Belmont Club

Avoiding The Evitable

(UPI) — A psychiatrist treating James Holmes warned police her patient was dangerous 38 days before he opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, documents show.” Psychiatrist Lynn Fenton told ” told police officer Lynn Whitten that Holmes had confessed homicidal thoughts and was a danger to the public … Fenton also informed the officer Holmes had ended his appointments with her and had been sending her threatening text messages and emails.”

In retrospect everything is obvious. But what exactly is obvious is often a matter of dispute. For example, to some it will be  obvious from Fenton’s report that if only “high powered magazines” had been banned 38 days before the shooting then it would never have happened. If no one can get their hands on guns, then crazy people can’t get their hands on guns.

Or consider the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the underwear bomber. What can we learn from his attempt to blow up a Detroit bound airliner?

British intelligence officials sent the U.S. a cable warning about him. Abdulmutallab’s father spoke to two CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja and tipped them off about his own son. The British had barred him from entering the UK on national security grounds. Still he was able to board his flight and was in the process of igniting his explosive underwear when passengers stopped him. What does it prove? Commenting on Abdulmutallab’s guilty plea Attorney General Eric Holder said “today’s plea removes any doubt that our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight terrorism and keep the American people safe.”

Gee. I would never have thought of that.

Take Nidal Malik Hasan, otherwise known as the Fort Hood shooter, he had been in contact with a known terrorist personality for some time. Law enforcement was surveilling him. “In one of the e-mails, Hasan wrote [a terror personality named] al-Awlaki: ‘I can’t wait to join you’ in the afterlife. Hasan also asked al-Awlaki when jihad is appropriate, and whether it is permissible if innocents are killed in a suicide attack. In the months before the shooting, Hasan increased his contacts with al-Awlaki to discuss how to transfer funds abroad without coming to the attention of law authorities”.

So after Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood shouting “Allahu Akbar!”, the DOD commissioned a careful study to learn what had gone wrong. Their conclusion, as stated verbatim in the report was there was a “shortfall in policies and programs governing and preventing to workplace violence.”

So there you go.

It is commonly believed that men can learn from the past. Yet evidence suggests that people often heed only what reinforces their prejudices. Alduous Huxley once remarked “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”  He thinks we are unteachable. But observation shows a kind of directed progress in systems, so real learning is taking place in some fashion. How, if it is difficult or even impossible for many individuals and institutions to learn? How is bad information removed from the system?

One possibility is that bad information is removed by failure. Extinction may be nature’s way of learning. While some companies are able to correct their mistakes, many incompetent enterprises vanish by simply going broke. They get yanked off the stage by a hook, as in the old time singing contests. Bankruptcy is capitalism’s way of learning.

In the case of a bureaucracy, which does not respond directly to market forces, extinction may take a more indirect route. Bureaucracies accumulate minor screw-ups until they conflagrate in some massive meltdown that takes down the whole institution with it.

Then nothing is left but ash and the learning has taken place. This notion is captured in the idea “too big to fail” which actually appears to mean “too unresponsive to learn”. The system is structured so that it is incapable of failing in parts so when it eventually fails — it fails catastrophically and completely.

Interestingly TBTF institutions can therefore be treated as a sump of bad information. They are storage batteries of really stupid ideas. Institutions which are small enough to fail are limited in the amount of nonsense they can contain. Beyond a certain point they fail; and by failing often in small doses they remake themselves constantly. By contrast TBTF institutions can trundle along oblivious to reality, storing up wacky ideas like a giant charge until the whole thing goes up in a flash of lightning.

This is probably what happened to the Atlanta Public School system. For year after year it was touted as one of the best run public school systems in the country until the whole thing fell over. Thirty five high ranking educators, including the superintendent were recently indicted for engaging “a broad conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers in an effort to bolster student test scores and – as a result – receive bonuses for improved student performance.”

All the indicted educators are now out on bail. One moment they were being lionized in Atlanta. The next they were at the bail bondsman’s.

The APS behaved like a tremendous storage battery of lies and dishonesty. It never “learned” anything in Huxleyan sense. There was no subjective change in the minds of those who ran it. That kind of learning never took place. But the bad information was purged though, through extinction, that is to say via indictments on racketeering, theft and other crimes.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that the public will be glad to know that the pundits will now conclude that  Piers Morgan is right: if they’d only controlled guns the theater incident could have been avoided.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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