Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A stretch of river XV: The Ninety-Nine-Percent Doctrine

(Cross-posted at Sine qua non)

The park across the river from my apartment complex has a reputation among long-time Wichitans of being a dangerous place. I vividly recall, in fact, the first time I ever saw the park: the then-soon-to-be Mrs. M. and I were cruising about in the neighborhood, a fairly prosperous part of the city, at early dusk when we came upon it, and I suggested we park there and walk around. Families with children were gathered about one of those fountains that double as a get-the-kids-wet play area. (There are, of course, other ways to think about them.) It wasn't dark; it looked safe; it looked attractive, even; it looked like a good time. Mrs. M. responded angrily at my naïvete. This place is dangerous, she told me; don't you know that? Well, no, I didn't. I had been in Wichita a couple of years but still didn't have a good sense of which areas were "safe," which not.

We can know only what we know, true? That knowledge inevitably affects how we interpret events and ideas and people we encounter, interfering with our ability to see a particular phenomenon whole and entire. That evening, I knew only what I was seeing in front of me: activities and groups of people that to me suggest a general sense of safety. Mrs M. knew about the park's prior reputation and so didn't "see" what I was seeing. Neither of us was seeing a bigger picture, one which has emerged since we moved here: that, yes, it did have that former reputation and can still be a bit dicey over there some nights; but, as evidenced by the newish fountain, some sculptures, an attractive gazebo and other features, the city has been working to rehabilitate the park and its reputation and has been mostly successful, I'd say.

So: as I walk Scruffy these days before the sun has come up, I feel safe, but I'm vigilant. Scruffy's hearing and vision are much sharper than mine, so if he seems to be distracted by something off to the side of our route, I look to see what I can see as well. I don't carry or even own a gun (I refuse to, in fact, for reasons I'll get into below); I don't carry a stick or other weapon, either. I do have my cellphone, which we got in the first place because Mrs. M. now lives in Topeka so that, should her schedule permit and she wants to experience the thrill of hearing my melodious voice, she has a better chance of more immediately being able to satisfy that impulse. One day on our walk, though, I found myself thinking that, should I be attacked, I had my cellphone and could call for help the instant I sensed I was in danger and that that was a measure of protection. But I immediately realized how foolish that was. Imagine the sequence: 1) The Meridian senses he's in danger about the moment he feels the bludgeon cracking his cranium; 2) All awareness of the cellphone and, indeed, the whole of the world and the people and things in it he loves or in any sense cares about one way or another descends, like Coleridge's sacred river Alph, down that cavern measureless to man that is the loss of consciousness; 3) The Meridian, one hopes (he himself not really being able to hope or do much of anything else), eventually wakes up. Indeed: I realized that, though Scruffy's size would intimidate only grade-school-aged attackers, and though he is just downright goofy a lot of the time, his natural propensity for alertness makes me more alert--when I need to be--and thus safer.

And here, finally, I come to this post's REAL point (which you'll find below the fold).

On this morning's walk, I was thinking about the post by Kung Fu Monkey that I linked to in the post preceding this one, and it reminded me of a recent post in Political Animal proposing a strategy for dealing with some terrorist acts that Kevin and others he cites call "forbearance": the idea that some (though not all) terrorist acts not be responded to with force in favor of the greater, long-term good of strategic advantage--that of being able to claim the moral high ground of being by inclination a peaceful people. As Drum freely admits, in these times that is a difficult argument to make: this long-term thinking is a matter of policy that would have to be pursued by succeeding administrations in order to be truly effective; in the short term, though, given the current political climate in this country at least, trying to make such an argument might very well lead to political suicide. What Ron Suskind describes as The One-Percent Doctrine seems to be at work here: no matter how small the possibility of a threat posed by an individual or group, it is to be treated as though it will come to pass. While some have reasonably argued that such thinking is just good common sense, others have argued that such a policy implicitly lets people ignore evidence that does NOT suggest an imminent threat and has also resulted in too heavy a weighting in favor of surveillance of thousands and thousands of people (not to mention the numerous, ahem, circumventions of law and international treaties this has led to) and not enough on equally common-sense preventive measures (5 years after 9/11, well over 90% of the shipping containers of foreign origin that arrive here still are not scanned or inspected due to protests from big businesses reliant on imports that doing so would cost them lost time and, thus, money; most chemical plants and refineries in this country still have no extra security measures, and for the same reasons shipping containers aren't scanned.

