Friday, December 10, 2004

Is the chicken crying wolf, or is the wolf giving us fears?


U.S. warns of terrorist lasers

Thursday, December 9, 2004 Posted: 9:38 PM EST (0238 GMT) CNN.COM

There's a known effect in which if someone, or a group of people, are kept in a state of fear, then they are more suggestible. "Suggestible" meaning, you can suggest to them ideas or thoughts which would be outrageous in normal circumstances, but acceptible while in the place of fear.

Michael Moore mentioned this in one section of Farhenheit 9/11 noting how there would be repeated warnings. The example he used was a Christmas season and vague warnings were made of attacks on shopping centers, and he showed dozens of person-in-the-street interviews of people out shopping and saying outrageous things about how they could be attacked by Terrorists at any time.

Okay, lasers aimed at pilots on landing approach to airports. Hmmmm...

Why take any story we see at face value? Why not ponder for a moment and ask yourself "Is this true, or not"?

The first and most important is to read the full story and digest everything it says. The tendency might be to just read the first few paragraphs and stop right there.

This sounds reasonable enough of a warning, eh? It builds on the idea we've been told for years, that lasers can cause blindness, so if a laser were to hit the cockpit of an aircraft on landing then the pilot would be blinded and the airplane crash, yes? And if you read just the first couple paragraphs, that's all you'll get, and you'll miss the interesting things towards the end.

Like ...

There is no specific intelligence indicating al Qaeda or other groups might use lasers in the United States

Although lasers are not proven methods of attack like improvised explosive devices and hijackings

"In certain circumstances, if laser weapons adversely affect the eyesight of both pilot and co-pilot during a non-instrument approach, there is a risk of airliner crash," the agencies said.

Here's a real clincher, for the attack to be effective there are several requirements. First, "non-instrument" approach, meaning that the pilots are flying visually rather than on instruments. Second, that both pilot and copilot would be affected.

The odds, it seems to me, of both pilot and copilot being affected are extremely low. It would be hard enough to hit the airliner cockpit (it's a moving target), so to throw in the requirement that the laser hit (and blind) both occupants just makes it that much harder.

We also see a simple defense, just require all approaches to be on instrument. Airliner pilots practice instrument flying all the time, and they have to know how to do this to fly through the nasty storms they sometimes go into. Pilots on instrument mode wear hoods that block sight of all but the instruments, and would completely block a laser attack.

Lasers can cause temporary blindness and severely damage the eye by burning the retina. The bulletin notes they are "relatively inexpensive, portable, easy to conceal and readily available on the open market."

Lasers are commonly used in a number of industries and are featured in outdoor light shows. A variety of more powerful military-grade lasers are produced around the world, but there is no evidence that terrorist groups have managed to obtain one, according to federal officials.

The final question is, how obtainable is a laser that can reach the several miles of distance required to do anything effective to occupants of a cockpit. Would it be the kind of laser that's under $1000 and can be obtained in lots of places? Or is it the more powerful military-grade laser?

All I'm trying to demonstrate is the need to take the world with a grain or two of salt. This may be a real danger. As always, consult your doctor before changing your medications. For other disclaimers read the New York Times.

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