The difficulty and cost of delivering death and mayhem are dropping so fast, there will come a time in which the ill-will of a few evil men could ruin the day for millions.
Technological advances in physics, engineering and biology coupled with the Internet and the dynamics of Web 2.0 have contributed to unprecedented social progress and overall improvement of the human condition. In many ways … and in most places … it is better now than ever before; hence my recent post "The World is Not a More Dangerous Place." At the same time, these same phenomena are accelerating the lethality potential per unit of human effort.
Example 1: The difficulty required to build and deliver the first few 10-kiloton nuclear devices in the 1940’s involved 130,000 people and cost two billion dollars ($23B in 2007 dollars). Today, graduate students are building viable detonation systems … albeit lacking the enriched uranium or plutonium. But unlike the 1940’s when enriched uranium did not exist – every ounce having to be produced – today this nuclear material exists in stockpiles all over the world.
Example 2: Recent biological advances have made it possible to reanimate the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Did I say "possible?" Sorry, I meant to say "this has already been done!" Between a couple of tissue samples left over in a military hospital and a deceased Alaskan Eskimo preserved in the permafrost, the virus has been successfully reconstructed and its DNA sequenced. Researchers then proceeded to inject this virus into mice with the human immune system. The result – unprecedented death – the most deadly flu virus ever tested. [story here] While nuclear material is hard to acquire, I was told the DNA sequence of the 1918 Spanish Influenza was already in the public domain. Hard to believe, so I asked a friend in the biological community for a copy of this DNA sequence. So it appears that I now have a copy on my laptop, but what would I know!
While advances in technology are a big part of this trend, other factors contribute as well including population density, dependence on mobility, the tightly coupled interdependencies in which the world operates (e.g., from just-in-time supply chains to your just-in-time access to cash and food) and media-driven sensationalism. Factors such as these have a force multiplying and amplification effect even upon traditional means for mayhem. For example, consider the death and mayhem created by Malvo and Muhammad, the two Washington DC-area gunmen. They were able to turn an investment of a few thousand dollars (car, gas, gun, bullets) into an instrument of terror which not only killed a number of people but also created so much panic the regional economy lost an estimated half a billion dollars ($500,000,000).
And so it seems, as time marches forward fewer people are able to create more damage cheaper and faster.