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Dialogue and Airport Security

I hate flying. I really hate airport security. So flying in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt was galling beyond belief.

But I’m glad I went through the experience for one reason: it showed me disconnects in our thinking about the “war on terror”—and a role for dialogue in solving them.

Let’s start with the disconnect in security thinking. If the flaw behind the Christmas Day attempt involved a failure of attention and analysis in the intelligence community, why on earth would the solution involve extra searches and full-body scanners? Did federal security officials not think through this disconnect? If not, could the meeting of a broader diversity of minds in dialogue, however quickly conducted amid a crisis, serve as a powerful check on the flawed thinking that often accompanies a rush to action?

We’ve been discussing this on the NCDD e-mail list. One poster mentioned that internal government-agency meetings on security do include a broad spectrum of viewpoints, surely a key to productive dialogue. But political considerations get in the way. Imagine this: If intra-agency dialogue came up with a longer-term, more complex, but truly effective solution—the kind that the current situation may well demand—could it satisfy a public that demands more security now? Could our media, structured for brevity and simplicity, sufficiently inform the public to help them think through their demand? Would elected representatives be more likely to fall in line behind the solution or public opinion?

And so we end up with full-body scanners.

This points up the second disconnect in our thinking: the shibboleths that accompany crisis. With every security upgrade, we inevitably hear someone say, “If it saves one life, it’s worth it.” In a crisis situation, when fear is naturally rampant, it’s easy to fall in line with such noble but simplistic assertions. Repeated and broadcast often enough, these shibboleths end up setting the agenda for action.

The problem, of course, is that it’s nearly as easy to imagine the dangerous extremes to which such an approach could lead us (think of the acts committed in totalitarian regimes under the guise of security and stability).

So where do we draw the line? Such a collective problem could be well served by collective wisdom—the type that dialogue is designed to bring to light. By seeking the truth of the situation through an exchange of views, I believe, we can come to a more consensual, more reasonable, and more effective framework for addressing the situation than if we simply let the shibboleths take the lead.

Simplistic thinking rarely does justice to complex threats. Yet in a crisis, it is so easy to respond to one with the other. That’s when we need one another, and the dialogue between us, to help us act with cool heads and arrive at effective solutions.

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