Mutual Assured Destruction

From the 1981 Sci-Fi Classic "Scanners"
From the 1981 Sci-Fi Classic “Scanners”

Humor me for a bit and engage in a little Sci-Fi thought experiment. Just suppose a technology was invented in the near future that allowed you to kill with your mind.

Let’s put some constraints on this. No exploding heads (ala “Scanners“), but maybe something subtle like stopping the heart. No mess, no fuss, they just drop over dead. Let’s further say that this cannot be by accident. It requires a brief but sustained and specific intent toward a specific individual, and this person must be within 25 yards.  Let’s also add in that during the attack, the attacker will have glowy eyes so that anyone around can see who is acting, and that the attack will leave an unmistakable fingerprint on the victim so that the attacker will be known. Only one person can be attacked at a time, but there is no “recharge” time so multiple people could be taken out serially. Also, any action is immediate and final.  No second thoughts, no “Do you really want to delete this life?” confirmation screens. Once started, the deed is done.

Now, let’s say this is all available via a $200 implant to anyone of age. The implants are injectable by any competent tattoo artist, and most shops carry them.  As a result, the vast majority of the adult population is armed within a year. Full accountability. No accidents. No one is out-gunned. Everyone is equally lethal.

The question is, in this world, do you feel safe?

Is quite likely that rampage killings like Sandy Hook, Columbine, or Ft. Hood would be almost non-existent. If someone walked into a school and started taking out children, one of the adults would likely respond quickly and the damage would be contained.  There might be one or two deaths, but not dozens.

But what of the rest of your life? How many coeds would be killed for sleeping with someone else’s boyfriend? How many bar fights would end in dead patrons? How many divorces would actually see both parties survive to sign the final papers?

Did we learn nothing from the Cold War? Yes, the MAD strategy (Mutual Assured Destruction) was effective at deterring violence, but worked only because both sides took extensive precautions to prevent lone rash actors from initiating an attack.  At the individual level, mutual assured destruction does not have the same deterrent effect.  Yes, MAD may stop someone acting willfully and who is concerned about their own life. But people are not rational 24×7, and the means to act lethally on impulse is simply a power greater than the average person is responsible enough to wield.

This is the essential fallacy behind the NRA’s woefully misguided announcement today that the only solution to tragedies like Newtown are to put more guns in schools. That it is the lack of ubiquitous arms that is causing violence. That the solution is MAD.

The NRA is also right that the problem isn’t guns per se. It’s people. But there’s no good fix for “people”. Human nature has an inherent volatility and impulsiveness to it that will not be readily contained.

So I ask again, would you feel safer knowing that every teenager and old lady you meet on the street has the means to end your life, but is deterred by MAD? Or is that madness?

What if it were terrorists at the school?

Newtown's AngelsAs a nation, we mourn for the losses in the senseless Newtown, Connecticut school rampage last week. In the wake of that horrible tragedy we’ve seen many calls for action—calls for improved mental health services and screenings; calls for re-instituting the assault weapons ban; calls to change our culture of glorifying violence; and even calls like President Obama made last night to just do something to make this better.

On the flip side have been many voices shouting that this is not the time for discussion of solutions. They try to counsel that there is simply evil in the world and there’s nothing to be done about it beyond the coping, the grief, and the prayers that such things don’t happen again.

But I can’t escape the glaring hypocrisy of the position that now is not the time to act. Consider for a moment what those same voices would be saying if a Muslim terrorist cell had raided that school and killed those children instead of a local white man.

As a country we have been all too eager to spend money and lives as well as sacrifice all manner of personal freedoms in the interest of keeping our families safe from the statistically small threat of foreign terrorism. And we sacrifice these things in almost knee-jerk reaction to events or near-events—consider 9-11, the underwear bomber, etc. We’ll let the government screen our calls and read our emails. We’ll let them illegally and indefinitely detain suspects, and perform so-called “renditions”. We’ll let them use torture as an interrogation technique. We’ll let them grope our wives and daughters prior to boarding a plane.  But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

But should the government want to provide medical services or restrict the ability for your neighbor to grocery shop while packing a semi-automatic pistol with a high capacity clip? Well, let’s not get crazy here. After all, this was just a troubled kid who went off the deep end. Shit happens.

But if that troubled kid looked Pakistani instead of like the guy next door? Well, shit would happen then too, but it would be different shit. And we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not to act. This is America dammit. And overreaction to a threat is what we do best.