What’s up with that?

[Estimated reading time: 4 minutes]

Did you know that it costs about three hundred bucks - US dollars - to build an EMP bomb? That's 300$ for something that can fry every piece of electronics in about 10 city blocks. It's not a big explosion, either, just a small car-bomb that goes pop and suddenly every microchip around it is gone. Say bye-bye to your phone, laptop, tablet, your car, pacemaker, thermometer, fridge, maybe even your toilet. Need I go on?

Detonate this puppy around Wall Street and you can shut down the stock exchange for a week at least. If there's a hospital in the blast range, you'll likely cause some deaths as well.

Trigger this thing close enough to an airport, it's gonna rain planes.

Pop one in front of the White House and the President can't watch his TV for a while.

The components that go into one of these things aren't exactly restricted. You need a car-load of batteries and capacitors, that's the main expense. These are wired up to generate a huge magnetic field, that's part one. Part two is using an explosion to propel a metal rod through the electro-magnet. C4 works, but in a pinch you can make do with just about anything. That's it.

As we've seen with 9/11, it's not the primary damage that's gonna hurt, it'll be the reflex of a nation under attack that'll be the worst. For three hundred bucks you can terrorize a city, kill a few hundred or even a thousand people, and cause untold damage by the government's response. (It's not my main point here to attack America's response to terrorism. It's a shitty response, and arguably the terrorists won once we gave up a shitload of personal liberties in the name of security, but that's not the focus here.)

What confuses me is that a home-made EMP hasn't been detonated in a major American city, or any city at all. Three hundred bucks is cheap for the kind of bang you're getting, honestly.

And the fact that no one has made and used one is very reassuring to me.

9/11 was a singular event, in that the tactic will never work again. But it was also a brain-dead attack. It doesn't take a lot of planning to get some boxcutters aboard a few planes. High school students could have coordinated something like that.

Oklahoma City bombing was the work of two guys who put three tons of fertilizer in the back of a van. This was also a singular event: we've developed fertilizer that's harder to use as an explosive, and government buildings are now surrounded by Jersey barriers that prevent this very type of attack. For crying out loud, the type of of van that McVeigh used - one where the cab and the storage are connected - is now illegal. It's harder to repeat the same sort of attack.

Two biggest terrorist attacks on the United States were relatively brain-dead, in my opinion. They required minimal expertise and little coordination. They could have been planned and carried out by just about anyone. A group of high-school drop-outs could have done both attacks.

Is it optimistic of me to think that an EMP bomb is just too complicated for your average terrorist?

Ever watched the latter-half of any season of "24"? If not, here's the summary: the various random acts of terrorism that were introduced in the first half, and that the audience initially percieved as unrelated events, are now tied together to a single terrorist organization that's hellbent on destabilizing the United States for one reason or another. These groups - ranging from clandestine cabals that control VIPs to disgruntled former-spies who are seeking revenge for whatever percieved injustice to your basic splinter cell - are well organized and coordinate their terrorist attacks with clockwork precision. (Because of the nature of "24", all of these attacks are obviously designed to go off at the end of the hour. Duh.)

Have you ever heard of an attack of such complexity?

Has there been any terrorist event in the United States that speaks to a higher level of planning and organization than a bunch of high-school drop-outs can come up with?

I don't think so.

And I find that encouraging. It tells me that the folks with the brains to carry out these attacks are not choosing to carry them out.


Is it because we've patched all the security holes? We certainly got the handful of ones that allowed 9/11 and Oklahoma City bombing to happen, but come on, that can't be the whole of it.

EMP bombs are quite difficult to guard against. Jersey barriers and plane-loads of aware passengers aren't going to stop one from killing a major city's power-grid. The military has helicopters that are EMP-shielded, and the more paranoid corporations may employ similar tech to safeguard their data centers. And of course a lot of stuff these days is stored in the Cloud, with enough data-redundancy built-in so an EMP bomb isn't gonna have much of an impact on the Cloud. But virtually everything else is still a very soft target when you pit it against a microchip-killer like this. The 300 dollar bomb is still a "wonderful" choice for terrorists.

So I wonder why there aren't weekly EMP attacks on America. Why the "bad guys" aren't coordinating EMP-backed blackouts across the country. Or other, fairly sophisticated attacks that Americans aren't even remotely guarded against.

I like to think that maybe it's because the people with the knowledge required to carry out these attacks, are also ones who realize the futility of violent attacks against America. Ones who understand that their cause won't benefit in the least from a major terrorist attack.

I want to believe that the only terrorists who've attacked us are idiots. I think this is true because there have been no sophisticated attacks against us. I believe that the people who are capable of carrying out these more-complicated attacks are smart enough to know that those attacks are simply not worth it.

I worry, though, because there may come a time when coordinated EMP attacks on America make sense even to the smart people. We're clearly not there yet, evidenced by the lack of these attacks, but how close are we to that point?

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