Periscope Depth

no man born with a living soul can work for the clampdown

I struggled a lot with this post for several reasons. Chief among them is that not only do I know several first responders in Boston – EMTs, firefighters – I’m friends with one of the officials who conducted DHS emergency response drills in Boston for the last two summers. I’ve had beers and gone to weddings with these people; there are faces behind the badges. So not only does any post in which I’m skeptical of law enforcement feel like I’m slagging their jobs, it’s hard for me to write such criticism with a straight face. What, Lynn and DJ are gonna kick me out of my home? Like Mrs H. has a secret file on me because I wrote something nice about Occupy Boston once? G’wan, get outta heah.

watertown-mall Another stumbling block was that a lot of the critical writing I’d seen of the lockdown (Clark at Popehat being a widely cited example) focused on the financial cost of a day of lost labor. This sort of economic determinism always bugs me, whether from the right or left; it leads to bad policy and worse cable news. “Yes, three lives were lost and dozens horrifically maimed, but has anyone thought about the GDP?” It bothers me because, as soon as the debate is framed that way, the question becomes “how much did it actually cost?” Someone asserts it cost a billion dollars; Matthew Yglesias counters that no, it probably cost less. Frankly, I think that’s the wrong debate to have. So I struggled to find a way to voice my issues while distancing myself from that sort of bean-counting.

The last obstacle that kept me from publishing my first draft of this post is that the entire operation feels like such an unqualified victory. Especially in the greater context of the War on Terror, starting eleven and a half years ago with a horrific act of destruction, an act avenged by declaring war on every country except the ones where the responsible parties came from, wars that have cost thousands more lives, tens of thousands if you count non-Americans. Contrast this to last week: shocking tragedy on Monday, planes are in the air again by Tuesday, suspects identified on Thursday, caught on Friday. And we even got a day off work*! A lone 19-year-old bringing a major American city to a standstill may seem like a Pyrrhic victory, but compared to what nineteen hijackers brought us to, it’s a bargain.

But it’s that last observation that actually spurred me onward. I worry whenever people become inured to the use of power. Over the last ten years, American citizens have gone from outrage to discomfort to indifference at bag checks on the subway, gropings at the airport, and men with assault rifles and Kevlar meandering through public. Now a city gets locked down to find one man. It’s easy to cheer this as a victory. The hard part is playing with hypotheticals: what if it took longer than a week to catch him? What if they got the wrong man? What if this level of police coordination were used to crack down on protestors rather than terrorists? When we reach the point at which armored SUVs become objectionable to us, will there be too much precedent to object?

Seth Godin, in a much lighter context, wrote:

“You can’t argue with success…”

Of course you can. What else are you going to argue with? Failure can’t argue with you, because it knows that it didn’t work.

The art of staying successful is in being open to having the argument. Great organizations fail precisely because they refuse to do this.

American federal agencies and news bureaus** pounce heaviest on perceived failures in counterterrorism and turn hagiographic eyes on successes. If progress were the goal, it would be the other way around, to keep success from creating blinders and to keep fear of failure from encouraging the wrong behavior.

This is why, in the face of what’s apparently an overwhelming success in the War on Terror, I remain reticent.

Everyone has their own image of “what makes America great.” You can almost picture the montage: Little League baseball, fast cars on mountain highways, construction workers building skyscrapers, business executives shaking hands, kids on field trips seeing historical landmarks. When a major American city gets locked down, none of that is on display. I fear a generation that, when asked what makes America great, answers, “the ability to deliver swift, overwhelming force.” And I hate having to choose between those visions.

* For knowledge workers, of course, there’s no such thing as a day off, not where wi-fi and 4G yet cast a shadow.

** But I repeat myself.