David Brooks on Resilience in the Face of Security Imperfection

David Brooks makes some very good points in this New York Times op-ed from last week:

All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.


In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. The original line out of the White House was that the system worked. Don’t worry, little Johnny.

When that didn’t work the official line went to the other extreme. “I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama said. I’m really mad, Johnny. But don’t worry, I’ll make it all better.


For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.

There's a pervasive belief in this society that perfection is possible. So if something bad occurs, it can never be because we just got unlucky. It must be because something went wrong and someone is at fault, and therefore things must be fixed. Sometimes, though, this simply isn't true. Sometimes it's better not to fix things: either there is no fix, or the fix is more expensive than living with the problem, or the side effects of the fix are worse than the problem. And sometimes you can do everything right and have it still turn out wrong. Welcome to the real world.

EDITED TO ADD (1/8): Glenn Greenwald on "The Degrading Effects of Terrorism Fears."

Posted on January 6, 2010 at 10:27 AM • 27 Comments


kangarooJanuary 6, 2010 10:39 AM

The corollary is that we have to "improve the process". If it's perfectable, then improving the bureaucracy fixes it; but if not, the best we can often do is to get more competent people, ones who can adapt better to changing conditions.

So we see an endless growth in "process".

One of the funniest things I ever read was about conflicts on the ISS between astronauts and cosmonauts. The Americans loved process, while the Russians thought that throwing the best people at the problem was the solution. Doesn't quite match with our self-image does it? The cognitive dissonance is enough to make someone go stark raving mad.

Deano MontreuilJanuary 6, 2010 10:44 AM

We confuse the decisions and the result.

If asked to place a wager on a fair coin heads you get $20, tails you lose $1. Correct choice is to take the bet.

If coin comes up tails, you lose $1 -- bad outcome, but you still made the right decision.

SlonobJanuary 6, 2010 10:44 AM

> Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not

It's hard for poor David Brooks to take a position other than bending down to lick the boot of power.

DaveJanuary 6, 2010 11:06 AM

Consider context, too. If this failed bombing had taken place before 9/11 it would have been treated like a nutcase criminal act and disappeared from the news in two days. So now, a pocket knife with Arabic on it is a threat to national security. It's in the mind.

HoskinsJanuary 6, 2010 11:26 AM


| "There's a pervasive belief in this society that perfection is possible." |

No -- there's a pervasive belief that 'government central planning & forcible control' of society will produce 'much better' {though imperfect} results... than decentralized, voluntary coordination & organization by free citizens.

It's the dominant American political belief today. Thus, all aspects of society become the domain of wise central controllers in Washington DC -- everything from crime control, economics, commerce, health-care, wages, education, housing, food, toilet flush capacity... to blanket/pillow usage by airline passengers.

The super-smart Potomac experts are vastly more capable than the American peasantry. All they need from the citizens is a continuing flow of tens-of-Trillions of $$$... and abject compliance with the endless "rules" {..and wars).

Any failures by the Potomac experts merely prove the ignorant & selfish citizenry failed to give those noble experts enough money and control over society.

D MJanuary 6, 2010 11:30 AM

I do not necessarily agree with that. Maybe it's our desire to believe that we can fix a situation, that we're not totally helpless, and our strive for perfection you're talking about. More or less, this charade is not a real issue. I would argue that more issues lie in blame distribution and finger pointer instead of more effort to fix the problem.

Sure we may never be 100% secure, but five 9's is pretty damn good. Take the terrorist case mentioned in the article, we could be doing a lot better than the current situation, which you've never hesitated to point out in other posts. But we spend too much time, and therefore money and energy, on blaming each other, the TSA, the attackers for not playing by the rules, instead of finding the problem, understanding the problem, and fixing it. With enough money, nothing is impossible. Besides the evasion of death and taxes.

Nathan H.January 6, 2010 11:30 AM

> It's hard for poor David Brooks to take a position other than bending down to lick the boot of power.

