The Risks Down Under

LONDON -- As one of the vast army of people who commutes to central London daily, I drove to my local train station last Friday. To my slight surprise, the car park was a lot less full than usual.

July 14, 2005

Wall Street Journal Europe

LONDON -- As one of the vast army of people who commutes to central London daily, I drove to my local train station last Friday. To my slight surprise, the car park was a lot less full than usual. I stopped to buy a newspaper and a coffee but spent the 45-minute trip wondering why it never occurred to me not to make my normal journey the day after the London Tube bombings. Others clearly felt differently.
I'm a physicist and my technical background is blast injury so I'm probably more informed than most about the horrific injuries sustained by the people on those three packed underground trains and the lone bus on July 7. Although the bombs were 10 times smaller than those used last year in Madrid, or even in most suicide bombings in Israel, their impact was nonetheless devastating.

The people closest to the explosion on the Tube would have suffered what's called a "primary blast injury." This is where the high frequency, high pressure sound wave penetrates the body and ruptures the small alveoli of the lungs. The victim then essentially drowns in their own body fluid. The second, and most common, type of injury would have been from debris spread by the expanding gases of the bomb; carriage parts and luggage contents all become deadly missiles. Some injuries would have been caused by whole bodies being picked up by the blast and thrown against carriage walls and many would have suffered burns from blazing debris. In a confined space, the explosions would be even more deadly.
Couple this technical knowledge with the fact that I knew that Thursday was a case of when rather than if; why do I continue to take the risk?

Risk is usually defined as a "chance of danger or loss" and chance is often described as "the way things happen without being planned." There are three aspects to risk: threat, vulnerability and consequences. A reward associated with risk occurs when the threat does not penetrate the vulnerability and everything goes according to plan.

The underground risk scenario for me is as follows: Regarding the threat, I know that conventional explosive devices are a weapon of choice for many terrorist organizations. I also know that public transport systems are a common target, especially among groups associated with international terrorism, which want to change our way of life, not our government. I also know that such organizations or people are likely to perpetrate large-scale attacks designed to grab global attention and cause mass civilian fatalities. I am also aware that the horrific injuries described above can be the consequence.

However, the rewards associated with the London Underground system are massive. Every day I am one of 2.7 million passengers who travel on the London Underground. I am joined by so many people because the convenience and service offered has resulted in a 76% increase in traffic over the past 20 years.

The U.K. "plan" is to increase our resilience to terrorist attacks. That's done through nationwide civil contingency planning in the event of one; the use of the intelligence and criminal-justice systems to reduce the chances of one; and a series of protective security measures.

But the vulnerabilities in the British (and presumably other Western nations') plans were again exposed by last week's events. The intelligence machinery, and the tools available to the police and courts, were designed for an entirely different threat. The intelligence system is designed to penetrate hierarchical structures rather than loose networks with only a tenuous link between management and foot soldiers.

As investigators have now discovered in regard to last week's bombings, we have homegrown terrorists operating undetected in a suburb of Leeds. These young men are plotting without alerting their families, and are willing to die for their cause.

In a free society, adversarial courts make it difficult to use evidence that has been obtained clandestinely. Criminal investigations also depend on collecting evidence only after the event.

Deterrence relies on the threat of a custodial sentence that's unlikely to deter people with ideological motivations. Civil contingency planning is new and largely untested. And lastly many public targets, like the subway, can't be protected well.

With respect to the Underground, these vulnerabilities are also amplified by the fact that, although technical solutions might exist to screen every person who enters the subway for explosives, the implementation of such measures would add significantly to the time of a journey and result in false alarms and delays. Notwithstanding the intrusiveness and the financial cost, the Underground would cease to be either convenient or predictable and the rewards of the system would have disappeared.
This means that if I, and my fellow commuters, are to continue to be happy to use transportation systems like the Underground or, put another way, preserve our way of life, then we will have to rely on preventative measures to stem the risks at source and consequence management measures that reduce the impact of such attacks. I will continue to take the Underground undaunted as long as I know that every effort is being made to do this.

Dr. Bell is director of the Homeland Security & Resilience Department at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense & Security Studies.


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