uncomfortable.

billyc June 17th, 2012 at 4:00 pm
In response to Bruce Schneier @ 87

Thank you for your response, Bruce! Happy Father’s Day!

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 4:01 pm
In response to realitychecker @ 89

And we as a society are terrible at tackling the big questions.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 4:02 pm
In response to realitychecker @ 76

When we say things like “each life is too precious to put a value on,” we’re removing ourselves from any policy discussion because we’re not making any sense. It’s so obviously not true. If it were, we would reduce the speed limit to zero mph. We would ground all airplanes permanently. We would ban everything.

But we don’t. We think that 40,000 automobile deaths in the U.S. per year is okay. We think our murder rate isn’t bad. We buy ladders, even though some people will die because of them.

People have a natural intuition about risk. I think of it as a risk thermostat. It’s not perfect, and previously I gave a couple of links talking about how we get risk wrong. But often it’s right. If the murder rate gets too high, people say things like “the streets are dangerous; we need to spend more money on police.” And if the murder rate gets too low, people say things like “why are we spending so much money on police when we have more pressing issues?” We don’t talk about it in terms of the value of a human life, but we act in those terms all the time.

bluewombat June 17th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Thank you very much, Bruce and James.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Okay, that was exhausting. Enjoyable, but exhausting.

And thank you for reminding me that I need to call my father.

For more along these lines, come visit my blog.

Bruce Schneier June 17th, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Agreed. Way back in the first weeks after 9/11, I wrote that “we are one terrorist attack against a police state.” I’m not sure that was an exaggeration.

When people are scared, they’ll do anything that will make them feel safer. Of course, those in power know that and will use that time to push through all sorts of policies: the Patriot Act, invading Iraq, etc.

Immediately after a fear inducing event is the wrong time to impose new security measures. Remember, anyone who opposes a new security system just wants the terrorists to win. (Which was an amazing piece of rhetoric, if you step back and think about it for a minute. Did anyone truly believe that a fellow member of society actually wanted the terrorists to win? Does that even parse?)

realitychecker June 17th, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Thank you all, a most interesting conversation. Bruce, your blog is now on my Favorites list. ;-)

Sorry but the comments are closed on this post