Yes, this is the guy that proposed "security leads to freedom" as a conservative political slogan:

It was a rare miss for him in predicting what will sit well with ethically unencumbered masses; his direct advocacy for a security state went nowhere. Since that time I haven't read a column of his but from the headlines have seen him adopt rational and/or ethical positions (as in this case) and then reverse them a month later, giving a nice storyline of "intellectuals" being persuaded to the opposition. Brooks's is one of the more depraved minds in popular media, and that's saying a lot.

Scott OlsenJanuary 6, 2010 11:41 AM

Sadly, we as a nation are not mature, with the vast majority of Americans incapable of accepting the hard truth. There will be wins, there will be losses. Accept the losses for what they are...sometimes the bad guys succeed. Forget the incessant wailing and blame game. Learn from it.

Andrew L. DavisJanuary 6, 2010 11:51 AM

On the surface David Brooks is correct we cannot expect any organization to be perfect, but WE should expect competence! This Bomber bought a one-way ticket with cash and had no luggage. This was the same MO as the shoe bomber WAY back in 2001.
There cannot be that many people that travel that only buy one-way tickets with CASH and have no luggage.

NoneJanuary 6, 2010 12:05 PM

Logical next step for attempts to bomb aircraft:

It is now technically possible to use minimally invasive surgery to place an explosive device inside a body surgically.

The amount of metal inside needed for a detonator is minimal. Furthermore, it can always be explained as surgical implants like screws, or artificial joints, or better yet, a pacemaker!

The body scanners being introduced will do nothing to halt this threat.

Ricky BobbyJanuary 6, 2010 12:14 PM

The threat of something is always there. Everyone just needs to accept it already. People accept riding in cars everyday, but they are afraid of terrorism.

People need to think rationally or bend over and take it when flying.

ScottJanuary 6, 2010 1:00 PM

Brooks is indeed as daft as ever, but think about the goal itself: Perfection in the security industry is like perfection in the cosmetics industry -- a necessarily unattainable goal. Once a perfect security solution is found, how will billions of dollars of scanners be sold, a huge and largely ineffective government bureaucracy maintained, tens of thousands of (formerly unemployed) security personnel be kept out of the statistics books and a casual mistreatment of various constitutional rights be maintained?

xdosJanuary 6, 2010 1:24 PM

As I recall, the person who blew up the CIA agents was a doctor (though maybe not a surgeon). That would make it very easy to get "documents" showing medical conditions that require plates or implants, which allows screening to ignore metal detection. I would guess (hope) that these types of situations call for manual screening (aka pat down) at a minimum, but that would make it very easy to get metal in small amounts through screening, or syringes etc that look to be for medical purposes.

So with only that amount of thought it should be apparent that screening alone will not be enough. An no matter how high tech or expensive the screening is we use, it will still be imperfect.

BCSJanuary 6, 2010 1:35 PM

This sums up a LOT of my thinking very clearly. Every high school student should be forced to read this out loud before they can even think of graduating!

Ctrl-Alt-DelJanuary 6, 2010 3:18 PM

Consider this: http://www.theage.com.au/world/slovak-security-sting-too-good-20100106-lu9u.html

and the follow-up:

Synopsis: Slovak police ran a security drill using live explosives which they stashed on innocent travellers then tried to intercept as the unwitting mules went through security. One package, in the baggage of a Slovak electrician returning to work in Ireland, slipped past them, and also past Irish security. Irish police raided the guy's flat, arrested him, but later released him.

Imagine if they had pulled this stunt on an innocent passenger heading for the US. The guy was *arrested* under anti-terrorist laws. In Ireland, who knows what that means; maybe not much or maybe quite a bit - but in the US it's a good bet his name would end up on the watch list or even (since he carried explosives, albeit unknowingly) the no-fly list. It would dog him forever.

Consider the furore if he had got through TSA screening with his involuntary payload. Consider the furore if he had NOT. What if something went wrong, he panicked, and got shot?

The real charmer here is the fact that they arrested the guy. The Slovaks must have told the Irish police the guy was innocent - so why completely ruin his day by arresting him?

