Some years ago, while working as a contract security professional for a company I will not name in a Midwest town I will not specify, I was taken aback upon learning that a particular client site was an effective time bomb. The industrial facility lay at the heart of an urban center, unprotected by so much as a fence, within a short stroll from the nearest residence. On the premises was a number of chemical storage tanks, the contents of which I was told were so volatile that a properly configured explosion could result in devastation across state lines. Yet, there it sat in the open, protected far more by its inconspicuousness than any active security effort.
Such vulnerabilities are legion, cloaked in a shroud of public ignorance, protected by the fact that few know they exist or precisely how to exploit them. It is only when someone finally does the unthinkable that a particular vulnerability rises in profile and is taken more seriously. In retrospect, should not all cockpit doors always have been locked? It seems a sensible precaution, yet it took the attacks of September 11, 2001, to prompt the policy.
So it always is in the realm of security. While we may be tempted to blame policy makers or responders rather than the perpetrators of criminal or terrorist acts, we must first pause to recognize that security precautions are not guarantees, but exercises in risk mitigation. Like insurance, security measures serve to minimize potentially costly probabilities. Like insurance, more and greater risks mitigated translate to more expensive and inconvenient premiums paid.
Another client from my contract security past told me that his company went years without employing professional protective services until a late-night fire nearly destroyed their facility, inflicting a cost into seven figures in property damage and lost productivity. The cost of hiring an overnight guard to monitor the facility was a drop in the bucket by comparison. Yet, the company only perceived the value of a guard after the fire.
Of course, there remain vulnerabilities at that and any worksite which a single overnight guard cannot effectively mitigate. Why not hire two guards? Why not employ them around the clock? Why not install state-of-the-art camera and alarm systems? Why not utilize turnstiles, metal detectors, and other security portals? Why not build an electrified ten foot high barbed wire fence around the perimeter patrolled by bomb sniffing K-9s?
The answer compares to that given when considering a Cadillac health insurance policy with no deductible and every conceivable coverage. It costs too much. Along with cost, security precautions tend to add layers of inconvenience which can frustrate productivity. Employees want to be safe, but not harassed or constantly surveilled. Managers want to maintain a safe and secure environment, but must mitigate cost as much as risk.
What manifests from this give and take, this tug of war between security and convenience, is compromise. In a hypothetical free market, insurance covers catastrophic risk while leaving policy holders vulnerable to smaller risks which they can effectively manage on their own. Companies invest in security measures which cost significantly less than the loss likely to occur without them. In either case, policy choices are made utilizing an educated guess at probabilities. Obviously, if you knew you were going to get cancer, you would make sure you had the coverage. Likewise, if you knew there was going to be a fire or a break-in, you would take whatever precautions necessary to prevent it. But you can’t know. So you factor in the probability and measure it against the cost of coverage.
It never fails, in the wake of a tragedy like this week’s Boston Marathon bombings, that people look to blame policy makers for failing to foresee the event or take what may — in retrospect — seem like adequate precautions. However, the truth is that possibilities are foreseen and their probabilities weighed against the impact of precautions.
Individuals, who remain as responsible for their own safety as ever, make these same calculations all the time. Should I run in the marathon, or not? Should I watch the marathon, or not? Should I fly to New York today? Should I take the train to work? Should I carry a handgun? Should I change the batteries in my smoke detectors? The possibility that something can go wrong never amounts to zero, and the precautions we take to mitigate risk are always considered by weighing costs and probabilities.
Surely, we can expect policies to change in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. The actualization of a probability always changes the security calculation. When you get into an accident, your car insurance premiums go up. When a tragedy like Monday’s occurs, the justifiable cost of security rises. Nevertheless, it remains true that no degree of precaution will ever fully prevent bad actors from inflicting harm. Safety remains elusive, and peace ever temporary. That said, we can control how we respond. Rather than submit to an irrational fear of inevitable tragedy, we should recommit ourselves to upholding the rights of every individual, enabling each to act upon his or her own judgment in pursuit of both their security and happiness.
What does that look like? Instead of a federal Transportation Security Administration, airlines could be tasked with ensuring their own security. They have the incentive. No airline wants to be known as the one whose passengers get blown up, nor do they wish to lose expensive aircraft or facilities. However, they also stand subject to other market pressures which would temper their security efforts with reason. In a free market, customers will only tolerate so much inconvenience, yet understand and appreciate reasonable precautions. A market compromise would prove far superior to the political and bureaucratic priorities imposed through government intervention.
The gun control debate, reignited by the Sandy Hook murders, offers another fine example. By maintaining the individual right to keep and bear arms, government enables its citizens to act upon their own judgment to effect their own protection. The best response time for law enforcement is measured in minutes, while the sequence of events during a murderous rampage is measured in seconds. Obviously, an armed teacher or staff member can react quicker during an incident at a school than law enforcement, potentially saving lives.
Of course, relying upon free individuals to take responsibility for their own security requires accepting the truth that bad things will happen. Gun control efforts and other statist prescriptions against violence seem to be informed by a utopian goal of eliminating tragedy from life. As citizens, if we wish to remain free to act upon our own judgment, we must never task our government with preventing tragedy. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all assume risk. That means that incidents like Monday’s bombing will occur, and we must accept their inevitability rather than expect government to somehow prevent it.
That does not mean we should passively allow ourselves to be attacked by bad actors. Individuals ought to retain the right to self-preservation, and government ought to retaliate swiftly and decisively against truly criminal acts. However, we can never protect our rights by restricting them. Turning government into the bad actor merely assures rights violations.