New police guidelines: shoot suicide bomber suspects in head

An international group of police chiefs recently expanded its guidelines for use of deadly force, instructing officers to shoot suspected suicide bombers in the head. Details were printed in yesterday's Washington Post .

According to the newspaper, the guide recommends that if lethal force is needed to stop someone who fits a certain behavioral profile, the officer should "aim for the head." The intent is to kill the suspect instantly so the person could not set off a bomb if one is strapped to the person's chest, the newspaper said. Among signs to look for listed in the police organization's behavioral profile are wearing a heavy coat in warm weather, carrying a backpack with protrusions or visible wires, nervousness, excessive sweating or an unwillingness to make eye contact, the Post said.

I can't help but think how much this sounds like a description of any number of geek, raver, or chronically shy engineers I know — none of whom are suicide bombers. Yeah, I know there's a distributed war on. And the stakes are high for cops out there. But God help any iPod-toting, eye-contact-avoiding, sweaty nerds on the subway from user error. Link

Update: Security analyst Bruce Schneier blogs a few thoughts on the matter here: Link (Thanks, Ken)

Reader Max Mitchell says,

The people proposing the idea of shooting suspected suicide bombers in the head have obviously never watched any modern thriller/action movie. What if suicide bombers build their devices to go off if the bomber's heartbeat stops? We've seen it time and time again in films — "try and remove this bomb and it will explode".

There's also the possibility of those types of bombs being used to send people out as proxy bombers (as the IRA did, holding people's family hostage and sending them out in a car packed with explosives to a military checkpoint).

Chris Packham says,

Reader Max Mitchell is describing a kill switch. They are actually far simpler to build than the heart-monitor device Max describes. Anyone who has used a standard push-lawnmower has used a kill switch. It's that bar you have to press, which shuts off the motor when you let go. All your suicide bomber needs to do is make a switch for his detonator that he has to hold down continuously — when he lets go, the bomb detonates. I think this is an actual, real-world technique, and it obviously makes shooting bombers in the head a completely idiotic idea.

John says,

Actually, for a lawnmower it is called a "kill switch" because it kills the devices. For an e.g., bomb, it's called a "deadman switch"
because rather than shutting the device off, it activates the device. Link

Jim McCoy says,

Setting aside the possibility of incorrectly identifying a terrorist that Bruce Schneier has already covered pretty well, a shoot-to-kill policy has the benefit of preventing the explosion in the case where no such switch is installed and is neither better nor worse when such a device exists.

The readers you quote who seem to have spent too much time learning their "tradecraft" from Hollywood are also ignoring the actual practicalities of such a device. The bomb needs to be armed before the switch has any effect and the easiest way to implement such a switch is to have a simple two-state button on a wire: press and hold to arm bomb, release to detonate.

No one is going to send their bomber out with such a switch already activated, the chance of premature detonation before the bomber reaches the target is too large (another potential side-effect of a shoot-to-kill policy is that increasing the prevalence of such switches increases the complexity of the bomb and also marginally raises the probability of a premature detonation.)

If the bomber is intercepted before reaching the target the shoot-to-kill policy also has the benefit of increasing the probability that the police can prevent the bomber from arming the device, rendering the dead man's switch useless.

Nathaniel Irons says:

This defense of shoot-to-kill policies by "setting aside the possibility of incorrectly identifying a terrorist" is like praising deficit spending by setting aside the possible harm of running enormous deficits. In response to the question of who might "send their bomber out with such a switch already activated", I would venture to guess, "anyone sending a bomber into an area where police are known to shoot to kill."

Police with shoot-to-kill orders are currently 0 for 1 in identifying actual terrorists in high-pressure situations, and an understandably jumpy cop may interpret innocent hands suddenly raised in surrender as a terrorist releasing a deadman switch. But let's set all that aside: I would like to know what shot-to-killed ratio of "correctly identified terrorists" to dead civilians this reader believes would establish an acceptable baseline for keeping the public safe. 10:1? Or 1:10?