Only 10 days after the bombing of the Boston Marathon, ugly partisan politics is taking the story over. Some in Congress are starting to openly blame the Obama administration for not keeping the country safe. The head of the CIA quickly fired back, essentially saying, “Hey, don’t blame us.” And there’s NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg saying we’ll have to give up more individual rights (and add more surveillance cameras) to make everyone safe.
The truth is that perfect security is impossible. Even in a totalitarian society, attacks can happen every now and then. But in a free society, we have to tolerate even more risk. It’s just part of the trade-off of remaining mostly free.
You are going to die one of these days, and I am, too. Every one of us will. I might live to be 120 years old or I might be killed in a car accident later today. We just don’t know. We can take reasonable steps to minimize the dangers we face, but we can’t eliminate risks. It’s literally impossible.
So if perfect security is impossible, why are politicians arguing about it? And why is the media filled with so much news of terror that it scares so many people?
As I wrote last week, there are various groups who have a vested interest in you being afraid. The terrorists themselves obviously do, but politicians and much of the media want you scared, too. The media like scared people because they tune in to watch hour after hour of time on their TV channels, which translates into revenue for them. Politicians want you scared because they’re able to score partisan political points off your emotions.
Politicians collectively make use of your fear to get you to agree to give them more and more power over you. Scared people don’t think rationally. They just say, “Here, take whatever you want from me. Just protect me.” But the two sides of the mainstream want something else, too. Each side wants a weapon with which to bash the other side.
If something bad happens when one party controls the White House, the other side is going to darkly point fingers and say that the people in charge aren’t doing enough. That’s what some Republicans are doing now. If the roles were reversed, some Democrats would be doing exactly the same things. It’s typically unfair when either side does it.
These politicians are like sharks that go for the kill when they smell blood.
The thing of least importance to them is telling you the truth. You’re not going to hear a mainstream politician say, “We’re doing all that we humanly know to do that’s compatible with living a free society, but terrible things are sometimes going to happen anyway.” But that’s the truth, even though they’re not going to say so.
We can’t stop all bad things from happening in this world. We can’t stop various kinds of medical problems. We can’t stop people from being killed in auto accidents. We can’t stop people from being drowned in swimming pools or struck by lightning.
We need to minimize risk, and I believe we’re already doing reasonable things in that direction. (For instance, nothing has made airplanes safer than the simple step of installing locked cockpit doors.) We’re also layering on a lot of “security theater,” as security consultant Bruce Schneier calls it. And a lot of that security theater is designed to make you believe that perfect security is possible. (Schneier is my favorite writer about security issues. Here’s a piece he wrote last year outlining the harms done by the changes in security implemented over the last 12 years or so.)
Perfect security isn’t possible. When politicians start arguing about who is responsible for something that couldn’t reasonably have been prevented — as the Boston bombing probably couldn’t have been prevented — you know you’re dealing with people who are either being dishonest or are grossly ignorant of the facts of life about security.