Chaos and Control

When I wake up in the morning I usually spend 30 minutes or so getting my kids off to school, and then I climb back in bed for a bit to surf the web and check my email and twitter–yes, yes, the glamorous life of a self-employed author. Because I live in Germany, I’m several hours ahead of America, which makes twitter and facebook kind of interesting: I’m six hours ahead of the East Coast, nine hours ahead of the West Coast, and eight hours ahead of the bulk of my friends, who live in Utah. In general, this means that they’re already asleep (or at least logged off) when I get on the morning; I’ll usually catch the the last few posts of my West Coast friends in real time, but everything else is weirdly time-delayed. I read through a static back-log of media while America sleeps, and then we get a good laugh when my phone starts beeping and chirping during dinner–about the time my Utah friends get to work in the morning and start replying to what I’ve written.

That’s what normally happens. Last week, during the Boston manhunt, things went a little differently.

Thanks to the time difference, I rolled out of bed and started checking twitter just about half an hour after the shooting started; I saw the West Coast crowd post their “holy crap what’s happening in Boston?” tweets, and jumped on google to see what was going on. I quickly found and subscribed to some good Boston twitter feeds, including the MIT grad student who live-tweeted the police shootout. Despite being a few thousand miles away on the other side of an ocean, I was there for each new attack, each new bomb, each new speculation. I had all three of my computers going at once, collecting every bit of data I could and redistributing the parts that seemed important/dramatic/accurate. More than once I thought of Oracle, the DC superhero who perches in her secret eyrie, watching everything and sharing it with her team. It was scary and exciting and I couldn’t look away; I stayed in that office for the entire manhunt, my eyes glued to each new post by ABC news or the Boston police or random citizens who put up a picture of armed soldiers prowling through their backyards.

And then Boston finally woke up, and the bombers still weren’t caught, and the police/government took the major step of locking down the city. The details trickled out in what seemed like a very wise progression: stay away from public spaces. Don’t use public transit. We’ve closed public transit. There could be bombs anywhere, so stay at home. We need everything clear so it’s easier to find him, so stay at home. Business are closed. He’s armed and dangerous and desperate, so everybody stay at home. At one point in the day I linked to a photo of downtown Boston, eerily empty, and said that it was spooky and surreal, but hard to call it an overreaction.

And here’s the point of my post today: I don’t know if I believe that anymore.

What was the final count on the lockdown? A million-something people confined to their homes? 33 million dollars lost from closed businesses? I can see both sides of the argument here. On the one hand, the lockdown was arguably a ‘success’: no further civilians were hurt, despite the very real danger. The last time the police saw the final bomber, he shot them with automatic weapons, threw bombs at them, and actually drove a car over his own brother in a mad dash to escape. That’s a dangerous fracking guy, and you don’t want to mess around with that. In hindsight, yes, it turned out he was too wounded to move and spent the day bleeding almost to death in a stowed boat, but we didn’t know that. If he’d been healthy he could have done almost anything, and if the city had been full of people then ‘anything’ could have resulted in a lot more innocent deaths.

On the other hand, you could argue (and many people have) that excluding the general population actively inhibited the search. It was a civilian who first described the bombers to police; it was civilians who helped comb through reams of marathon photos to identify them; it was civilians who very famously spread the word on twitter, staying more current–and often more accurate–than the actual news. Most tellingly, at the end of a long, frustrating, fruitless day, when the police were ready to give up and finally lifted the lockdown, it was civilians who stepped outside, looked around, and found the hiding bomber within the first five minutes. I’m not saying this to deride the police in any way–they did an amazing job in a terrifying situation. But there simply weren’t enough of them to look in every nook and cranny in an entire city.

I can’t help but compare this situation to the much-derided TSA, which has practically become our cultural shorthand for ‘over-the-top security that curtails freedom without actually doing any good.’ In the years since the TSA was instated to catch terrorists, they haven’t caught a single one–every terrorist caught on or around an airplane during the TSA’s watch has been identified by civilians. Every one. The Boston bomber hiding in the boat was the same basic thing: civilians found him, and then the authorities stepped in and took it from there.

