Would You Take the Paris Metro?

 

This news item is being discussed so widely in Paris that it even managed to breach my news blackout and my meditative Cone of Silence:

Iraq has “credible” intelligence that Islamic State militants plan to attack subway systems in Paris and the United States, the prime minister said on Thursday, but US. and French officials said they had no evidence to back up his claims.

As in the US, officials here immediately denied having any information about this:

A government source has indicated that the intelligence services “have no evidence at this time that would allow them to confirm” this threat. It’s the same story across the Atlantic, where the National Security Council spokesman has “not confirmed such a plot” and has called for “sharing of information by our Iraqi partners.” [my translation]

Well, what do you do with that?

A story like that breaks, you know you have no clue what’s happening, who’s yanking whose chain or why, or what the intelligence services really know.

But you also know that it’s not pure hysteria to imagine that there are plenty of people in France right now who would love nothing more than to bomb the metro. It’s a big, fat, super-soft, and tempting target. If there’s any security in the metro, it’s certainly not visible to the public: you see a cop down there every now and again, and cameras, but there’s no other sign of police surveillance. By contrast, everyone who takes the Delhi metro has to go through an airport-style security line, put their bags through a scanner, and present themselves for a pat-down. Possibly that’s just useless security theater affording false comfort to the anxious, but — on the face of it — that would make it somewhat more challenging to bring certain kinds of weapons into the system.

France just joined the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq last Friday and is considering extending the strikes to Syria. ISIS responded by calling for terrorist spectaculars in France. We all know ISIS is already here, in France. Security has been visibly stepped up throughout the city. I can see no reason to dismiss the threat as absurd on the face of it.4 Metro Sortie

That French and US officials “have no evidence” to back up the claims isn’t all that reassuring. Officials don’t always anticipate terrorist attacks before it’s too late; we know that for sure, and it’s not even reasonable to expect them to. And they may be lying about what they know, too. I’m sure they’ve calculated the economic damage that would result from the public deciding, collectively, to abstain from using public transport for a period of days or weeks or months, and I’m sure they’ve concluded it would be hugely costly; and this when France and the world are struggling to dig themselves out of a catastrophic recession. What’s more, I’m sure they know that if everyone decided to drive, walk, or bike instead of taking the metro, you’d wind up with more deaths in total owing to the mode-of-transport switch, even assuming a mass-casualty terrorist attack: we certainly saw that after September 11.

So we know next-to-nothing about how serious this really is or even how to begin thinking rationally about it. An argument that I don’t find rational, or even an argument, is, “If you don’t take the metro, the terrorists win.” No, no, no, as far as I’m concerned, they win if they kill me. That’s clearly a modest victory for their side. (Claire 0, Terrorists 10,000 | End 4th Qtr.) I always try to avoid being killed by terrorists whenever I can. I believe this is one of the most effective things I can do to fight terrorism.

So, first question: If it could be calculated, what level of risk, would you say, should cause rational people to stop using the metro? The rational side of me says this: the level of risk I should accept is roughly the level of risk I’d accept with any other form of transport. At the most extreme side of the ledger, I regularly get in cars and accept — without much second-guessing — the high risk involved in that. The odds that I’ll die in a car accident in my lifetime are about one in 4,000, although that figure is very rough, because my behavior’s atypical; I do more driving in countries with bad roads, bad cars, and bad road safety practices than most Americans do; on the other hand, I often go for years without regularly getting in a car; I don’t own one in Paris, and rarely even do I get in a taxi. But when I need to get somewhere and the only reasonable way to do it is by driving, I do it without worrying overmuch.

Commercial air travel is so safe that it’s ridiculous to ask oneself if it’s worth the risk. But I’m not asking myself whether I should take Air France to go to my next appointment on the other side of the city, so that’s not the relevant comparison. The other realistic options are walking or biking, both of which I do all the time here, and neither of which are risk-free: I’d warrant that — risk of terrorism apart — it’s much safer to take the metro than to bike in Paris, despite the city’s excellent system of bike paths and considerate drivers.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the rational person should stop taking the metro when he or she concludes that the risk of an individual trip exceeds that of making the trip by car or bike. This is still a tough thing to calculate — if you’re going to do this right, you should also factor in such things as balancing the risk of dying in a bike accident against the lifetime risk of inactivity, and so forth — but this is all sketched-on-the-back-of-a-napkin calculation, anyway. The main thing is that if we knew how high the risk of a terrorist event in the metro really was, we could, in principle, make some kind of rational decision about whether we want to assume it; we know that when it exceeds a given number x, we don’t want to assume it.

