Society is not a machine

Published 9:29 pm Monday, October 7, 2013

By Joseph L. Bass

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 9/11.

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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 Jan. 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 Oct. 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 hijacking, restrictions on passengers increased, along with passenger screening, screening technology and cost. The result of this was that the time span between hijackings increased, but the death rate per hijacking also increased.

By 9/11, passengers were screened with expensive, advanced technology but were still allowed to carry small pocketknives. On a business trip in the mid ‘80s, I was given a small bottle of wine after I used my Swiss Army knife to open a package for a flight attendant.

Following 9/11, 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 see nude images of passengers. All of this focuses on attempting to create a weapons-free aircraft.

But is this necessary? Is it the right approach?

The effort assumes the social environment is like a machine. The effort assumes all air safety problems involve unnecessary weapons. According to this thinking, the safest environment is a weapons-free aircraft. No social factors are considered.

Prior to 9/11, passengers were cautioned not to interfere with hijackers. “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 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. They were too late attacking the hijackers to save themselves, but they saved thousands on the ground.

Following 9/11, passengers and crew ignore government’s myth and attack hijackers 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 government wants us to ignore. Weaponless environments and people who 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 who attempt to kill others.

Joseph L. Bass, Ed.D., is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at