Transformative Issues and Sensitive Social Mores

Riddle me this:  How do you simultaneously kill hundreds and injure thousands without weapons?

The prospect of artificially generated stampedes presents a challenging dilemma.  I often comment about how the subject matter is “undiscussable.”  It’s my contention that there are reasons why nobody is willing to touch the wireless equivalent of shouting FIRE in a crowded theater.

I customarily focus on four major aspects: plausible deniability, hypothetical litigation, the lose-lose proposition, and the inability to candidly speak about the notion of indiscriminately killing innocent civilians without conventional weaponry.  Ironically, the overriding solution is free — raising awareness about how cell phone transmissions can be used to create hysteria.  But the whole damn thing simply remains one big, intransigent paradox.  As daytime psychiatric talk show host Dr. Phil says, “you cannot fix what you’re unwilling to acknowledge.”  Deliberately manufacturing a cellular panic resulting in a real-world human stampede(s) is about as ugly as it gets.  Most people don’t wish to talk about speculative mass casualty events, especially ones that involve trampling and suffocation.  Why?  Because by its very nature, the conversation is an incredibly uncomfortable one.  It trends undiscussable.

Perhaps instead of regurgitating my concerns about this specific cyberthreat, let’s analyze it from the framework of a few security, safety and social issues which have had a historically bumpy ride.  The social mores which govern many of these discussions have this ingrained psychological resistance which permeates throughout society.  Most people just “know better” than to say something exceedingly controversial, something that could only be meant to antagonize or inflame the general public, or even worse, inflict financial damage, appear conspiratorial or “put an idea in someone’s head.”  Sometimes there’s stuff you just can’t talk about.

AR-15s and mass shootings — The recent February 14, 2018, Parkland, FL school tragedy left 17 dead and 15 injured.  Here’s a suggestion you’d be unlikely to hear on the national news.  During interviews with politicians and investigators, it’s doubtful any of them would offer up a substantial shift from established policy.  That, for the greater good and to serve as a future deterrent… in the rare instances of civilian mass shootings, it might actually be a good idea to broadcast still photos, and if possible, video footage of the carnage.  Anybody who offered up such a sick suggestion would surely be condemned for such callous indifference to the victims.  But let’s be honest.  If Americans were physically exposed to the human bloodbath, their outrage would grow accordingly and they’d be more inclined to demand action.

It’s possible you might hear someone ask, “Why is it illegal for a 19 year old to buy a beer, but perfectly legal for them to buy a gun?”  However, no competent analyst would utter the same question with greater specificity.  “Why is it illegal for a 19 year old to buy a Bud Light, but they can go into any Walmart and buy an AR-15?”  Although technically accurate, such a statement would unfairly demonize Walmart and Anheuser Busch.  And yes, I’m aware that Walmart discontinued the sale of AR-15s a few years ago.

The media will often report that a shooter had “known psychological problems” and a “disturbing history.”  But if asked to identify the specific brand of anti-psychotic medication they had a prescription for (Zyprexa, Risperdal, etc.), the conversation suddenly goes silent.  Why?  Well, the pharmaceutical industry would be incensed.  Because their corporate image would be irrevocably tarnished.  The major networks are well aware of this.  They’ll report the news, but will never take that additional step.  Why?  Well when over half of the commercials on tv are drug-related, let’s just say, you tell me.  Hint: it’s about money.  The rationale for this is generally unspoken but widely known.  Justification for such policy is discreetly referred to as “the way of things” or as a “necessary evil.”

We’ve witnessed mass shootings at churches, schools, movie theaters, military bases and so on.  So what about a maternity ward or an assisted living facility or a kindergarten bake sale?  What’s to prevent someone from hypothesizing?  Delicate social mores would likely preclude most professional news personalities from broaching this darker angle.  But on the other hand, these days the media is increasingly a free for all environment.  By their very nature, scenarios involving extreme gun violence and mass slaughter are too incendiary.  It’s nearly impossible to have a calm and measured debate about gun control.  Following every mass shooting, you’ll often hear that “now is not the time.”  We need to respect the survivors and give everyone an opportunity to grieve.  Distractions often involve prayers and condolences.  Diversions might include wearing wristbands, lighting candles or changing the discussion to focus on violent video games, post traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues.  Ever hear this one?  That the only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun… is a good guy with a gun.  Or the all-too-familiar… guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Even more disconcerting, how on earth can you have an informed discussion about guns without mentioning the actual word “gun?”  Semantics and talking points almost always dominate arguments involving the Second Amendment.

