Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Too many mousetraps, not enough mice

Skdadl at the liberal blog, "Peace, order and good government, eh?" urges that

"We should be building up archives of cases like this one, where it is clear that the judgement of intelligence and/or police agents in many Western countries is affected, often adversely, by the (forgive me) paradigm shift many were ordered to make after 9/11. Even police agents -- like the RCMP and the FBI -- were encouraged to think of counterterrorism as their new priority, their new context, which has meant in practice that many previously well-trained criminal investigators have begun to behave more as though they were intel people, looking for "actionable intelligence" that could be used "pre-emptively," than as investigators looking for solid evidence that could be taken forward to a successful prosecution.

There is a difference. Any innocent may have actionable intelligence, and I mean to return to this problem in a post about Omar Khadr and the other members of the CSIS Seven (my count so far). Criminal investigations are much more disciplined (or are supposed to be), and don't head down the road to abuse and torture anywhere near so obviously.

Skdadl goes on here =>, and the link to The Guardian is helpful. However, it seems to me that Yezza's story, and Khadr's and Maher Arar's etc both occur and resonate with us for a combination of reasons, of which it will be useful to identify as many as possible.

In an era of general overproduction, the goods and services most in excess are those of a military nature. Never before have trained military manpower, security-related information or warfare hardware existed either in such numbers or value-added technically and otherwise to such an extraordinary degree. This at the same time that the number of wars on the planet is lower than it has been in a long time--maybe ever.

At the risk of harping on the issue, this can, at least loosely, be construed as a kind of market failure, i.e., a failure of supply and demand to self-regulate. Still, it is the tendency to self-regulate that produces a strong internal dynamic--not just a psychopathology, but a social pressure. It is not just a case of having only a hammer. It is a case of being buried in hammers, of being not only incapable of solving problems other than those solved by hammers, but of being unable to find nails for all those hammers and hammerers and their plans and other ideas for and about hammering.

Too many better mousetraps, not enough mice, so that anything resembling a mouse, or suspected of resembling a mouse, or even studying something resembling a mouse, or aiding and abetting someone studying something suspected of resembling a mouse, will do. Anything to feed the trap.

There is, to put it plainly, not enough war to go around, a situation very similar, or so I think, to the first decade of the Twentieth Century.

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skdadl said...

Hello, WR (I wish I knew what to call you). I enjoyed reading that, and in fact I think you've gone deeper than I did.

When I get angry, I have a tendency to put a lot of things down to macho posturing, but your analysis is probably more fair, certainly more fresh, and it has made me stop to think.

So thank you very much, and we'll ... continue to think.

Jim Terral said...

You can call me Jim. Your comments come to me at jimterral at gmail.

I wouldn't rule out macho posturing at all. It is one of the click stops in our character. War is one of the traditionally "meaningful" activities that we inherit as part of our biology. Macho posturing helps us get into it.

What worries me just now is that the surfeit of hammers etc pushes men (and women) who are otherwise rational and even relatively calm through a series of clicks--which includes macho posturing, belligerent bellowing, scapegoating, self-righteous crusading, war frenzy, etc--in a more or less blind search for meaning (or crude substitute for a meaningful enemy to make the economic uncertainty go away--or the fear that our airplane will blow up before it arrives, etc).

With a lot of concentration, we might be able to navigate this period of declining warfare through a series of steps between the clicks to calmer seas.

Unfortunately, our politically most effective rhetoric takes us in the opposite direction from click to click.

Thanks for picking this up. It makes us all think about it, discuss it, which is a crucial and neglected aspect of our current dilemma.

Purple library guy said...

Of course one ironic thing is that this massive proliferation of mousetraps, while excellent at catching things that are "aiding and abetting someone studying something suspected of resembling a mouse", aren't actually much good for catching mice.

Which arguably brings us back to market failure. What we have basically, somewhere at the back of it all, is people who want to make lots of money. In an environment where a combination of advertising (technically media spin, but basically it comes down to advertising) and corruption allows these people to arrange for lots and lots of product to be bought, but there's little actual need for the product, the tendency is not to bother making products that actually do anything useful. That might cut into profits. So, lots of mousetraps being bought, no mice so you'd notice, it doesn't matter a whole bunch if the trap can actually catch mice, now does it?
As they said in Robocop about the worthlessly malfunctioning killer robot, "I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209. Renovation program. Spare parts for the next decade. Who cares if it worked or not?"
But the people using the toys still need to justify their existence. So they catch something with them, generally something easy to catch. The innocent are easier because they don't realize they're supposed to be hiding. Could be a new motto for antiterrorist groups: "The guilty flee when none pursue, so go after targets that move a bit slower."