My Money on the Next Attack

The only pleasure I got on 9/11 was the wry outrage at hearing over and over, "No one could have anticipated the terrorist geniuses using planes as missiles." I had thought of it, after all, and I was hardly a genius. I was a middleschooler when I came up with that pedestrian idea.

But, given that bin Laden envisions an ever increasing arc of terror via increasingly spectacular attacks, I had trouble imagining where the next attack might come. While I was driving rural Georgia today, I came upon something that gave me an inkling. I was stopped at a railroad crossing, and a huge freight train crossed my path, laden with god knows what. But one of the cars caught my attention. It was carrying something that required special markings - the flammable kind.

That made me realize the obvious: that with such a huge industrialized country, we go through chemicals at a rapid clip, and industrial scale supplies of chemicals are moved around almost exclusively by rail. Just the chlorine for our nation's pools and water treatment systems alone represent a huge, mobile stockpile of what is effectively a WWI-era chemical weapon. Our cities are at a surprising risk from these natural consequences of industry.

Take Atlanta, for instance. The city was called Terminus because it was strategically located at the end of the Appalachian Mountains - rail traffic had to go through the future Atlanta if it wanted to avoid the more difficult route of crossing the mountains. By the nature of the rail system, centralization of infrastructure is inevitable, and it centralizes in hub cities. It's almost impossible to take a train from the east coast to the west without passing through Chicago, for example. And anyone who has ever traveled by train knows the landscape - vast, open rail yards populated by sad clusters of cars without any security presence to speak of. Many rail yards don't even have fences, since you can't fence the entire perimeter and there isn't really anything in a rail yard worth stealing anyway. What is a street-punk going to do with 80 tons of coal, or 100,000 gallons of chlorine?

Causing derailments - or aerosolizing explosions - of these shipments inside city limits could be devastating. I think, given the impact on our day-to-day lives, this avenue of attack would qualify for Osama's spectacularicity requirement, and therefore might be the next big one.

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