Do The Freakin Math

Liberals and conservatives alike frequently rely on limited evidence, personal experience, religious beliefs or gut emotions to determine solutions for complex problems. From immigration to global warming - taxes to terrorism - or health care to free trade - analytical study is rare. Science based policy making isn’t the way of Washington. And the consequences are catastrophic. Change is urgently needed. Just do the freakin’ math.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Terrorism and rocket science

Dear Editor,

Fred Reed exposes the most powerful force driving terrorism in “Terrorism is not rocket science” (Technology section, 2-24-07). Most people associate extremist religion as the most powerful destructive force impacting on our lives. Reed’s details about the “dual-use” nature of all technologies however shows a different picture. As long as there is anyone of any extremist religious, environmental or political ideology that wants to do great harm they can wield great death and destruction upon any civilization with little trouble and little cost…and more importantly …with virtually nothing we can do to prevent them from acquiring technology with increasingly powerful capacity to do either unprecedented good or unimaginable harm.

This may be bad news for those working or hoping that non-proliferation or disarmament will bring peace and security. They won’t because the capacity to kill on a mass scale can never be controlled.

This should actually be good news for those focused on changing human software (our thinking) as a means to peace and security. That is the final frontier. Religion like technology will always be abused by those who lack inadequate software. When we learn to apply what technology we have to ensuring universal education and the protection of all human rights…the sooner we will be able to defeat terrorism. That’s not rocket science. That’s just good old fashion common sense.

Chuck Woolery


By Fred Reed, Technology section. Washington Times
February 24, 2007

I see in an ABC News story that the FBI is concerned about weapons, such as peroxide-based bombs that can be made from chemicals found in the home. You don't need TNT. You can make your own explosives.
Here we encounter a disturbing truth about terrorism: While the level of technological expertise needed is often quite low, the level of such knowledge spread through the general population is quite high, and most of it is available on the Internet.
I don't like to use anonymous sources, but here I'm going to do it. A friend of mine is an organic chemist who has, for legitimate reasons, an interest in terrorism and weaponry. Years ago he told me of the various "kitchen-sink" explosives and how to make them. They go well beyond those mentioned by ABC and include nasty stuff that can be made, if not literally from things in the kitchen, at least from chemicals readily available.
He says, "You can't control access to dangerous ingredients. It's not doable. Modern countries are chemistry-intensive. All sorts of businesses depend on them, fertilizers, plastics, paint, pharmaceuticals, printing, insecticides.
"All use lots of processing agents. University labs have anything you would need to do just about anything at all," he said, giving a list of examples, which I told him I wasn't going to publish. He responded, "Probably a good idea. No point in encouraging amateurs. But anybody good would know it anyway."
He asserted that any decent graduate student in organic chemistry could make nerve agents (usually called "nerve gases," though many aren't gases).
"The syntheses aren't that difficult. You can find them on the Internet. Of course, you'd have to be careful if you wanted to survive the synthesis," he said. I don't think most people realize how much technical knowledge is readily available on improvised explosives, poisons, remote detonators and such.
Militaries have detailed manuals on such things. A problem is that much of this involves "dual use" technology. For example, cell phones with a little tinkering make good detonators. You can't outlaw cell phones. Ammonium nitrate, an explosive, is a fertilizer, used by the ton.
Search on "sarin" (a deadly nerve agent) and "synthesis." You find, for example, a site that gives a rotatable 3-D model of the simple molecule.
Bioterrorism is almost as easy for anyone of reasonable IQ. Remember that a terrorist doesn't have to kill people, just terrify them. Most Washingtonians remember when in 1997 some practical joker put a package of phony anthrax outside B'nai B'rith and shut the city for a day.
Years ago I talked to bioresearcher Steve Hatfill, the fellow on whom the FBI keeps trying to pin the deaths from the mailings of anthrax. He was worried because the United States, he said, didn't have the medical infrastructure to deal with a large number of people dying from diseases used as weapons by terrorists.
He pointed out that various dangerous pathogens, most of which we won't list here, are easily found in certain places. Anthrax for example is common in the ground around stables. Any competent microbiologist, he said, could grow most of these things in culture.
For instance, in plastic milk bottles in a basement.
One case of plague in an office building would probably shut it down for weeks.
Given that microbiologists, chemists, electronic engineers and so on are common, and particularly in the advanced world, one wonders why there is so little terrorism. I don't know. I do know that sophomore science majors could figure out a dozen ways to go about it.


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