Monday, May 21, 2018

Diffuse Threats And The MYOB Mindset

     The recent, luridly reported school shootings have – surprise! – resulted in a flurry of proposals and counter-proposals for “school safety” in which partisans and communities of interest have exchanged more invective than ideas. The rhetorical temperature is high, as it always is when the “safety” of “children” is the issue. Any one familiar with the current state of American public discourse would simply shrug and say “You expected something different, bubeleh?”

     Me? I’m inclined to laugh at it all. I’d imagine the shade of Aaron Wildavsky is laughing, too. And yes, I know vitriolic Leftists will pour condemnations on my head for daring to be amused over this oh so “serious issue.” But then, I routinely laugh at their idiocies and self-righteous preening.

     There’s a fundamental law of nature at work here, and no one -- literally no one -- has made mention of it up to now. It’s likely that no one has noticed it.

     Geez, it’s gonna be a great Monday!

     Some years ago, writer Marc Stiegler formulated a mantra of sorts for those of us who prefer to think rather than react from our glands. He presented it in his novel David’s Sling, a rather daring fiction that explored several areas of thought and analysis largely through the lens of military procurement prior to and during a major war in Europe.

     The mantra:

You can never do only one thing.

     A great truth is expressed therein. No matter what you do or how or why you do it, there will be side effects. Moreover, the Second Law of Thermodynamics guarantees that at least one of those side effects will be undesirable. The absoluteness of this law can’t be proved mathematically, but I dare anyone to find a counterexample.

     Take the safety of children herded into a large structure with controls at all the entry points. Those controls can be made quite stringent, such that no one can get in or out, and moreover that no one can move a metallic object in or out, without being detected. Put guards at those points to monitor the operation of the detectors and respond to would-be violators, and you’ve solved the safety problem!

     Or have you?

     Straitened entry implies straitened exit. Therefore, anything that happens within the building – e.g., a fire, or a noxious gas emission – will be that much harder to get away from. Stumbling and tripping at the exit points become more likely, with the possibility of a pile-up during an evacuation. Moreover, there are many things some villain could smuggle in that a metal detector cannot detect. Some of them can do a lot more harm than a gun.

     Many a “Safety Nazi” (P. J. O’Rourke) would simply double down. Hire more guards, he would say. Have them roam the building looking for suspicious activity and potential hazards of other kinds. Give then the ability to open more egress routes at need. But that introduces a new hazard: hiring a guard who has nefarious motives. If those guards are armed, it also increases the likelihood of a mistaken use of a weapon, or an accidental discharge.

     Try it yourself. Imagine whatever “safety provisions” you like, and apply them as stringently as you please. Then look for the side effects. Be honest about them. They’ll be there – and in the usual case, they’ll introduce hazards of their own.

     There is no way to make any human activity or institution absolutely safe.

     Safety is always a relative matter: Is this arrangement safer than that one? Parachutists pack two chutes, not because that renders them absolutely safe, but because it improves the odds at an acceptable cost. Cars incorporate various safety-enhancing provisions not because that renders driving absolutely safe, but because we think they’ll reduce the probability of an accident, or the likelihood of serious injury should an accident occur. Most guns incorporate a “safety” that prevents the trigger from being pulled, not because that eliminates the possibility of an accidental discharge, but because it gives the operator a way to prevent one if he remembers to use it.

     Besides, there’s the MYOB mentality.

     I’m sure my Gentle Readers are all aware of the “If you see something, say something” campaign that was supposed to get travelers to report suspicious behavior. It’s not a wholly bad idea, but it has two side effects of importance. Both have the effect of preventing overall safety from being absolute.

     The first is the common tendency to resist invasions of privacy, especially by total strangers. If the target is minding his own business and expects others to do likewise, he could be seriously offended by even the gentlest inquiry about what’s in his duffel, backpack, or briefcase. Blows could result. So could lawsuits, especially if the gendarmerie should involve itself.

     The second is the tendency even among nervous and suspicious types to mind their own business. Let Smith see a backpack left unattended. Let him wonder about its provenance, its contents, and the intentions of the person who left it there. Will he act? If so, how swiftly and to what end? The probabilities might be higher than before September 11, 2001 that he will inform a responsible person about the pack and thus trigger appropriate measures, but they aren’t nearly 100% — and the authorities have become somewhat overconfident that private citizens monitoring one another will suffice to provide for safety against a bombing in a public place. Americans still prefer to go about their own affairs without minding others going about theirs.

     You can get safer...maybe. You can’t be absolutely safe.

     Our lives have always known hazards, and they always will. What’s relatively new is the diffuse threat: the possibility of malicious acts that could arise at any time, in any venue, and from any actor. Indeed, the threats we face today are so diffuse that I can’t imagine how they could be more so.

     When people cluster together, it creates an opportunity for the evilly minded. Shall we no longer cluster together, then? There are arguments for it in particular cases, but there are counter-arguments for it in others.

     Contemporary technology has made it possible for a villain or an accident to take many lives swiftly. What can we do about that? There’s no way to put the genie of knowledge back in its Solomon bottle. More, to do so would be to forfeit the safety-enhancing attributes of our level of technology. Yes, airliners can fall from the sky, but air travelers are measurably safer per passenger-mile than passengers on any other form of transportation, including walking.

     You can’t win absolutely. More, once you’ve reached a certain safety level, attempts to decrease the probability of harm still further will carry a ruinous cost...and will introduce hazards you hadn’t anticipated.

     You can never do only one thing.

     I no longer gave a damn about three-car garages and swimming pools, nor any other status symbol or "security." There was no security in this world and only damn fools and mice thought there could be.
     Somewhere back in the jungle I had shucked off all ambition of that sort. I had been shot at too many times and had lost interest.

     [Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road]


Mr. B said...

You can limit entrances without limiting exits. Go into the back of any public building (retail, government, restaurant) and you will see a door with a bar that has "fire alarm will sound if pushed". Therefore, it is quite possible to limit entrances without interfering with emergency exits.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Anyone who can't jimmy such a door open from the outside is probably quadriplegic. The design makes it easy. Indeed, a design that makes it difficult wouldn't serve the purpose of a crash-bar exit.