Using movie plots to combat terrorism.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 27 2007 12:39 PM

Killer Ideas

Using movie plots to combat terrorism.

Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.

(Continued from Page 1)

Ron Phillips titled his caper Butterflies and Beverages, and he employs all the tropes of pulp screenwriting to make his case. Open on a single person diligently scraping in an airplane bathroom, carefully gathering a pile of metal shavings. Cut to the smoldering ruins of a downed 747. Two investigators are wondering why all these butterflies are flitting about the crash scene. They initiate a conference call with an entomologist, and gradually work it out: This particular genus of butterfly is attracted to sodium. Here's Phillips' dialogue:

Investigator 1: A cup of water would be enough, just drop the sodium metal into it and the chemical reaction would quickly release hydrogen gas, with enough heat generated as a byproduct of the reaction to ignite the gas. In just a second or two, you'd have an explosion strong enough to knock the side out of a plane.

Investigator 2: We're going to have to ban water, and anything containing a significant amount of water, from all passenger flights. It's the only way, otherwise we could have planes dropping out of the sky every time someone is served a beverage.

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There you have it: The terrorist in the lavatory was collecting sodium metal. Phillips received a $50 prize, autographed copies of Schneier's books, and—Schneier is vague on this—a meeting with a film director. Writes Schneier on his site: "We hope that one of his prizes isn't a visit by the FBI." When Schneier was asked if he verified the science behind these plots, he expressed contempt. "It's a movie plot. You don't have to verify the science. Feasibility is not required." He points to the recently "foiled" plot to bomb JFK airport, a case he demolished in a recent essay, "Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot." Law enforcement didn't verify the science of the putative JFK bombers, he says. They didn't verify the science of the London liquid bombers, either. Indeed, both might have been submitted to Schneier's movie-plot contest.

While hosting his competition, Schneier received e-mails lambasting him for "giving the terrorists ideas," a notion he finds still more contemptible. "That's the whole point of the contest. It's not about the ideas. Good terrorist ideas are a dime a dozen. We're not going to become safer by pretending the bad guys don't know that mercury is poison or that you could technically drop the Brooklyn Bridge." Returning to the theme of this year's contest, he adds: "Airport security is the last line of defense," he said, "and it's not a very good one. We need to stop the plots before they get to the airport."

But that's just not as exciting.

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