Electric terrorists?

Posted: Aug 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Thursday’s massive power outages exposed our vulnerabilities in all of three minutes—the amount of time it took for 21 power plants to shut down.  But over the next several hours, the whole messy affair demonstrated Americans’ resilience.

  It struck like a bolt of lightning—ironically, the original excuse given—leaving two nations simultaneously stunned and searching for instant answers.  A lot of theories were advanced—the aforementioned lightning, a power plant fire, simple overusage—but the only answer embraced by one and all was: “this is not, repeat not, an act of terrorism.”

  If no one knew the actual cause, how could the authorities declare with such authority that it was not, repeat not, terrorism?  Even as it became clear as the hours passed that the real answer was still a mystery, the only non-mystery seemed to be that the nearly unprecedented blackouts were not, repeat not, an act of terrorism.

  The odds of terrorists being behind the attacks are probably slim.  Al Qaeda has been hobbled by the capture of some of its most sadistic masterminds—goons that are much harder to replace than human bombs whose only job qualification is the desire for 72 virgins.  And an attack of this sophistication is likely beyond al Qaeda’s capabilities—for the moment.

  Although bearded cavedwellers—albeit ones armed with state-of-the-art laptops—are likely not the best candidates for knocking out a massive electrical grid, modern-day mercenaries who will hack for cash are.  As evidenced by the recent arrest of the British citizen willing to sell a surface-to-air missile to al Qaeda, hard currency has a way of ramping up al Qaeda’s potential for devastation in a hurry.

  And it’s not as if this possibility hasn’t been thought about before—at least by professional thinkers who get paid to dream big dreams.  In the January 2002 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon sketched out a now-eerily familiar sequence of events:

  “It’s 4 a.m. on a sweltering summer night in July 2003. Across much of the United States, power plants are working full tilt to generate electricity for millions of air conditioners that are keeping a ferocious heat wave at bay....” Then the terrorists strike and suddenly “a national electrical system already under immense strain is massively short-circuited, causing a cascade of power failures across the country. Traffic lights shut off. Water and sewage systems are disabled. Communications systems break down. The financial system and national economy come screeching to a halt. Sound far-fetched?”

  Just in case the terrorists hadn’t been thinking along Homer-Dixon’s lines, the real blackouts provided a doozy of a roadmap.  A northeaster corridor covering millions of people crashed, leaving hundreds of thousands—or more—stranded.  Elevators stopped.  Water fountains went dry.  Traffic lights went dark—as did all lights for hundreds of miles.  Highways turned into parking lots.  Hundreds of flights were diverted or canceled.  Subway systems, denied the electricity that is their lifeblood, ground to a halt.  Subway-dependent New York City was particularly hard hit. 

  Aerial shots over the West Side of Manhattan during afternoon rush hour showed an untold number of specks massing toward the handful of ferries, the only transportation from the island to New Jersey.  Later that night, thousands of Manhattanites camped out in Times Square, dabbling in a fleeting moment of “community.”  Even into Friday, the pain was still being felt, as few flights were coming in or out of New York, and even fewer cell phones were operational.

  But what didn’t happen was more remarkable.

  There was one heat-related heart attack in New York, and only a handful of injuries.  Instead of looting, people held barbeques and ice cream parties to consume food before it expired.  Instead of people at each other’s throats, people merrily stood side-by-side as they lined their throats with alcohol.  Even in famously testy New York, people were nicer to each other under enormous stress than they otherwise would have been.

  Sure, the terrorists may strike us as hard as whatever it was that hit us Thursday.  But even if they do as much damage as was done, America will persevere—without even breaking a sweat.  Just as we have always done before.