Is large scale incompetence terrorism? Ok, quite a blustery, overstated title. Iâ€™m not talking about the guy at work who, after struggling for three years, still doesnâ€™t know how to print documents from his computer nor the â€œprofessionalâ€ copy dude who still canâ€™t copy double-sided printouts. Nor am I talking about retail clerks who canâ€™t make change, but somehow accepts â€œPLEASE CHECK IDâ€ as a valid signature. Read your Visa contract to learn what the signature on the back of the card is for — it isnâ€™t for security, itâ€™s to accept the terms of the contract! The clerks are supposed to check the signature to verify you have accepted the contract terms so the store will get paid. Thatâ€™s the idea anyway. â€œPLEASE CHECK IDâ€ is not a valid signature unless it happens to be your actual signature, which is why they are supposed to check your ID too. If your driverâ€™s license also says â€œPLEASE CHECK IDâ€ you should be fine. But remember, these folks are not typically security nor handwriting experts, so you can usually get away with anything and frequently do — since they donâ€™t know why they are checking signatures and IDs in the first place. Which perhaps makes the â€œretail clerk checking IDâ€ phenomenon closer to the main theme of this article than I anticipated. Take a look at this amusing slashdot article and accompanying story for a distracting anecdote along these lines.
Anyway, as you can probably imagine, Iâ€™m talking about government agencies and professional organizations whose job is to worry about a certain class of problems and projects, the consequences of which have far-reaching public safety and security elements. Yet, when it comes time to deliver (or not deliver, depending on the context), they bungle it like total amateurs causing widespread chaos indistinguishable from terrorism.
That last bit is the real issue. We are talking about a kind of Turing Test for Terrorism here: when is the result of an event, without knowing the details, indistinguishable from an act of terror?
The wonderful, brilliant, adjective-laden movie Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, uses this idea of systematic incompetence-as-terror as a subtheme for his story. The government of that worldâ€™s alternative present convinces the citizens that terrorists are, amongst other things, screwing up the Ducts, blowing things up, and otherwise making things very difficult for Central Services. The government justifies extreme draconian measures against the citizenry (who largely accept their sheepish role) and act through the Ministry of Information based on these â€œterroristâ€ activities. But in that world there are no terrorists, except other people who are running around getting killed for trying to tell other people there are no terrorists. The â€œterrorâ€ in that society is simply the result of a very incompetent bureaucracy, their reactionary tactics, and the resultant wave of sloppy workmanship generated throughout that fascist movie world. The system is essentially eating itself through both extremely poor micromanagment and a misguided sense of self-preservation. It isnâ€™t even clear if people in the system (at all levels) actually know there are no terrorists — merely highlighting the level of incompetence.
The world of Terry Gilliamâ€™s Brazil is an extreme satirical case of our own. Even if you are open minded, one must acknowledge our world really has terrorists: small groups of desperate people with agendas trying to argue their case by making others suffer with sharply defined acts of arbitrary-timed violence. The terror element comes because of uncertainty in the form of physical and psychological warfare. Framed in this way, an act of extreme incompetence that leads to social chaos is terrorism because it plays off the latter “terror element” above. However, those that perpetuate terror in this way are not necessarily terrorists because this would implies there is an active effort to use terror to make a point or push an agenda.
The list is far from complete, but here are a few recent examples of â€œterror through incompetence.â€ Ironically, a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for this criteria is if someone in the media, government, or private sector feels inclined to actively â€œcomfortâ€ us with the knowledge that the act wasnâ€™t terrorism. They are, in short, saying â€œI know this looks exactly like an act of terror perpetuated by an intelligent agent with an agenda; but please donâ€™t worry: thank goodness it was just some act of extreme random incompetence within our own system.â€ Gosh, that gives me a real sense of the warm-fuzzies:
I-35 Bridge Collapse in Minnesota: â€œThe Department of Homeland Security said there was no reason to suspect that the collapse was the result of terrorist activity.â€ I take them at their word, but is that supposed to be a source of relief? Don’t worry, someone didn’t knock the bridge down out of spite. No, no, that’s just nuts. It just fell down on its own because of bad planning.
Northeast Blackout of 2003: Most of the northeastern US loses power for roughly 24 hours because the power company didn’t trim some trees and they had rotten backup systems. But donâ€™t worry, it isnâ€™t terrorism: â€œMore than two days later, the cause of the blackout was officially still under investigation, but the possibility of a terrorist attack had been uniformly dismissed only 20 minutes into the blackout.â€ I was in Lansing, MI when this hit and my first thought was, â€œif I were a terrorist, this is when I would act.â€ It demonstrated to me at the time that the “real” terrorists werenâ€™t organized or competent. If you canâ€™t take advantage of the initiative provided by a major chaotic power outage affecting 1/7th of the US population and 1/3rd of Canada, what kind of terrorist are you?
MacArthur maze collision and fire: Donâ€™t worry folks, I know it looks like Al Qaeda is at work here, but it was just a typical bad driver entrusted with navigating a well-engineered gentle turn with a truck full of highly explosive fuel. Whew. Thank goodness. Thatâ€™s a load off my mind.
Katrina: A hurricane is a hurricane. It is an extreme force of nature. What can you do? But we arenâ€™t talking about a natural disaster like an earthquake — which is totally random. In the case of a hurricane, you have a huge infrastructure of sophisticated meteorology pumping information for hours and days, all warning of extreme pending danger. There is nothing that can justify the incompetence of the government on virtually all scales in the aftermath: “Brownie, youâ€™re doing a heck of jobâ€™â€˜ pretty much says it all. Local rescue crews did their best, but the general preparations were frighteningly absent.
The statement â€œincompetence is terrorismâ€ is obviously silly hyperbole. But there is a point where the system fails us so regularly, we have to ask ourselves if, like in the movie Brazil, â€œterrorismâ€, as we usually define it, is just a small perturbation on the damage we are doing to ourselves through systemic incompetence.