There are a lot of conclusions we can draw from this, and a lot of questions we can ask. The first conclusion: security is more effective when civilians are drawn in and made a part of it than when they are excluded. History has proven this, current events have proven this, it seems pretty well proven by now. Which leads us to our first questions: why does the government/police/whoever keep trying to exclude the most effective part of security? Why do they insist on doing everything themselves? Most importantly, why are we, as a society, so content to surrender our involvement, our control, and our freedoms?

But let’s look at this from the other side. It’s very easy for us to look back at the Boston lockdown and say that it was an overreaction, because nothing happened. After the initial shootouts nobody else was hurt, no more bombs went off, and we spent the entire day hiding from a guy who was hiding from us. We can say it was an ineffective policy and an unnecessary precaution because it doesn’t hurt us to say so: the entire city of Boston could have gone to work that day and been fine. But what if there had been another bomb? When the bomber heard police outside his boat he greeted them with a long burst of automatic weapon fire–what if that had been the guy who found him? What if it had been kids? What if he’d actually been wearing the suicide vest they thought he was? If the police hadn’t locked down the city, and the bomber injured even one more person, this entire conversation might be reversed, and instead of calling the lockdown an overreaction we might be calling for the heads of whatever government official failed to protect us.

Which leads us to the Big Question, not just of this event but of security in general–of our entire modern world: How much death and damage and we willing to accept in our pursuit of freedom?

Let’s look at marathons: we now know that a pair of kids, properly radicalized, can set off some bombs and kill three people at a marathon. Does this mean we stop holding marathons? Of course not. But what if it was ten people? What if it was twenty? What if it starts happening more often? We can only attach so many precautions to an event as big and public as a marathon before a ban or another lockdown become literally our only remaining options. Are we okay with that? How far are willing to go, and which side of the issue will we come down on: no more freedom to run in a marathon, or no more freedom to walk through the city and watch one?

Let’s look at lockdowns: we now know that we can confine a million or more people to their homes in order to catch one bad guy. Should we do this again? How dangerous does a situation have to be to justify placing one million people under house arrest? How many times can we do it before people get sick of it and rebel? Which world do you want to live in: a world where nobody gets hurt, or a world where you can make your own choices?

I don’t have answers to these questions. People have been asking them for thousands of years–finding the line between chaos and control is the fundamental question of society as a concept. Asking these questions and hypothesizing different answers is the reason I write science fiction; it’s easy to look at the PARTIALS sequence, for example, and see that a huge part of it is my own attempt to play with these ideas and probe the different scenarios and explore different methods of chaos and control. Nobody in PARTIALS or FRAGMENTS is really a villain, just characters trying to do their best in a situation that has no easy answers, using methods that other characters find abominable. How far is too far? How much is too much? Which is more important: our survival, or our lives?

The only thing I know for sure is that we have to ask these questions, and we have to think about our answers. We have to talk about it. We have to challenge what we do and say and think to see if it actually stands up to scrutiny. We have to question our methods and our leaders to make sure they’re really the ones we want. We have to examine and evaluate our goals to make sure the things we’re pursuing are really the things we want to achieve.

3 Responses to “Chaos and Control”

  1. Rebekah H. says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Questions like this need to be asked, not just now, but always.

    I think part of that includes not thought-shaming each other. It’s become par for the course for us to call each other idiots or nutjobs or whackos because of our differing opinions.

    If we can’t respect those who think differently than us, and don’t make a genuine effort to understand those viewpoints, how will we grow? How will we ever progress toward answering the important questions?

  2. TerryU says:

    Dan, that codifies a lot of my own thoughts on this topic. Terrorism is not about killing people or winning tactical victories; it is about creating fear in people that they are powerless and their governments are incapable of helping them. Terrorists major aim is often bringing about this king of over-the-top response from government security apparatuses. I felt that the lock-down was a terrible choice. The bombers effectively paralyzed a city with fear, which the government only exacerbated.

  3. Love it, Dan. Thank you, also, for allowing validation for those across the spectrum: different people feel that a different balance is correct, and I appreciate that your analysis leaves moral room for people across the spectrum to support and encourage the balance they feel fits best.

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