Obviously, if I knew for sure there was a 100-percent risk of a major terrorist attack on the St. Michel station of the Paris metro today, I wouldn’t go into that station and neither would you. But a member of the general public who has no access to information beyond what’s reported in the public realm could never confidently conclude that the risk is that high or that specific. Even assuming we accept that there’s an advanced plot to bomb the metro, we have no idea which station or line is at risk, or when the attack might happen. The Paris metro is very big. There are a lot of hours in the day. So already we’re dealing with a very small risk-per-journey, even if we take the attack as a given.

So how does a rational person decide — given such a paucity of knowledge — what the overall risk really is? Or even what ballpark it’s in? What publicly-available information would you take into account when trying to decide whether it might be a better idea to walk? Could you come up with any kind of reasonable decision tree? I’m not looking for gut feelings, here: I’m looking for rational arguments about how to assess and weigh the little hints that have been reported in the news.

How would the people who write actuarial tables approach this question, I wonder?

I think it’s fine to enter into your calculations that we’re enjoying an unusually beautiful autumn here, and the weather is lovely for walking.

Cover Image Credit: Flickr user FranceHouseHunt.com.

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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    I always try to avoid being killed by terrorists whenever I can. I believe this is one of the most effective things I can do to fight terrorism.

    The most effective would be to kill all of them first.

    • #1
  2. otherdeanplace@yahoo.com Member
    otherdeanplace@yahoo.com
    @EustaceCScrubb

    It seems to me that a car accident is more likely if I go driving than a terrorist attack on the Metro. The cliche about “then the terrorists have won” was overplayed long ago, but still…

    • #2
  3. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    It’s got to be safer than taking a Paris taxi.  Talk about your terrorists…  If the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe opened as a ride at Six Flags, people would be too afraid to get on it.

    • #3
  4. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Jimmy Carter:

    I always try to avoid being killed by terrorists whenever I can. I believe this is one of the most effective things I can do to fight terrorism.

    The most effective would be to kill all of them first.

    Somehow, I don’t think Claire would be terribly good at doing that herself.  In fairness, neither would I.

    • #4
  5. MMPadre Member
    MMPadre
    @

    A terrorist doesn’t really have to do anything to achieve some measure of success, does he?  Issue a statement, or merely start a rumor:  the thing takes on a life of it’s own. If people change their behavior in response to an unknowable -but in fact, empty- threat (unknowable unknown?) such a threat is a great political bargain.  How high must the stakes be before you call such a bluff?  Perhaps ignoring all but the most credible risks is the only way to live in modern society and the only way to reduce them. You’re just as dead run over as you are blown up, no?

    It helps if the response to actual attacks is reliably clear and swift retaliation, instead of the implementation of measures more punitive of actual citizens than of actual jihadis.

    • #5
  6. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Member
    virgil15marlow@yahoo.com
    @Manny

    Yeah I would.  A coward dies a thousand deaths as Shakespeare says.  But I might think twice about bringing the rest of my family along.

    • #6
  7. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    The rational person would not live in Paris, London or New York unless he was willing to take the subway. You mentioned the subway in India but they had an attack on hotels and restaurants. Are you going to stop going to all crowded public places?

    Even if the odds of a subway attack were say 1 in 5,000, the odds that it would happen at your exact time and location are much smaller.

    The only way to significantly reduce the risk is to move to a small town in Alaska. But then you may freeze to death.

    • #7
  8. RightinChicago Member
    RightinChicago
    @

    No.  But I will listen to the song.

    Berlin – Metro

    • #8
  9. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    The only way to significantly reduce the risk is to move to a small town in Alaska. But then you may freeze to death.

    Perhaps, but at least You could be armed…  then They can pry it from Yer cold dead hands…

    • #9
  10. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    MMPadre: Perhaps ignoring all but the most credible risks is the only way to live in modern society and the only way to reduce them. You’re just as dead run over as you are blown up, no

    Yeah, kind of an interesting problem. If everyone were to ignore the risk, it would reduce it. But that only works if you can get everyone to do it, which obviously you can’t in any kind of free society. It would also reduce the risk to issue and enforce a blanket ban on all media coverage of terrorist attacks. And I lived for years in a country where we all figured they did pretty much just that–we heard a lot of rumors, but we all knew that if the order came from on high that something wasn’t going to be in the news, it wasn’t. Once it was decided that “the peace process was working,” the number of widely-reported PKK attacks went down. Did they go down in reality? I don’t know.

