What is wrong with this scenario:
A mass shooter has taken over a place full of people and are shooting as many as he can. The response from law enforcement is one that says waiting is the best option. That will ensure no one outside will get hurt and besides—the shooter has only so many bullets and will eventually run out.
I don’t think society would look upon that scenario with much enthusiasm–even though there is a kind of logic to it–it isn’t the kind of logic we would consider acceptable!
What is wrong with this scenario part 2:
Similar kind of situation but in this case, the mass killer is shot and immobilized by police who had took active action to stop him. The ensuing investigation found that the shooter, right before being immobilized by police, had already used up all his ammunition and so wasn’t a threat anymore. Condemnation of law enforcement then ensued for being too aggressive!
I don’t think most of society would consider this a relevant condemnation since that knowledge of the shooter’s ammo wouldn’t have been available until after the event was over—although there are a few, unfortunately, who would consider the actions of the police as possibly being too hasty!
These were the scenarios I thought about as examples summarizing the main “sense” of a book I just finished called:
“Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them” (Definitely a long title.)
One of the things the author tries to do is evaluate previous terror or terror-like situations which the US confronted, either during a short period of time or during longer periods such as wars. According to his view, most of the “answers” to those events should be considered overreactions which caused more harm than good. He advocates some of the things that can be learned from those situations which if repeated, may help society and the powers-to-be, handle things more wisely and patiently. That is fine–we can always learn and adjust strategies, etc. But I felt his judgments on those actions he disagrees with were too harsh due to the “purity” of hindsight!
Those “hindsight” parts of his analysis to me defy belief and really can make one wonder about the kinds of thinking taking place, even among intellectuals! One of his main thoughts is that the United States’ reactions to many world events were driven mainly by fear (and sometimes politics or the Press) and thus our “reactions” were instead “overreactions”. He then documents those things considered negatives which arose as consequences to those various responses as proof of the “wrongness” of the response! The natural question is whether there has ever been a perfect response to anything? I don’t think there really can be! Or is life just too messy for it to always be neat and clean and so the best we can do sometimes is do our best, even if it is from imperfect knowledge? I think so! It would have made the book more acceptable in my opinion, if he allowed a bit more latitude to the fact that no leadership is perfect.
His analysis ranges across many decades and includes the Cold War and its nuclear fears, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, 9/11, and a number of other incidences. And even our reaction towards Russia’s capabilities after putting the first satellite, Sputnik, into space ahead of us was actually an overreaction bordering on hysteria! Many others are mentioned in this book such as the 52 hostages held in Iran for 444 days and even our reaction to Pearl Harbor was too quick!
What the author does and it took a few pages to catch on, is that he is analyzing things with the benefit of hindsight, which is 20/20, as we all know! So he can say, using the event of 9/11, that American’s reaction of avoiding planes and instead returning to cars for traveling in the aftermath of 9/11, was wrong. First because the death rate from car accidents would increase due to more people traveling in cars and this would have even led to more people dying from car accidents than from the attacks themselves and secondly, the ability of terrorists doing another “surprise attack” would have been practically nil. So we should have known all that and kept flying as if nothing bad could happen later. It would be nice to have that kind of knowledge after disasters! But a basic thought is this, “How could we have known that right then?” We wouldn’t have, we didn’t know what was in place after that attack or how it was evolving—eventually we had better analysis but not at that moment.
His analysis of Japan and Pearl Harbor, which really leaves one scratching their heads after his analysis, continues this line of reasoning and he contends that a “cold war” would have been better in the long run than the trajectory which was taken. This is the epitome of his examples and illustrates the belief that leadership must somehow magically have access to the perfect kind of information, which under wise and patient contemplation will lead to the best course of action, which may just be to do nothing. That is the feeling igot from the book is that in many instances we would have been better off to just do nothing and let situations fizzle somehow on their own! But using Pearl harbor as an example against his reasonings, why would we have thought that not attacking Japan should have been a serious option? We weren’t inside the Japanese mindset, we couldn’t know all the weaknesses that a cold war may have exacerbated because their culture wasn’t our culture, we also couldn’t know if they would have kept on attacking at will if we did nothing, etc. etc.—we don’t have hindsight when something occurs now! But looking at the world right now from that event, I think that was the right choice to declare war on Japan!
Or maybe if the Japanese looked into their crystal ball and saw they would have lost then they wouldn’t have begun…and on and on…it goes! Maybe this author has one!
But here is the thing about fear and reacting and so forth—we don’t know what the future is until after it becomes the past, and then analysis can be made to improve responses when similar situations reoccur. So when things happen and responses follow, how is a society supposed to know if the path it takes is the absolute best path forward—it can’t and while wisdom and reflection should always accompany decisions which affect large groups of people, there will always be unseen consequences and there will always appear a possibly better way that could have been pursued, but wasn’t—hindsight does that to events! But that doesn’t mean that a different way would have been more successful—after all, we can’t repeat these things over in some kind of simulation! And the thing about decisions that have been made, and the outcomes have been rendered, is that one can never really know whether a different response would have been worse or not(except maybe on some rare occasion)–human nature and life is just too murky!
He analyses a number of situations like this and while those kinds of reasonings do have a place, he misses the point that those “in-the-moment” situations call for decisions to be made quickly and then one hopes that the best decision was made—that ambiguity in decision making will never change! To the author, leaders should have reflected but when something major occurs how much time are we allotted until we lose control of our choices? That is one of the things I think the author misses here and so comes across as a bit unfair. I am reminded of Israel which has endured thousands of rocket attacks. Many, if not most of those rockets land harmlessly in the desert regions, but when the sirens go off indicating a fresh attack the people still go for cover. Why do that if most miss? Because there may be a few that doesn’t and that is what you have to react to sometimes–the possibility.
Is that reacting from fear? If so, that is a reasonable fear which is alright to have. And do we really want to live in a society which becomes too scared to react because the “best” or “perfect” response may not be found and may be criticized because of hindsight? I wouldn’t! And of course we can have accountability and learn but I would rather not reach the place in which if I am trapped in a building with some mass shooter, that nothing is going to happen until the shooter runs out of bullets either.
If we as a society begin to question all our reactions as overreactions, then life will be different for a lot of us! It is easy to predict the past—this author was real good at it, but the here-and-now still needs to be dealt with and there isn’t always time to think about multiple scenarios!