So I’m watching all the hubub over this Detroit Christmas terrorism bombing thing, and I see this commentary by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post asking, really, how can this be?
Her commentary is here (click!) and it’s reasonably good, except she gets to the bottom and seems concerned that this wing-nut, this incompetent, slipped through all our traps and how can this be? It’s insulting, as if he’s not good enough to beat us.
I sent Ruth a letter with some thoughts. It went thusly:
I like your columns because you seem to be one of the brighter lights at the WaPost, but this column bothers me.
You ask, over and over, how it can be this most recent incident on an airplane can happen. That’s a rather shallow question from someone who, I think, should know the ways of bureaucracy better than most.
We’re not fighting a bureaucracy in this alleged war on Terrorism. We’re fighting irrational people who do not do as they are expected, do not follow rules, do not obey probability analysis, do not do anything that bureaucracies are designed to seek out.
Bureaucracies are, of their nature, inflexible, prone to habit, prone to inertia, prone to missing the allegedly obvious. They demand probability, seek out rules, look for the expected. The question your column should have asked is “Why are we worried about this? How can it be that we expect perfection from a bureaucratic response to terrorism?”
The answer is, of course, that we cannot. We’re going to take some hits. In a war — Veep Cheney insists! — you take hits, you absorb them, you keep going. The United States of America, 303 million people and multiple dozens of trillions of net worth, is not going to rise or fall based on what happens to one airplane containing a couple hundred civilians. In Vietnam we lost several hundred soldiers a week, in World War II we lost several thousand a week. We lost whole battleships.
Somehow, people managed to not demand Congressional investigations or freak out or accuse the president of being a screw-up.
All armor has chinks, so don’t freak out over one small penetration that was inevitable. Don’t demand perfection. To do so is to waste resources seeking the impossible. After all, despite having 12 million men under arms and spending billions of dollars on thousands of ships, planes and all the rest, Germany managed to land several spies on the US mainland who operated for several days or even weeks until captured. Since 9-11 we’ve spent $45 billion or so on new security, and some nut with dirty underwear slipped through.
Another $45 billion isn’t going to fix that, and like the spies in World War II, he failed anyway.
In addition to that, I wonder: Why it is Americans are so afraid of these guys? The so-called war had massive support when we started it, and supposedly half of us, or something like that, still support the war. So what makes me wonder is, in a war we supposedly support, why are Americans so afraid of a little risk that one person like this can threaten the entire airline industry?
Because that’s really what’s at the bottom of all the airport security stuff: Protect the airline industry from fear. The people who run the country think — are they right? — that Americans simply will not accept risk. At the slightest chance of something bad happening to a one of multiple thousands of flights in the air at any given time, and the tiny chance that they will be on that flight, Americans will all stay home and the American economy will crash.
That’s what’s sad: They are right. Americans, without the security blanket of airport security that supposedly absolutely guarantees them a safe trip, will stay home. They don’t want taxes to pay for the war, they don’t want fear, they just want to be absolutely safe while they get where they’re going and don’t bother me with the details and don’t send me the bill either.
Hard to imagine these are the same people who set out, 150 years ago or so, to settle the west knowing full well that some of them would have their hair end up decorating an Indian lodge. Then it was absolutely guaranteed that some of them would die, and yet they went.
Now, oh my! Danger! A 1 in 100,000 chance that something bad might, maybe happen! Quick, spend another $45 billion on airport security!!!
Meanwhile, does the enemy worry about danger? Does the enemy fear dying? Ask yourself, in all of history, who wins wars, people afraid of everything, or people afraid of nothing?