Strangers on a Terror Train

08/08/2007 04:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have started a new blog on the New York Times website based on their best-selling book, Freakonomics, and incorporating some of the up-to-the-minute statistical thinking applied to current events that they displayed in their regular NYT column. In a post today, Levitt wonders if readers have any suggestions for the perfect terrorist attack, after giving his own analysis of how to succeed:

I'd start by thinking about what really inspires fear. One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I'd want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.

Also, I'd want to create the feeling that an army of terrorists exists, which I'd accomplish by pulling off multiple attacks at once, and then following them up with more shortly thereafter.

Third, unless terrorists always insist on suicide missions (which I can't imagine they would), it would be optimal to hatch a plan in which your terrorists aren't killed or caught in the act, if possible.

Fourth, I think it makes sense to try to stop commerce, since a commerce breakdown gives people more free time to think about how scared they are.

Fifth, if you really want to impose pain on the U.S., the act has to be something that prompts the government to pass a bundle of very costly laws that stay in place long after they have served their purpose (assuming they had a purpose in the first place).

Using these guidelines, I have come up with the most terrifying of all scenarios:

1. Something everyone thinks is directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low:

First, I would buy one of those automatic dialing machines that telemarketers use, and I would illegally program it to dial all numbers, including cell phones, which up until now have been protected from such a nuisance. Well, that protection is but a gossamer web of broken dreams, people, once I program my illegal device. Or I mean program my legal device illegally. Whatever.

2. Create the feeling that an army of terrorists exists:

When recording the message that will be sent out to everyone's phone, I will ask as many as three of my friends to record the message, and these recordings will be chosen at random, so that people think there are a bunch of different people making these calls, even though there are only maybe four, depending on whether or not Max can do it.

3. Hatch a plan in which your terrorists aren't killed or caught in the act:

Everything will be recorded on Saturday night, after sunset, and the recordings will not go out to phones until Sunday morning. There is no reason for anyone to die during this operation, and my parents will be out of town so we will have the house to ourselves.

4. Try to stop commerce:

When you receive your phone call, this is what the recording will say:

American! This is the terrorist calling. All of the stores are going to be closed tomorrow so don't go to the stores. Applebee's will also be closed. Death to America.

Bye bye commerce!

5. The act has to be something that prompts the government to pass a bundle of very costly laws:

All of the stores and Applebee's will have to be open 24-hours from now on after this probably with guards and police guns. This will be so expensive, do you know how many Applebee's there are?

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