TCS Daily

A Pack, Not a Herd

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 30, 2002 12:00 AM

So the snipers that paralyzed and terrorized the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area are caught now. But it's worth thinking about how they were caught. After repeatedly slipping through the fingers of law enforcement, John Muhammad and Lee Salvo were caught because leaked information about the suspects' automobile and license number was picked up by members of the public, one of whom spotted the car within hours and alerted the authorities - blocking the exit from the rest area with his own vehicle to make sure they didn't escape. "You can deputize a nation," said one news official after the fact.

Yes. With proper information, the public can act against terrorists - often, as we found on September 11, faster and more effectively than the authorities. The key, as Jim Henley noted, is to "make us a pack, not a herd."

The problem is that this goes against the very grain of intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, and so on. Within bureaucracies in general - and doubly within intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies - information is power, and power isn't something you want to share. And if you deputize a nation, doesn't that make the official deputies just a little bit less special?

The problem with this mindset is that it's all about bureaucratic turf, and not about getting the job done. Otherwise we'd have learned the lesson long ago. As Canadian journalist Colby Cosh remarks:

I'd have thought the Unabomber case would have taught police, I don't know, everywhere that it is better to be liberal than stingy in releasing information to the public. Remember the Unabomber - the serial killer who was caught because his prose style was recognized? Yeah, that guy. If Charles Moose and his merry men had actually succeeded in sitting on the information they wanted sat upon, Muhammad and Malvo might have been popping another D.C.-area shopper's head like a grape while you read this. Keep this in mind as you hear their police work praised in the days to follow.

That's a bit harsh, but to the point. There are good reasons police might want to keep some kinds of information confidential - they need details that will let them screen out calls from nutballs other than the real killer (though that didn't work very well in this case) and they don't want to create an unnecessary panic or start an orgy of finger-pointing and suspicion. These are worthy purposes, but like any virtue, they become vices if overdone, and police are overdoing them.

In fact, it seems pretty clear that the authorities, overall, view the citizenry as a herd, not as a pack. They see ordinary people as sheep, with themselves in the role of shepherd. Without close supervision, they assume, people will erupt into mob violence, or scatter in fear.

The evidence, however, doesn't support this approach. As sociologist Kathleen Tierney writes, the response of ordinary New Yorkers to the 9/11 attacks was "adaptive and effective:"

Beginning when the first plane struck, as the disaster literature would predict, the initial response was dominated by prosocial and adaptive behavior. The rapid, orderly, and effective evacuation of the immediate impact area - a response that was initiated and managed largely by evacuees themselves, with a virtual absence of panic - saved numerous lives. Assisted by emergency workers, occupants of the World Trade Center and people in the surrounding area helped one another to safety, even at great risk to themselves. In contrast with popular culture and media images that depict evacuations as involving highly competitive behavior, the evacuation process had much in common with those that occur in most major emergencies. Social bonds remained intact, and evacuees were supportive of one another even under extremely high-threat conditions.

What's more, such responses are typical, even though they often infuriate outsiders. For the government it's upsetting, because people aren't asking what to do. For the media it's frustrating, because there's no one in charge to interview. But we shouldn't assume that these frustrations have anything to do with effectiveness:

Effective responses to community crises often look messy from the outside, but that is part of what makes them effective. The failure to understand the emergence and complexity that is typical of major disasters often results in characterizations of disaster settings as chaotic and unorganized. Critical observers may express exasperation because "no one is in charge" - as if the activities of hundreds of organizations, thousands of small groups, and tens of thousands of individuals should be controlled in real-time by some single individual or overarching entity. These kinds of comments are often rooted in inappropriate militaristic command-and-control images of disaster management and in a mistrust of non-elites and non-experts. All such criticisms fail to appreciate the strengths of situationally-driven, problem-focused, locally-based, and improvisational response strategies like those observed in New York on September 11 and in the days that followed.

So while Chief Moose and the other talking heads were holding press conferences in which they castigated the press for reporting information, they should have been figuring out how to take advantage of the vast resources that a mobilized public can command. But the officials didn't want to, for fear of "vigilantes". Luckily for them, a leak saved the day.

Regardless of whether or not the D.C. snipers count as "terrorists" under your particular definition (they do under mine, but the authorities seem to be shooting for a much narrower standard) there seems little question that in coming weeks, months, and years we're going to be dealing with a lot of fast-moving, dispersed threats of the sort that bureaucracies don't handle very well. (Every domestic-terrorism victory so far, from Flight 93 to bringing down the LAX shooter to spotting the D.C. killers was accomplished by non-law-enforcement individuals, after all). Rather than creating new bureaucracies, we need to be looking at ways of promoting fast-moving, dispersed responses, responses that will involve members of the public as a pack, not a herd. Even if doing so reduces the career satisfaction of shepherds.

As David Brin says:

Amid all the noise and posturing, nobody proposes enhancing the one thing that actually worked well on that awful day. What appears to have worked, was the initiative and resourcefulness of common men and women. This may be hard to credit, or even to perceive. Throughout the 20th Century, the trend in our culture was monotonic, toward ever-increasing reliance on protection and coddling by institutions, formally deliberated procedures and official hired guns... none of which availed us at all on September Eleventh. Rather, events that day seem to suggest a reversal, toward the older notion of a confident, self-reliant citizenry.

Of course it's too early to forecast a major counter-trend. But indications are provocative. Rather than diminishing the role of the individual, advances in technology seem to be rapidly empowering average citizens, even as professional cynics forecast freedom's demise.

I hope that people in Washington are paying attention to this. But the evidence so far isn't too encouraging.



1 Comment

Highly specific area that pack works better than a herd
I am an anesthesiologist and have observed this in my OR. Rather than having an anesthesiologist &/or surgeon in charge barking out orders to do this or that, my observation is that the personnel(nurses, surg. techs,CRNAs, support personnel) in the OR functions best in an emergent situation allowing them to do what they know only with guidance rather than a hierarchical controlling manner. I have been in practice nearly 20 years and have observed partners with very controlling method of dealing with an emergency and more fluid guidance techniques-I do not have survival numbers between the two methods, but my guess is that better ideas of how to treat patients as well as personnel performance under a stressful situation by being less controlling with barking orders than by guiding and allowing different treatment methods to bubble up through the individuals in the room. This makes sense because the combined knowledge and experience of individuals in the room are huge as opposed to one individual's. The critical decision making comes into play when there are forks in the road as to which direction in treatment needs to be made and that is one of the few places where someone in charge to make that decision needs to take the bull by the horns. This focuses on a much smaller and specialized area, however, I think your premise of individuals and small groups functioning better than bureaucratic structures stands. I also work in Guatemala and China on mission trips that exemplify similar systems of allowing individuals freedom to express and implement ideas and solutions to problems that work best rather than hierarchical bureaucratic structures.
Side note-I am an avid reader of your Instapundit blog and very much liked your book-Army of Davids! Thanks for all your work!

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