This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone acquainted with the work of Economics Nobel winner Ostrom, as I discussed in this post. Engaged individuals working freely together frequently achieve better results than government heavy-handed intervention.
Cafe Hayek's Boudreaux discusses the problem in this post. Stephen Flynn in a Washington Post article also brings the point to our attention as he lists it among five counter-terrorism myths (HT Selva Brasilis). In his words (italics are mine):
Anyway, government failure left aside, have a wonderful 2010!
Elite pundits and policymakers routinely dismiss the ability of ordinary people to respond effectively when they are in harm's way. It's ironic that this misconception has animated much of the government's approach to homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, given that the only successful counterterrorist action that day came from the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. These passengers didn't have the help of federal air marshals. The Defense Department's North American Aerospace Defense Command didn't intercept the plane -- it didn't even know the airliner had been hijacked. But by charging the cockpit over rural Pennsylvania, these private citizens prevented al-Qaeda terrorists from reaching their likely target of the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The government leaders whose constitutional duty is "to provide for the common defense" were defended by one thing alone -- an alert and heroic citizenry.
This misconception is particularly reckless because it ends up sidelining the greatest asset we have for managing the terrorism threat: the average people who are best positioned to detect and respond to terrorist activities. We have only to look to the attempted Christmas Day attack to validate this truth. Once again it was the government that fell short, not ordinary people. A concerned Nigerian father, not the CIA or the National Security Agency, came forward with crucial information. And the courageous actions of the Dutch film director Jasper Schuringa and other passengers and crew members aboard Flight 253 thwarted the attack.