Sunday, April 29, 2012
How Safe Are We?
Those who advocate that armed forces at every street corner increase the security and safety of the nation, must feel safe and secure when traveling through the city’s streets, malls and train stations. Special police units in blue uniform randomly search your bags; Army forces in desert camouflage, holding submachine guns, watch your every movement. DHS, metro police, HPD, TSA, helicopters hover above the city, can we ever feel any safer?
But how much do you trust these armed-to-the-teeth guys, or is it only a big Hollywood production? I am not talking about bad intentions, abuse of power or civil liberty – unlike the regular, mostly rude, NY police force – they seem reasonably nice. You can have a chat with them, ask a question, or even exchange a joke or two.
But do you trust that at time of need they will be able to perform their job? I have my doubts.
According to the American, Adam Smithian, pin-factory doctrine, it’s the system, rather than the individual, that creates value. Individuals are cheap and replaceable. This trend has started decades ago in the manufacturing sector, but with the advance of computers and automation, this trend has proliferated to all walks of life. More and more we suffer deteriorating services because employees, who has no authority to make any decision, provide no better job than a computer terminal with semi-decent software. No wonder that such employees show no interest in their jobs, and believe that following orders – as if they are incapable of thinking for themselves – is the only way to fulfill their duty. After all, any other behavior is a sackable offense.
While in some areas this trend can improve efficiency, in others it may lead to disastrous results. For example, when I took a flight over the New Year eve, the security guard spent over ten minutes examining each of the four passengers who boarded the plane in the empty terminal. When I asked, why he was spending so much time on each of us, he explained that as he had an hour to check passengers, the less passengers there were, the more time he had to spend on each. He was not interested in the safety of the plane. After all, that was not his job. His job was simply to check passengers.
So what has it got to do with the safety of Manhattan?
The other day, on 33rd street – a station I did not know – I needed to change from the subway to the Path train. I approached a group of soldiers securing the station to ask for direction. “Path?” they asked. “Never heard of it.” Kindly they called another group not far away. “I don’t think it runs from here anymore,” another said. It took another few minutes of discussion over the radio when they eventually figured out that it was just around the corner, and was still running, as it had for years. The Path, by the way, is one of the main lines that connects Manhattan and New Jersey; 33rd Street is not a big station. They clearly did not know the ground.
The first thing a military force does when it reaches a new place is to familiarize itself with the grounds. These guys had not. It was not their job. So what would happen if at time of emergency they needed to get themselves from one point to the next? What happened if lights turned off, of if place was full of smoke? These armed forces, would not have found their way.
Often, the only way to deal with emergency is to think independently. But this is against what these guys were trained to do. I just hope that my life will never depend on their abilities.