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robbing terrorists


(edited version first appeared in Technology Review, April 2002)

How can we stop bank robbers in their tracks? A politician might suggest doubling the number of guards to calm the public and intimidate would-be thieves. A policeman might recommend bolstering physical security, by installing more video cameras, combination locks and metal gates. A judge might suggest increasing legal penalties for armed robbery, to discourage potential accomplices and sway the gullible from a life of crime. These approaches are well-meaning, yet remain, at best, tedious, expensive and arbitrary; no matter how great the resolve, you simply can’t anticipate every threat to every bank in the country. Fortunately there is another solution, inspired by Willie Sutton's famous refrain for why he robbed banks: "Because that's were the money is." If banks no longer distributed hard currency--turning over the payment function to smart debit cards--and became mere financial service centers, bank robberies would stop.

So far, society prefers to absorb the cost of bank robberies rather than moving to a cash-free economy, Yet Sutton’s practical observation offers an important clue to addressing a challenge which our society does judge intolerable: terrorism. The most effective solution to terrorism is neither better offense nor defense.  Rather, it is to take away the ball. Creatively eliminate the tools and targets of terrorism, and you go a long ways toward eliminating the terrorist.     

How do we, for example, stop airplanes from doubling as aerial suicide bombs? Answer: Sponsor more research on fuel additives to prevent jet fuel from catching fire. NASA, among other labs, has investigated such “fuel-inerting” and “anti-misting” technologies, but progress to date is modest due to inadequate funding and industry support [1] . How do we stop fertilizer from doubling as a bomb-making ingredient? Answer: Eliminate the need for conventional fertilizer, by developing crops capable of fixing nitrogen from the air. Some plants, like soybeans, have evolved bacteria-filled nitrogen-fixing nodules in their roots- molecular biology and plant breeding techniques could transfer this important characteristic to other crops [2] . How do we keep our central water supply safe from bio-terrorists?  Answer: A water purifier in every building and every home. New technologies, combining ozone, ultraviolet, mechanical and carbon filtration can eliminate every possible impurity from volatile organics to viruses.

Such an approach not only makes tactical sense, it makes strong economic sense as well.  Fuel that fails to catch fire outside an engine, would reduce the costs, both in material and in lives, of non-terrorist-induced air and auto accidents.  New nitrogen-fixing crops would save the energy-costs required to manufacture and ship petroleum-based fertilizers to the farm. They would also reduce our dependence on foreign oil, while helping America spread peace and stability by lowering the cost of large-scale agriculture and feeding millions in undeveloped countries.  On-location water purification would enable the economic recycling of "gray" waste water in suburbia, as well as provide an inexpensive source of drinkable water to many of the world's poor.

None of this activity would, of course, do much to lessen the short-term hit to our economy from the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the National Governor`s Association [3] and other agencies, in the first year alone the terrorist campaign will drain over three hundred billion dollars from the already wounded American economy.  Every dollar spent fighting this war of attrition is a stunning blow to world productivity, and will inevitably be followed by an echo of inflation, followed by a lowered standard of living.  The events of Sept. 11 were, indeed, attacks on a way of life, and their effectiveness must be judged not only by lost lives, but of lost livelihoods, as well.

It thus becomes imperative for us to begin to think creatively about ways to prevent this short-term cycle from turning into a longer-term spiral.  Not only may the war on our current terrorist enemies stretch indefinitely into the future, but new terrorist enemies, aware as never before of our weaknesses, may well attempt to exploit them in the years ahead.

That is where a coordinated campaign to combine terrorism prevention with economic growth becomes crucial.  We have ample precedent for such a campaign. In the last twenty years, the government has recognized that military technologies are too expensive to develop independently, and are best carried on the back of civilian applications. Often called “dual use” technologies, they include the integrated circuit (first used in Minuteman missiles [4] ) which now power video display cards everywhere from kid’s bedrooms to military situation rooms. And reliable civilian “golf carts” carry landscapers to parks in America; yet slightly repurposed, serving as low cost battlefield ambulances in Afghanistan. [5]

Dual-use technologies offer dual economies to the war on terrorism. They reduce costs, by increasing production volume. But, just as importantly, they expand the base of users, thus greatly expanding the base of smart people working diligently to improve those very same technologies. Cheaper products and more brain power- a powerful one-two punch!

Yet, even the doctrine of dual-use technologies is still insufficient leverage for the war on terrorism. Banks might  adopt consumer video cameras for surveillance, and fly radio controlled model airplanes to track getaway cars, but banks would still be robbed and innocent bystanders killed.

To return to Willie Sutton: Its not the bank, it’s the money. Replacing fertilizer with nitrogen-fixing plants, and making fuel less flammable, are more effectively  described as "deny-use" technology- the next level in evolution from dual-use. 

Indeed, taken logically to its conclusion, "deny-use" should extend to our weapons systems themselves. A common terrorist scenario, for example, involves the firing of a shoulder launched stinger missile against Air Force One or the Capital. The chance of stopping this kind of attack is very limited, depending almost entirely on interdiction by counter-intelligence methods.

Yet, think for a moment about how those weapons ended up in terrorist hands. In all likelihood, the U.S. produced them and gave them to a friendly power. As years pass, however, such weapons often find their way into unfriendly hands. How can this threat be neutralized by the doctrine of “deny-use”? Answer: We could design our weapons to degrade over three to five years so that the rocket fuel and explosives would be inoperable a decade later.

Degradable weaponry offers other potential advantages, as well.  Short-lived mines, for example, would eliminate the long-term threat to farmers from the millions of abandoned mines that today blanket yesterday's battlefields [6] . Economically, degradable weapons could be part of a military-commercial partnership focused on “design for recycling” techniques much like the ones now used by the European auto industry. Saving lives, saving money, and saving the environment in one program- now that’s the American Way.

In the coming R&D war on terrorism, Congress, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and other organizations should give full attention to promoting anti-terrorist technologies that follows two fundamental guidelines. First, the primary goal of new technology programs should be to deny terrorists tools and targets. Second, these solutions cannot be an economic burden on society -- they must generate substantial, and broad commercial impact and productivity gains.

We will never track down every terrorist in the world, nor stop the insane and malevolent from imposing their warped visions on others. But we can deny them targets worthy of attack--including our underlying economic prosperity.


Greg Blonder (Physics, ’77), a general partner at the venture capital firm Morgenthaler Ventures, previously was a Vice President of Research at Bell Labs.

[1]   Antimisting fuels http://www1.dfrc.nasa.gov/gallery/photo/CID/, 1997 National Academy Proceedings http://www.nap.edu/books/0309058333/html/index.html

[2] nitrogen fixation http://library.thinkquest.org/19037/agriculture2.html, http://www.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/e34/34b.htm, http://www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/hcs300/bact.htm Also, Honeywell announced a new, sulfur containing fertilzer in 2008 called Sulf-N 26 with the side benefit of lower explosive potential.

[3] http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02700r.pdf, also my own estimates based on separate studies, combined without double counting. Not including the Iraq war. $300B is a mean value.

[4] http://www.nasm.si.edu/research/dsh/artifacts/GC-minutema.htm, http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa080498.htm

[5] John Deere “Gator”,  NYTimes, January 4, 2002 pg F1

[6]   land mine conference http://www.icbl.org/ Note they recommend the use of self-neutralizing mines, but such mines can still be reused by terrorists since the explosives are still viable.

Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.