    • #10
  11. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Jimmy Carter:

    I always try to avoid being killed by terrorists whenever I can. I believe this is one of the most effective things I can do to fight terrorism.

    The most effective would be to kill all of them first.

    That’s very practical and I’ll do it first thing tomorrow. Thanks!

    • #11
  12. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Larry3435:It’s got to be safer than taking a Paris taxi. Talk about your terrorists… If the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe opened as a ride at Six Flags, people would be too afraid to get on it.

    Paris taxis seem as safe as taxis get to me. With the usual caveats about information found on Wikipedia, this table confirms my impression; road safety standards are higher here than in the US. The measurement I’d use would be the per-billion vehicle-km one. (Americans drive more than the French do and over longer distances, so of course you’ll have more fatalities per inhabitant in the US.)

    Cab drivers here don’t freak me out at all. I don’t ever remember having an “I’ve got to get out of this deathtrap now” experience in a French taxi.

    • #12
  13. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    I was kind of wondering how you all would assess the risk given the specific information at hand–the source, the timing, etc. In the vague sense, sure, any crowded area’s a target. But what do you make of this specific threat? Does it change the way you’d assess things? Why or why not?

    • #13
  14. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    They only issue that would change My assessment is where I live. In America, no, I would not change My daily Life one iota, because I think My fellow Americans, for the most part, have a natural instinct to fight back when trouble ensues.

    In France, yes, I would avoid the subway.

    • #14
  15. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    As a man I think I am far less attentive to risk, I know women are far more inculcated to be careful and probably for good reasons. The way I figure it though the odds of being killed by a terrorist are something akin to being killed by a shark or a bolt of lightning. If we were under constant, successful attacks like the Israelis were back in the days of blown up cafes and buses I would be more cautious, but that is simply not the case here or in Paris. The way I figure it if everyone is too scared to ride the subway it just means I will have an easier time finding a seat.

    I say ride the subway as normal, you will be just fine. I would though avoid rush hours, but that is mostly because I hate being packed like a sardine, so at those times I would walk if I can. There is also one other thing to consider. If you find that while riding the subway you are constantly worried about what might happen, then just don’t do it. No sense giving yourself stress even if it is irrational stress. Take the path of least emotional resistance with respect to your travelling.

    • #15
  16. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    If it meant I could ride the Metro with Claire Berlinski, I would take the Metro; if she decided she would rather walk, but that I could tag along, I would forego the Metro. Pretty simple decision. [Paris taxis are not a problem – the closest I’ve come to being killed in a taxi was in St. Petersburg, Russia, and it was a pretty close thing.]

    • #16
  17. user_30416 Member
    user_30416
    @LeslieWatkins

    After reading the Reuter’s story, my suspicion is that the Iraqi PM (a Shiite) is pulling our chain on behalf of Iran (perhaps in an attempt to get the news off the bombings in Syria?). Also, the word credible seems a bit weak, considering that the claim supposedly comes from fighters captured inside Iraq who are in league with folks who like to videotape barbaric slayings and post them on the Web. I mean, their level of boasting should be a pretty good barometer, donchathink? Also, such warnings could be deliberately deceptive (the real targets being other densely populated public areas rather than the subway). The Western response is unnervingly vague for sure, but I would hope they would put out actual warnings if they believed the threats were imminent and substantive–that is, if they were to be at all consistent with their closure of Tel Aviv airport this past summer. But say I surmised otherwise; well, I would avoid the subway only in rush periods and walk more. (I imagine Paris is wonderful in the fall.) At least for awhile. The thing about such news stories is that they aren’t much help practically speaking because they reflect the known unknown.

    • #17
  18. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Humans are notoriously bad at risk/reward assessments. Thus  AGW hysteria, Lotto, and Las Vegas. Whole societies are either invincibly ignorant or manipulated through terrible misuse of statistics and distortions of “science” and “intelligence.” Government and media are both complicit in the latter.

    What you’re asking isn’t even calculable on the back of a napkin. You simply don’t have enough information and never will. Really, your question is a matter of personal taste.

    Personally, you couldn’t pay me to live in a large metropolitan area. You could pay me to visit, even with the current (unknowable) risk level, although I’d probably avoid the subways (especially if I brought my kids).

    As an aside, I expect the coming attacks to be much more spectacular (as in, “spectacle”) than mere bombings. I wouldn’t be surprised by simultaneous “knock-out game” style events in multiple premier cities, although I think the victims might actually lose their heads, instead of being pummeled senseless.

