They say they believe in freedom and share our values. They say a few bad apples shouldn’t bring down judgment on their entire kind. Don’t be fooled. Though they walk among us with impunity, they are, in the words of Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, “a group that is notoriously associated with terrorist violence and fundamentalist political beliefs.” They are engineers.
This is the opening paragraph of David Berreby’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. In his article he goes on to paint an unflattering, but in its way a somewhat accurate picture of engineers. It is not a coincidence that a disproportionate percentage of the foreign terrorist that our country faces are engineers. Foreign engineers have usually spent years of their lives training in the west and have enough knowledge to at least be able to board an airplane for the US. The rest of Al-Qaida probably couldn’t even buy a ticket. Domestic terrorists are endemic to the engineering ranks, but they are also endemic nationwide. I won’t argue the effectiveness of domestic terrorist’s like Tim McVeigh, who had engineering support.
Conversely, writers like David Berreby and political scientist like Henry Farrell probably couldn’t build a bomb even it you handed them the materials and a blueprint. If there was an American equivalent to Al-Qaida, then Mr. Berreby’s role in it would be relegated to that of the suicide bomber. Assuming of course that he had engineering support, otherwise then he would have to storm his Times’ offices with nothing more than rolls of Play-Dough in his vest.
The kernel of Berreby’s article was correct. When police search for a murderer, they look for three things, motive, method and opportunity. Our world had plenty of wingnuts of all stripes in it, so finding an individual with a motive to perpetrate terrorism shouldn’t be too hard. It is almost as easy to check-off opportunity. At the height of the last (current) Iraq war, Al-Qaida had more car bombers then they had the cars to put them in. It is method that is the choke point for terrorists. Lack of method limits Al-Qaida’s surge capability, but more important to us it also limits their reach. Without successful motive, method and opportunity you cannot have successful mass murder.
Berreby’s article aside, the news around the office this week included mentions of an internet worm. What made this worm noteworthy over all others was its purported purpose. The stuxnet virus has been reported to be a secret weapon engineered to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Various news sources describe this worm as a weapons grade cyber attacker. Commercial anti-virus protection software providers, such as Symantec, describe the unprecedented sophistication of this virus. The Christian Science Monitor and other sources describe the following pertinent details:
- The stuxnet virus infection appears to be centered in Iran
- The virus is aimed at Siemens process control systems
- The virus is passed through thumb drives into closed networks
- Plugging in these drives is all it takes to infect the network
- The virus exploits loopholes in the Microsoft operating system
- Microsoft reported that these loopholes had been fixed
- Symantec subsequently reported that these loopholes had not been fixed
The jury is still out as to whether American or Israeli engineers manufactured the stuxnet virus. But I can guaranty you one thing, they had the motive, they had the means and they made their own opportunity. To answer Berreby’s original accusation about the innate goodness or evil of engineers, I can only appeal to that wisest of all sages upon these matters, Mae West, to quote, “When I am good, I am good. When I am bad, I am even better.”