Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Fears for the Future

Austin, Texas -- 08/03/2005

The world today has me uneasy. I particularly fear for my two sons.

Do I fear terrorism? Well, not particularly. I've always been an adherent to the "small, finite chance" theory, i.e. there's always a small, finite chance of the most horrific possible thing happening. So I fear terrorism the same way I fear things like meteorites, pieces of forgotten communication satellites, lightning strikes -- all the, erm, stuff that, well, happens.

After the events of September 11th, 2001, I've likened the battle against terror to the battle against roaches in an old New York City apartment (or my house in Austin, for that matter). Taking a certain series of simple actions -- whether it's taking the garbage out or actually washing the dishes that have accumulated in the sink -- will take care of most of the problem. Sealing possible entry ways will help further. Sure, there'll be the occasional scurrying exoskeleton, the occasional surprise, but significantly fewer.

The problem comes in when you try to completely eliminate them, kill every last roach in the place and never see another. There's only one way to do that: Poison. Lots of poison. Enough poison to get into every crevice, every crack. Enough poison to kill every roach as soon as it hatches, no matter how well hidden or protected.

Of course the problem with this kind of regimen is that not only does it alter the behavior of the creatures you're trying to protect, i.e. the humans, but the effect upon the environment boomerangs as well. Roaches are both hardy and unconcerned with the plight of the individual. If a million die, there are a million more, just lurking deep within the walls. Eventually, if, indeed, the total elimination of the pests is the goal, it becomes necessary to make their world -- and the world of the humans with which they share space -- pretty toxic.

On September 11th, approximately three thousand perished. An act of terror, to be sure. A tragedy of unimagined proportions. An event that some say has changed things forever. In the same year, however, how many died on the nation's highways? Could we eliminate all of those potential deaths? Probably not. Could we reduce them to a mere handful? Well, sure -- all you'd have to do is reduce the speed limit on the roads to, say, ten miles per hour. That would pretty much do it. Well, why wouldn't we do such a thing? I think the answer is obvious.

When it comes to terrorism though, my fear is that the equivalent approach may take hold, piece by piece. While more -- and better -- intelligence gathering would be a good thing, where does it stop? A little more surveillance? Sure. But how much?

At the end of 2001, I picked my wife up at the airport; it was the first time I'd been in such a facility since the 9/11 attacks. No longer could you get near a gate to greet a loved one. And there, at the top of the escalator, was some crew cut kid, decked out in the finest the DoD can muster, with a watchful eye and a gun that could certainly have wreaked more than a little havoc. And my first reaction was, sadly, "They've won."

Things have not, however, become that drastic -- with the moderation of time passing. Well, not yet, anyway. Recent events in London -- in effect, another `It CAN happen here' moment -- have begun the institution of an increasingly intrusive security regime. Random searches on the New York City subway system is but one example.

There are two forms of security, the immediately obvious and the inherently covert. The former only works when it's visible; think the `cop on the beat'. The latter only works when it's invisible; the undercover cop who's visible isn't undercover at all -- and thereby fundamentally useless. When you get to the in between state, the idea that at any moment you could be being watched, things get a little bit uncomfortable. Despite assurances that it's only the `bad guys' who need to worry about it, the echoes of `If you have nothing to hide...' are hard to ignore. Once the infrastructure is in place, the kinds of things being looked for can begin to shift, imperceptibly at first, but shift nevertheless.

Once that shift occurs, the natural thing is to look out for anything that threatens the status quo. Defending the status quo becomes paramount. And, given just how good we've gotten at looking -- with the advent of ever more effective technologies -- the status quo will be defended. Change will be supressed. Ultimately, virtually all of us are the poorer for it.

Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover had modern surveillance techniques at his disposal. Consider the effect it could have had on, say, the civil rights movement of the early sixties. Consider the effect it would have had upon any engine of social change.

Finding `bad guys' is hard. They are typically well disciplined and specifically aware of both the people looking out for them and the techniques likely to be used. This makes the rest of us, those without any directly destructive intent, the low hanging fruit. And, after all, if the security regime doesn't find someone it considers to be `dangerous' once in a while, it can't sustain itself. Ultimately, freedom for most suffers more than the (relatively) few with true bad intent.

So what do I fear? It's obvious. I fear the coming police state. Just like the frog in the pot of water that's slowly heating up, the changing conditions are easy to ignore -- at least until you're cooked.

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