JurjenJanuary 6, 2010 3:40 PM

It's been said often, but this is another brilliant example of the fact that the terrorists have already won.
Lesson for everybody dealing with terrorism:
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

Clive RobinsonJanuary 6, 2010 5:55 PM

"For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not."

Hmm Mr Brooks is either not very bright, very unlearned or playing a "rube".

A process of "centralized agencies" results in all the decision making in the center where it is out of contact (bad) with the reality on the ground. But more importantly a "Rule Book" (very bad) as these take on the persona of "Commandments of God". A beuracrat who stays within the rules keeps their job irespective of what happens (oh my god) but worse anyone who modifies the rules no matter to what effect is painting a target on themselves. And the ultimate "numb nuts" is that those in charge select those who "audit them", "advise them", "judge them" and most amazing of all "replace them"...

The whole process produces a mono-culture optomised to protect the "rule book" and maintain the fiction it works.

Nature it's self tells us that "mono cultures" are a very very bad idea.

History tells us that "central control" is a very very bad idea.

Business Process Reoganisation likewise reinforces the idea that "central control" is a very very bad idea.

However just to make things worse the oposit can be a compleat disaster in of it's self.

Total decentralisation leads to many many different "whims" some of which work some of which don't. Because of complexity or the inability to think an industry develops "best practice".

That is you look at the top 10 organisations based on some arbitary measure and find what they do in common...

This becomes a measure not just "de facto" but "de jure" as well.

A few thosand years ago this was the "science of Aristotal et al" it did not work. Not so long ago a fairly unplesant chap said "no more" and came up with the basic rules by which "natural philosophy" still runs today.

His name was Issac Newton and apart from formaly stating the obvious (Gravity) he invented some genuinly usefull bits of kit the "cat flap" and "milled edges on coins", both of which are very appropriate to security.

Of the two milled edges are interesting because of the incentive scheam he worked under...

The Monach of the time gave him the "honour" of becoming "Master of the Royal Mint" however it had some rather unplesant rules (involving death in a somewhat entertaining fashion or just a touch of gelding and gouging...).

The problem to solve was one we see today (and fail at miserably) which is distributed security in hostile hands.

The King owns the coinage of the country, it is part of his personal treasury. Unfortunatly to be of use it had to be of real value (trust did not travel well in those days).

Thus the problem was how to stop the King's gold getting nicked by those unethical pesants and thus keep your testicals.

Newton solved this by actually looking at the problem and coming up with a solution that whilst nowhere near 100% was close enough to keep his family jewels in the bag where they belonged.

Newton realised that ideas alone did not work you had to first "observe" to see how things work. Then come up with an idea of why it works that way "hypotosise". Then importantly devise ways to test your hypothosis. Finaly go back to "observation" to see not only if you where right but importantly to what "measure" you where right.

I suspect that many people have "observed" that the DHS et al do not work. But for some reason rather than follow Newton's method we prefer like Aristotal the thearter of "greek tragadies"...

Now the question is does POTUS have the ability to apply a sufficiently dred incentive scheme to jump beuracrats past the "Greek Tragidies" to the methodology of hard science?

Lawrence D’OliveiroJanuary 6, 2010 9:02 PM

I remember a saying, that in a perfectly fair world, everything that happened to you would be your own fault.

pfoggJanuary 6, 2010 10:52 PM

This appears to be exactly what Thomas Sowell calls the 'open-ended fallacy' in his "Economic Facts and Fallacies".

He writes, "Many desirable things are advocated without regard to the most fundamental fact of economics, that resources are inherently limited and have alternative uses." And he gives the example, "No matter how safe things have been made, they could be made safer."

He begins his analysis with the argument that "fallacies are not simply crazy ideas. They are usually both plausible and logical -- but with something missing." That is, they are easy mistakes to slip into if one isn't thinking carefully about the subject.

That doesn't mean people are childish -- they're making natural mistakes about matters that are typically very distant from their personal experiences, which would ordinarily bring the errors to their notice, and they're electing people on the basis of their beliefs. In this perhaps David Brooks is correct: a centralized institution with broad authority to set policy becomes, in a democratic society, a lever that pushes such natural mistakes into the field.

