Featured Article - The Challenger Accident: A Study in Poor Decision Making
Featured Article for January
The Challenger Accident: A Study in Poor Decision Making
A recent investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle into a murder on the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) raises some interesting ethical questions. In the course of covering a shooting death on the system, Chronicle reporters learned that the majority of the surveillance cameras on the BART trains are dummies, that is, non-working cameras designed to act as decoys and deter crimes. Police were able to capture images of the alleged shooter entering and leaving the car where the shooting occurred but had no footage of the actual shooting. This lack of surveillance footage led to the discovery of the decoy cameras. Based on a walking survey of BART trains, reports estimate that as much as three quarters of the cameras in the cars were decoys.
The use of dummy cameras is not unusual in the security industry; I’ve used them myself in internal investigations. However, it is not a common practice in the transportation industry and BART is taking considerable heat over the decision not to install working cameras in all cars. The agency received over $200 million in State and federal security funds since 2011 and is being criticized for not seeking additional funds for camera installations. BART does intend to upgrade its fleet in 2017 and all the new cars will have functional cameras that can be viewed in real time.
The decision to install decoy cameras has obvious ethical implications but a more interesting issue is the role of the Chronicle in breaking this story. Revealing a major security flaw in a transportation system could lead to increased criminal activity by removing a deterrent to bad behavior. There are also concerns it could increase the system’s exposure to terrorist attack. On the other hand, exposing the use of decoys has resulted in BART considering installing more cameras in existing cars prior to the scheduled fleet replacement. There is also the argument made by BART that the layered approach to security works; they were able to identify the alleged gunman even without footage of the actually shooting. This suggests that revealing decoy cameras may reduce deterrence but would not greatly affect the system’s ability to investigate criminal activity.
It’s an interesting question in journalistic ethics. Which is the greater good: helping maintain a system that provides deterrence but little real protection or exposing the system in order to force reform, accepting that it might lead to harm in the short term?
“The purpose of terror is to terrorize.” This quote by Lenin lies at the heart of any terrorist attack. We forget that ultimately terrorists do not have the capacity to win. What terrorist group, no matter how well armed or funded, can match the combined might of the world’s armed forces? Military victory is not the point, which is why military forces are seldom the target of such attacks.
We also make incorrect assumptions about terrorists, seeing them as a monolithic international conspiracy with a growing capacity to do us harm. The reality is that terrorist groups are fragmented and often act independent of any central authority. The goals of Da’esh in Syria are not the same as those of Boko Haram in Nigeria or the New Peoples’ Army in the Philippines. Nor are their methods all that sophisticated; they are well coordinated but use primarily small arms and explosives.
So if terrorists don’t actually intend to achieve a military victory, what do they want? Donald Rumsfeld expanded on Lenin’s quote saying, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. It’s to change the behavior of the people that are being terrorized.” The ultimate goal of terrorism is to create so much fear and anger that governments impose repressive measures and use violence against their own citizens, eroding popular support and eventually leading to violent political change. While no terrorist group may have successfully overthrown a state, terrorist groups have created conditions that led to the collapse of governments.
So how’s that working for them? Since 9/11 we have seen a significant erosion of civil liberties and surrendered many of our core values as Americans. We have established an intelligence bureaucracy so bloated that no one really knows how big it is or what is being done or left undone. We have sanctioned incarceration without trial, condoned assassination, and adopted torture as national policy. We have turned airline travel into a nightmare with security measures of questionable value. We have discriminated against our own citizens on the basis of their religion and national origin. We are seriously debating turning away refugees and increasing the government’s capability to spy on us by reducing our defenses against computer crime.
We have done this out of fear.
One of the benefits of soft targets is that it creates fear in the average person. We take it personally, “Hey, this could happen to ME!” We react emotionally and irrationally, forgetting that our chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is something on the order of 1 in 20 million. You are four times more likely to be hit by a bolt of lightning than be killed by a terrorist. It’s not about you. Get over it.
If we are truly at war with terrorism, we have to demonstrate our will to win by holding to those values that have made this country what it is. We have to accept that in a war there are always casualties. We cannot prevent every attack and no one can guarantee our complete safety, no matter how many freedoms we surrender. We need to recognize that as a country our capacity to absorb damage is greater than any terrorist can inflict upon us and that as long as we hold to our values, they can never win. We need to stop letting fear rule our lives.