Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On searching for perfect security where there is none

A couple of weeks ago, as the media-stream overflowed with speculation over the Boston bombings and then the Tsarnaev chase, I was reading Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger by Harvey Molotch. I wonder what Mr. Molotch was thinking?

This author is a New York University sociologist who came to his subject after watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. He describes himself as drawn to promoting a "sense of humanistic shared responsibility" through which we might re-establish our sense of security -- but this was the road not taken in the past decade as we instead declared the "war on terror." So Molotch has brought sociological, anthropological, urban studies, design and architectural research to bear on a list of arenas in which we have lately tried to shore up our feeling of security. These include public bathrooms, subways, airports, and the City of New Orleans under threat of further hurricanes.

Here's a distillation of the author's description of his project:
This book traces fear, from the soup of indistinct but keenly felt worries over one's own body, to the hard nuts of bombs and bastions. … Through various intermediaries of institutions and physical implements, individual angst transmutes into the power of authorities who themselves, of course, come to have an interest in stoking the fears that feed them. …Bad things do happen, and death is the final outcome no matter what; but the routes to death can be more or less reasonable, more or less decent -- a guiding assumption in the chapters that follow. This book is against security as officially practiced, favoring instead meaningful ways to extend lives and provide people with decent experience.

… I am not directed toward security in the sense of material satisfaction -- a decent house or full belly -- however righteous such goals may be. I'm thinking of security as the feeling and reality that such goals are even possible to pursue, that there is a sensible and reliable world in which to act. It is a more-or-less state; no individual and no community can be fully secure either in feeling or in reality, but some are closer than others.

… What to do? It would be naive to suppose that there were zero threats "out there", and I readily acknowledge, as we so poignantly learned with the July 2011 massacre of eighty-four young people in a Norwegian summer camp, that even quiescent societies can be hit by horror. However an exaggeration in terms of actuarial statistics compared to other threats, attacks are likely. But even so, we spend absurdly too much and sacrifice beyond what makes sense as we enshrine the possibility in national policy and local practice. But politically, if for no other reason, there is no choice but to do something. The question is how can we act in a way that creates a better world. and not an inferior one?
Some of what Molotch comes up with is fascinating. I was particularly taken with his descriptions -- based on embedding among them -- of how New York City subway workers make a run down, poorly designed and ill-maintained system hobbled by bureaucratic management function in spite of its flaws. Attending to their successes is one of his suggestions for improving "security."
Authorities should know and respect workers' repertoires for dealing with ordinary problems, including those based on their experiences with outside agents. If workers think their supervisors have bad information, they will not treat instructions given to them as bona fide. If they think their supervisors do not take into account job exigencies at hand, they will discount their directives. If they think bosses' initiatives are silly, they will deride rather than follow them. Remedies for dealing with such disjuncture are either to change the routines of the work situation (easing, for example, the vulnerabilities to human and mechanical challenges) or to make sure instructions take those contexts into account.
If that comes across as awfully abstract, I'd agree. Much of this book is like that. But I sure do concur that paying attention to the people who do the jobs to make systems work might help. His solution to flight security is similar: trust the in-air crews and passengers more:
It … might not come as a surprise that the handful of would-be perpetrators (and occasional actual ones) were caught mostly through the alertness of ordinary people as opposed to those charged with doing security itself. It was passengers and flight crew who foiled shoe bomber Richard Reid. …
Molotch is no fan of our country's choice of violent responses to security anxieties.
The debate continues as to whether our aggressive moves abroad (and, on occasion, at home as well) have made the United States safer or only increased its exposure. … At the heart of [our] ferocious real politick is belief that if we capture, torture, or kill innocents, we will eventually get at the bad guy. Those who survive our wrath will learn the lesson and be less likely to help such people in the future.

… I know no real way to refute such a claim for the wisdom of bellicosity with utter certainty. But surely those who would oppose how I think have at least a modicum of uncertainty for their position -- or certainly should have. Put bluntly and at the extreme, I am proposing that when you don't know what you are doing, the best approach is the more directly humane one. … Before the application of militarism, one should simply ask what would be most decent?
He enumerates what he considers the largely spurious expedients we adopt in the name of security: "guns, machines, dogs … [plastic] jersey barriers, chain link fence, [concrete] bollards, and commanding signage." He doesn't believe that further proliferation of such measures is going to make us feel secure. At least part of what we need is a greater capacity to admit that perfect security is impossible, that we must "accept loss."
We need to accept bad outcomes, most importantly, death. Lack of acceptance makes us sitting ducks for any program, policy, or action that can be spoken of as adding "security" -- regardless of how little sense it makes.
We're not going to achieve perfect security so instead of chasing the impossible, we need to ask what quality of life we want while living together. That seems right to me. I am heartened by the Pew Center poll after Boston that showed that most of us have come to understand that occasional acts of terrorism will be simply "part of life" for the foreseeable future. That's a prerequisite for learning to avoid panicked behavior and choices in the future.

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