Perhaps a better approach would be to let airlines set at least some of these policies, and let passengers make the trade-off between convenience and safety by choosing the airline with the balance they like.

Nick PJanuary 7, 2010 1:24 AM

A lot of people feel like they have to do... something. It doesn't matter if that something makes sense or solves the problem, it's "better than doing nothing" about the problem. There are tens of millions of those people in the US and they tend to be more aggressive or "doers" than most. Hence, they will push for some action whether or not it will work. A quote from the movie Munich sums it up nicely:

"I knew guys like you in the army. You do any terrifying thing you're asked to do, but you have to do it running. You think you can outrun your fears, your doubts. The only thing that really scares you guys is stillness." (source: fictional dude on fake movie distilling real wisdom)

annoynymousJanuary 7, 2010 9:56 AM

> In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say,
> “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.”
> But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways.

Perhaps a mature president could say that, but it's been a long time since we've had one of those.

Noble_SerfJanuary 7, 2010 12:07 PM

I agree with the article in general.

Speaking of who to blame, I think Michael Leiter is being primed for "spending more time with the family". It's out today that he remained on vacation during the "underpants" attack. That's not a big deal, but in this case, it's blood in the water.

He's the "intel fusion center" (say that without a chuckle) director. You know, the bat cave guy.

WernerJanuary 8, 2010 12:50 PM

"But [...] the system is bound to fail sometimes."

I think the problem is more that the system never seems to catch anyone. While we hear of prospective terrorists being caught while still at home or after comical failure on the plane, we don't hear of anyone apprehended at the security screening.

So it seems that some terrorists are too weak to even make it to the airport in one piece, and those who do will pass the supposed security checks with disdainful ease.

Two theories have been offered to explain this: 1) the security checks are so tight that only useless amounts of bad stuff can be brought through, and 2) that the supposed suicide terrorists aren't all that suicidal and intentionally aim for a theatrical effect.

In case 1), that would suggest that no added measures are necessary when someone is caught, because whatever they had with them wouldn't be a serious threat anyway.

In case 2), the hole that's being plugged by added security measures is one that the terrorists or their puppet masters consider of little enough value that they're comfortable to give it away for a relatively simple scare.

By the way, if we assume that today's terrorists are more than flying scarecrows, then I'm all for trying to plug yesterday's holes, at least for a while, because a process that almost worked could be refined on the 2nd or 3rd try, because 9/11 and 11-M are two relatively recent high-profile attacks that used the same pattern repeatedly, and also because a well-publicized attack could invite copycats who lack the ability or confidence to research their own methods.

- Werner

AndrewJanuary 9, 2010 7:09 PM

Brooks misses one big point often neglected by liberals, which is that the more resources you spend on security theater, the less you have for everything else.

OublietteJanuary 10, 2010 4:37 PM

The points about opportunity cost, what you give up for what you spend on, are well taken. I'd rather give up a little safety and keep my civil/constitutional rights. I guess that brings up Greenwald's point about fear being a "degrading toxin". Far worse than jumping through TSA hoops are the domestic surveillance/watch programs in the US these are terrible things to live through and there is no appeal. You don't even know why you are targeted, you won't be able to get help from the authorities they will tell you you are crazy no matter how obvious the surveillance is, and you will be criminalized daily. It is very similar to the internment of the Japanese during WW2, once you are put into a terror databse nobody wants to take you out.

GTJanuary 11, 2010 4:26 PM

David Brooks is a douche.

If the US had not spent every year since 1895 sticking its fucking nose into other countries' business, a goodly chuknk of the world would not be pissed off at it.

Sure, the bulk of the pissed-off are duskier "Children of a Lesser God" - but some of them understand the Long Game.

To understand what I mean by this: Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099... but for the overwhelming bulk of all years since then it has been a Muslim city.

The US is like one of its own teenagers; 'roided up, Ritalin'ed out, and sadly lacking in any sense of historical perspective. Add in that it is captive to its own ludicrous mythology, and you have a recipe for an empire on the wane... like Britain after WWI.

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