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.”