Society is Not a Machine


We are better at solving technology problems than social problems. One reason for our continued failures is our attempts to solve social problems as if society were a machine. Consider attempted security measures associated with commercial air travel prior to and following “Nine Eleven.” 


As seen by the federal government and many Americans the core problem involved with safe air travel is the inadequacy of airport security. We continue to spend millions on such efforts, increasing taxes and the national debt.  But how effective is this? Are we doing the right things?


Prior to January 5, 1973, there was no airport security. There was no effort to prevent passengers from carrying weapons on board including handguns and knives. On that date all passengers and all carry-on luggage were required to be screened, and X-ray machines and metal detectors began to be installed in airports. Airlines were also required to post armed security officers at passenger-boarding checkpoints.

The pattern of such efforts was outlined in the October 1, 2001, issue of the New Yorker Magazine in an article by Malcolm Gladwill titled “Safety in the Skies.” As recorded in the article - with each additional high jacking restrictions on passengers increased along with passenger screening, screening technology, and cost. The result of this was the time span between high jackings increased but the death rate per high jacking also increased.


By “Nine Eleven” passengers were screened with expensive, advanced technology but were still allowed to carry small pocket knives. On a business trip in the mid-80’s I was gifted a small bottle of wine after I used my Swiss Army Knife to open a package for a flight attendant.


Following “Nine Eleven” restrictions increased again along with screening employees and technology. Passengers cannot carry the smallest of knives or any type of sharp object. The most advanced technology currently in use makes it possible for security to seen nude images of passengers. All of this focuses on attempting to create a weapon-free aircraft. But is this necessary? Is it the right approach?

 I think not because the effort assumes the social environment is like a machine. The effort assumes all air safety problems involve unnecessary weapons much like all machine problems involve the wrong parts being installed. According to this thinking, the safest environment is a weapon-free aircraft. No social factors are considered.


Prior to “Nine Eleven” passengers were cautioned not to interfere with highjackers. “Stay in your seat and government will make you safe.” This is in keeping with the myth that government can pass and enforce enough laws that will make self defense, self help unnecessary. Passengers and crews on three planes followed government’s myth; they and thousands of others died as a result. Passengers and crew on one plane recognized the false myth but were too late in attacking the highjackers to save themselves but they saved thousands on the ground.


Following “Nine Eleven” passengers and crew ignore government’s myth and attack highjackers or bombers. For example, Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber, was attacked after his intent was recognized. One passenger threatened to kill Reid with a fire extinguisher. This is the social factor that government wants us to ignore. Weaponless environments and people that believe in government’s myth are the real problem. The only way to create a safe environment is to allow weapons and promote the willingness of regular citizens to use them against those that attempt to kill others.

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© By Joseph L. Bass, EdD and Barbara P. Starkey-Bass - 2016