Why Are We So Bad at Detecting the Guilty and So Good at Collective Punishment of the Innocent?

GreatDayToFlyChristopher Hitchens writes on Slate:

It’s getting to the point where the twin news stories more or less write themselves. No sooner is the fanatical and homicidal Muslim arrested than it turns out that he (it won’t be long until it is also she) has been known to the authorities for a long time. But somehow the watch list, the tipoff, the many worried reports from colleagues and relatives, the placing of the name on a “central repository of information” don’t prevent the suspect from boarding a plane, changing planes, or bringing whatever he cares to bring onto a plane. This is now a tradition that stretches back to several of the murderers who boarded civilian aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, having called attention to themselves by either a) being on watch lists already or b) weird behavior at heartland American flight schools. They didn’t even bother to change their names.

So that’s now more or less the routine for the guilty. (I am not making any presumption of innocence concerning Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.) But flick your eye across the page, or down it, and you will instantly see a different imperative for the innocent. “New Restrictions Quickly Added for Travelers,” reads the inevitable headline just below the report on the notoriety of Abdulmutallab, whose own father had been sufficiently alarmed to report his son to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, some time ago. (By the way, I make a safe prediction: Nobody in that embassy or anywhere else in our national security system will lose his or her job as a consequence of this most recent disgrace.)

Read More of Christopher Hitchens on Slate

4 Comments on "Why Are We So Bad at Detecting the Guilty and So Good at Collective Punishment of the Innocent?"

  1. Hmmmm, detecting the guilty involves actual work, understanding current events, being tolerant of other beliefs, working well together and communications.
    Collective punishment of the innocent is quick, easy, and generates lots of jobs.
    I think that about sums it up.

    • Thanks for the summary markus, I think you are onto something…

    • I agree with Markus, but I would add: Detecting the guilty requires RESEARCHING the problem, THINKING it, ANALYZING it, and coming up with a solution – all which takes a lot of time. Collective punishment on the other hand is a quick knee-jerk reaction that requires no time or though, and hence, often implemented. Sometimes it makes sense when the collection is partially responsible (eg, complaining about how work shifts are traded), but in this case they just look like idiots.

  2. I think we have only an illusion of security… to calm our fears, keep people traveling / working / consuming… essentially to keep the economy from tanking even further. The terrorists will always work around whatever nonsense screenings we do while the rest of us are also screened, scanned, patted down, eventually prodded (?!). It's a huge expense to have such “security”, an ever-increasingly disquieting inconvenience, and an erosion of our civil liberties (I hate to think where that will lead.). I wonder who ran the numbers on it, but they must have decided that this “security” we have is cheaper than letting fears run rampant and causing a huge decline in air travel. (Kind of like those analysts that decide not to do a product recall because it's cheaper to let a few become injured or die tragically than to do the right thing and fix the problem on every item affected. I suppose it all boils down to a numbers game: in this case, keep commerce alive and fears at bay with the illusion of security.)

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