    • #18
  19. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Leslie Watkins:After reading the Reuter’s story, my suspicion is that the Iraqi PM (a Shiite) is pulling our chain on behalf of Iran (perhaps in an attempt to get the news off the bombings in Syria?).

    It’s a bit like that WMD thing.

    But I’m surprised that nobody’s suggested the obvious solution: outsource Paris Metro operation to Delhi.

    • #19
  20. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    If taking the Paris Metro requires one to be in Paris, then no.  Call me old fashioned.

    • #20
  21. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    On hearing of this threat I could not help but wonder how such a bombing would effect France politically.  The Madrid train bombings ended up deciding an election and Hollande is already immensely unpopular, I imagine the pressure to reverse his decision on fighting ISIS would be immense or am I reading the French wrong? Perhaps it would only serve to firm their resolve?

    • #21
  22. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Pugshot:If it meant I could ride the Metro with Claire Berlinski, I would take the Metro; if she decided she would rather walk, but that I could tag along, I would forego the Metro. Pretty simple decision. [Paris taxis are not a problem – the closest I’ve come to being killed in a taxi was in St. Petersburg, Russia, and it was a pretty close thing.]

    Ditto to the St. Petersburg cabbies. Took a ride in the early morning to the airport and I was pretty convinced we were going to die before we got there.

    • #22
  23. J Flei Inactive
    J Flei
    @Solon

    I have a vested interest in this because my beloved sister- and brother-in-law live in Paris.  Based on the info given, it is hard to say.  I guess I would not advise them to stop taking the subway, kind of like I didn’t avoid the Golden Gate bridge when there was credible intel that terrorist wanted to blow it up after 9-11.  Tough call, as it is with these things.

    • #23
  24. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Frank Soto:If taking the Paris Metro requires one to be in Paris, then no. Call me old fashioned.

    You raise an interesting metaphysical question: Is it possible to take the Paris Metro without being in Paris?

    • #24
  25. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    Manny:Yeah I would. A coward dies a thousand deaths as Shakespeare says. But I might think twice about bringing the rest of my family along.

    Agree.

    • #25
  26. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    Claire Berlinski:

    Larry3435:It’s got to be safer than taking a Paris taxi. Talk about your terrorists… If the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe opened as a ride at Six Flags, people would be too afraid to get on it.

    Paris taxis seem as safe as taxis get to me. With the usual caveats about information found on Wikipedia, this table confirms my impression; road safety standards are higher here than in the US. The measurement I’d use would be the per-billion vehicle-km one. (Americans drive more than the French do and over longer distances, so of course you’ll have more fatalities per inhabitant in the US.)

    Cab drivers here don’t freak me out at all. I don’t ever remember having an “I’ve got to get out of this deathtrap now” experience in a French taxi.

    Yeah, but you just moved there from Turkey, didn’t you?  You seem to have a pretty high tolerance for adventure.

    • #26
  27. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    Roberto:On hearing of this threat I could not help but wonder how such a bombing would effect France politically. The Madrid train bombings ended up deciding an election and Hollande is already immensely unpopular, I imagine the pressure to reverse his decision on fighting ISIS would be immense or am I reading the French wrong? Perhaps it would only serve to firm their resolve?

    That’s a good question.  Given the increasing strength of the Front National in France, I suspect the French might have a more militant reaction than did the Spanish, but Hollande would still be toast.  Many French still dream of la gloire and want to be engaged in the world.  From what I understand the French special forces and secret police are very effective.  Although the latters’ tactics would raise hackles here in the US…

    • #27
  28. Giaccomo Member
    Giaccomo
    @Giaccomo

    Paris subway security is much more problematic now than, say, 20 years ago.  The security services are stretched to the limit and the early enthusiasm with which the vigipirate system was employed has waned.  I don’t wish to undervalue the abilities of the French police.  They are very effective as a whole, but there aren’t enough of them and the sophistication of would be terrorists is increasing.  Walking is always an option, distance and weather permitting, and the bus system much more streamlined than before.

    • #28
  29. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    No Caesar:

    Roberto:On hearing of this threat I could not help but wonder how such a bombing would effect France politically.

    That’s a good question. Given the increasing strength of the Front National in France, I suspect the French might have a more militant reaction than did the Spanish…

    I am not so certain that would be the case, the  FN foreign policy is not entirely clear to me but from what it is out there they appear to have an isolationist bent and they opposed Middle East military incursions in the past. Even ones that France has been engaged in.

    • #29
  30. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    pickup truck > metro

    • #30
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