But then again, maybe things can be different, and we have the example of the handling of the recent alleged terrorist plot in Great Britain to show us the way. Routine perusal of international bank transactions first cast suspicion on a few people; over time, evidence was gathered; eventually British intelligence had infiltrated the conspirators' group to the point that they wanted to wait as long as possible so as to ensnare as many accomplices and participants as possible. While it may be true that British law is more "nimble" in dealing with terrorist threats than our laws, it is equally true that the Brits didn't resort to sidestepping their own courts in order to obtain warrants for searches and wiretaps. As that raving liberal George Will has recently argued, John Kerry was right to argue that terrorism is most effectively treated as primarily a law-enforcement matter: it was chiefly domestic law enforcemnt and not military action in the Middle East, after all, that led to the exposure and arrest of these men. Would that all those running for office in this election and those to come would seize this moment to point out this undeniable fact.

But: it was the Bush Administration's wish that these plotters be arrested sooner rather than later, and they got their wish. Sure: no doubt the administration thought they would seize a political advantage in doing things this way, but that rushedness is also a telling manifestation of what the One-Percent Doctrine hath wrought: little desire to make as strong a legal case as possible for taking action against individuals, or organizations, or nations, with results that have tended to be either laughably embarrassing (that group in Miami apparently more immediately intent on getting boots and uniforms from Al-Qaeda than on blowing up stuff) or so profoundly destructive not only of other nations but of our own nation's ideals and international reputation as to be something that will take decades to recover from (Iraq).

So, as an alternative to the One-Percent Doctrine, I'd like to propose the Ninety-Nine-Percent Doctrine as a way of conducting the life not only of individuals but also of nations. If we can hyperbolically summarize the One-Percent Doctrine as "Shoot first, ask questions later," we can equally-hyperbolically summarize the Ninety-Nine Percent Doctrine as "Walk as though you have a gun and will use it." In other words, Walk with alertness and confidence, exuding the attitude that you have right (and thus might--that is, the strength of truth) on your side. No swaggering--that is arrogance--and no rapid walking or swerving--that is fear. Walk like you know where you're going, your directional and moral compasses guiding you, and walk like you will not be deterred from reaching your destination. Bad, even evil things WILL happen, yes, but their happening is your fault only if you've been negligent or have let other factors (money, politics) sway you from doing what you know is for the greater good.

Of course, the corollary--the remaining one percent--is: if your course of action is shown to be in error, be willing to acknowledge that and change accordingly.

It's a commonplace that the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize. I submit to you that the One-Percent Doctrine is tantamount to acknowledging that the terrorists have succeeded in their goal, at least as far as the present administration is concerned. The Ninety-Nine-Percent Doctrine in effect declares that what should rule us is not fear but the desire to proclaim and--more importantly--live by our most deeply-held values as individuals and as a nation.


Raminagrobis said...

I suggest we all adopt the 'seven percent solution'. Should help a lot with the 'alertness and confidence', not to mention the 'attitude that you have right on your side'.

Sorry, that remark was an unforgiveably flippant response to a very sensible post.

John B. said...

Naah--don't sweat it. I was a bit flippant in there as well. I mean, channelling Coleridge to help describe a mugging? But doing things in this manner seems so obviously the right way--or at least far better than what we've been doing--that it's hard not to be flippant. Or really, really angry at the monumental obtuseness and recalcitrance of my country's elected and appointed officials. Or both.

Sine.Qua.Non said...

You've been dittoed!

R. Sherman said...

Thought provoking as always and I'm afraid my comment will be too long. For now, it seems to me the difference in approaches is predicated on the assumption that the bad guys can/cannot be deterred.

In other words, the one percent solution, presupposes that deterrence is ineffective and therefore, all threats must be extinguished. The ninety-nine percent solution presupposes that deterrence works.

It seems then, that the first question to be answered is precisely that: Can bad guys be deterred. If the answer is "yes," we move on to methods. If it is "no" then that opens up a completely different inquiry.

I need to think about this some more.


Aunty Marianne said...

What you want, is a swordstick. Absolutely no use, and could even be counterproductive for self-defence purposes.

But oh! the swagger factor.