The last point I made in my proposals for Democratic policy was:
Sixth, we’re going to develop security mechanisms based on the theory that fine-grained systems that bring information and communications to the existing public safety community, as well as the public at large are better than huge, centralized bureaucratic solutions;
I’m going to skip ahead in my dialog with Calpundit, because this topic is actually the one I’m the most interested in. It deals with two issues that are closest to me right now: 1) national security; and 2) reimagining government policy in the terms of ‘emergence’.
There’s a lot of woo-woo today around ‘emergent’ systems; it is a little-understood concept but one with applications from biology to urban studies to e-commerce and computer games. I have been nagging at the idea that somehow I could marry my liberal goals with emergent means, and divorce modern liberalism from centralized command-and-control mechanisms. It’s a fuzzy, not-yet-thought-out set of ideas for me, but one that it working it’s way closer to the surface of my brain.
Here’s Steven Johnson’s definition, in his book ‘Emergence':
In the simplest terms, they solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single, intelligent “executive branch.” They are bottom-up systems, not top-down. They get their smarts from below. In more technical terms, they are complex adaptive systems that display emergent behavior. In these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighborhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books. The movement from low-level rules to high-level sophistication is what we call emergence.
Security, to me, is an excellent place to start talking about the policy utility of this concept. We’re seeing the cost of highly centralized, overly-complex and intrusive security every time we fly. Does it work? Are we safer in the air today than we were on Sept. 10, 2001 because we all have to take our shoes off, or because passengers have changed their response doctrine?
I’ve said it a hundred times; no one not armed with guns is going to hijack an airplane any time soon. The passengers won’t allow it. Every time you take your shoes off as you go through security, ask yourself how well Richard Reid did, and how he got stopped.
The reality is that no centrally planned security apparatus can adapt fast enough to the variety of challenges that an imaginative opponent can present. And the efforts to do so will require the imposition of an increasingly Stalinist security apparatus.
We’re seeing this play out the back-and-forth over civil liberties versus security that is taking place in Washington.
So what’s the response then? Do we abandon security in order to maintain our freedom? Or do we abandon freedom to remain secure? Or do we compromise, as we are, to wind up half-free and half-secure?
I think there’s another way.
Conceptually, it looks like this:
Instead of centralizing and bureaucratizing the defensive part of our security apparatus – of ‘professionalizing it’ – move the responsibility outward, where it really will be anyway. The reactions to 9/11 weren’t coordinated in Washington D.C., they were done on the ground in Manhattan and in the air over Pennsylvania. We have a large network of ‘first responders.’ They are the police, fire, hazmat, EMT and emergency medicine staffs that exist in every city and county of the country. The reality is that any unanticipated terrorist action will first be met by these forces, not some super-special SWAT group coordinated out of the Pentagon.
So why not beef these forces up?
Rather than creating a national-scale bureaucracy that is guaranteed to get to the scene too late to do anything, why not move the responsibility outward?
Concretely, that might mean some policies along these lines:
* Improving the training and escalation procedures for front-line responders to enable them to recognize a terrorist act and quickly escalate the response to an appropriate level. Improve the tactical training for police in dealing with terrorist-level threats, and beef up local responses to explosive devices by better training and equipping local bomb squads.
* Improve the training of even lower-level responders like private security guards in malls and office buildings to enable them to identify and respond, where appropriate, and to effectively communicate upward to local police and fire services.
* Improve the public-health infrastructure (this would be a good thing regardless) to enable it to identify and respond to bioterror more quickly. This involves, unsurprisingly, better training local EMT and emergency room personnel in identifying and communicating potential outbreaks.
Notice that each of these points relies to a great extent on two things:
# Creating a doctrine in which the lowest level possible reacts to the threat; and
# Creating a communications network (which is a combination of communications technology and the human attention and connections necessary to make that technology effective that connects local agencies upward and laterally.
Overall, there is a current set of beliefs that each level will wait for the next level up to deal with a terrorist act. A citizen will tell a security guard, who will call the police, who will call SWAT, who will call the FBI, who will call the HRT, who will call the military.
By the time we’re done playing ‘telephone,’ it’s all going to over except burying the bodies.
At Columbine, the police response was right out of the current playbook. Secure a perimeter, evacuate all the civilians you can get out of the way, wait for SWAT and the bomb squad to show up, stage and prepare, and go in and secure the building.
That didn’t work so well there.
But it was the standard doctrine, established because we believed that an unplanned response or a response without the necessary overwhelming force would be an ineffective response. So the police trained to wait for the situation to be right.
The passengers on AA Flight 11 similarly followed doctrine; when hijacked sit tight, avoid confrontation, wait until the plane gets on the ground and the grownups either negotiate a settlement or effect a rescue.
That didn’t work so well either.
Similar stories in Thurston High School and on AA Flight 93 ended differently. It wasn’t because there were better plans, or necessarily because the specific people were braver or smarter (although on Flight 93 they were obviously better informed). It was because they operated on a different doctrine, which involved immediate action, and not passively waiting for someone else to solve the problem.
Now some problems can’t easily be solved by a few high school kids or airline passengers, and I don’t mean to suggest that they are.
But I do mean to suggest that we need to invert our doctrine – actually, to bring our doctrine in conformance with reality. Because we’re spending billions building capabilities that aren’t. Because the reality is that the only people who will have a chance to avert an unanticipated terrorist attack will be a couple of security guards and local cops. And the first people to react to it will be EMT’s firefighters, and the staff of the local ER.
So let’s design a security system around them.
There are some collateral benefits of doing this.
First, we spend less time and energy building a giant, centralized domestic security apparatus which will inevitably be abused by those in power. By diffusing the power, we make that inevitable abuse harder to do, easier to detect, and more limited in scope.
Second, the additional capability we build into local law enforcement and public health bears immediate fruit in better law enforcement and public health, even absent a terror attack. The communications infrastructure that will help Southern California agencies respond to an attack can also be used in the event of fires or earthquakes. Better public health infrastructure will not only limit the population’s exposure to bioterror, but to naturally occurring disease as well.
Practically, not every threat can be met at a local level. NEST will never be a county function. And offense will remain the best defense, and will never be a local function.
The moral, Schneier came to believe, is that security measures are characterized less by their success than by their manner of failure. All security systems eventually miscarry in one way or another. But when this happens to the good ones, they stretch and sag before breaking, each component failure leaving the whole as unaffected as possible.
“The trick to remember is that technology can’t save you,” Schneier says. “we know this in our own lives. We realize there’s no magic anti-burglary dust that we can sprinkle on our cars to prevent them from being stolen. We know that car alarms don’t provide much protection. The Club at best makes burglars steal the car next to you. For real safety we park on nice streets where people notice if somebody smashes the window. Or we park in garages, where somebody watches the car. In both cases people are the essential security element. You always build the system around people.”
The people on the front lines. Angela the baggage clerk. She’s not going to violate my civil liberties, and she might actually save me some day, rather than investigating afterwards.