Regrettably, the impetus for legislation with regard to public safety and national security, often involves large numbers of people being killed under “tragically preventable” circumstances.  You’ll rarely hear people mention this uncomfortable notion, but I can assure you, there’s plenty of historical evidence to back it up.

Airplane crashes — There’s a dirty little secret in the airline industry.  Before the next 747 disappears in the ocean, you might be shocked to know, that if they really wanted to, the airline industry could pinpoint a plane’s exact location.  The FAA could mandate that planes be equipped with more frequent real-time monitoring and geo-location homing beacon devices.  In the scheme of things, the technology is relatively cheap.  But the airlines don’t want it.  In the event of an actual airplane crash in the middle of the Pacific, this would be bad for business.  In most cases, a credible salvage operation would likely cost billions and bankrupt the company.  The airline industry operates on very tight operating margins.  Just ask TWA after Flight 800 was retrieved from the Atlantic.  But why won’t someone else raise the issue?  Well it probably wouldn’t be helpful to the government, the airline sector, the employees, the stockholders, even the passengers.  If you take an objective look, it would be a lose-lose proposition for just about everyone with skin in the game.

Gambling — Ever notice the pervasiveness of gambling?  Video poker machines, church bingo, office pools, the stock market, the lottery, etc.  It would appear that certain types of gambling are here to stay.  Some are even sanctioned and promoted by the state and federal government.  But if you want to place a wager on an NFL game?  Well, for the most part, that would be unacceptable.  So why the discrepancy?  Decades of restrictive, entrenched gambling laws, the complexities of addiction, resistance from organized crime, and so on and so forth.  The forces that be often derail any meaningful dialogue.

Cigarettes — Finally after decades of obfuscation, outright denial, bait & switch, and other tactics, the tobacco industry was hauled into Congress in 1994.  Top executives from the 7 largest tobacco companies were asked point blank if they thought that nicotine was addictive.  One by one, they all replied negative.  I think it’s reasonable to conclude that all of them knew they were lying.  But really, what choice did they have, with the existence of the entire industry hanging in the balance?  What’s the lesson to be learned?  Regardless of the potential fallout, sometimes it’s necessary to “toe the corporate line.”

Human Sex Trafficking and the Catholic Church Molestation Scandal — The sexual exploitation of children is universally regarded as the ultimate heinous act.  It often defies description.  Many impacted would rather remain oblivious or “sweep it all under the rug.”  Quite often, the fallout will ensnare those who had knowledge or should have known, but failed to take any action.  This was clearly evidenced by the high profile resignations surrounding the Sandusky scandal at Penn State University and the Nasser Olympic gymnastics scandal at Michigan State University.  Sometimes, the solution for a horrible predicament is cowardly silence.  People just try to ride it out and hope for the best, hoping the story will exit the news cycle and just fade away.

Forest Fires — Only you can prevent forest fires is the longest running public safety, government sponsored awareness program.  Congress even created an endearing mascot to help spread the word.  Smokey Bear.  Why?  Because in the face of repeated wildfires and environmental devastation, to maintain a position of willful ignorance was deemed inexcusable.  However, back in the mid 1940’s, when the legislation was taken up in Congress, many feared that by making the conversation public, our enemies, both foreign and domestic, might start deliberately setting forest fires.  Hey, it’s a valid concern.  Because there’s an upside and a downside to any major course of action… or inaction.  Paradoxes like this are quite common with public safety issues of tremendous consequence.

Abortion — There was a time when you couldn’t even mention the word abortion.  Instead, you’d hear the phrase “she took care of it.”  The legality to obtain an abortion varies on a state by state basis, from the first trimester to the second trimester to the late term.  Other considerations: rape, incest, life of the mother.  And of course there are the issues of parental consent, birth defects and the viability of the fetus.  When religious sensibilities intersect with political litmus tests, things can get pretty heated.  For much of the conservative coalition, this conversation will never be adequately resolved until abortion is completely illegal.  For them, it’s the equivalent of murder.  Go figure that matters of life and death would be a hot-button social issue.  When stark battle lines are drawn, the range of discourse is greatly diminished.  Those at the forefront do not wish to hear or be exposed to alternative viewpoints.

9/11 — Prior to 9/11, if you claimed that civilian planes were susceptible to being hijacked by suicidal martyrs and rammed into high profile targets, you’d likely be dismissed as a lunatic with a vivid imagination, possibly in need of psychiatric counseling.  But these epic moments in time, these black swan events, have a way of instantly changing the narrative.  Naturally, government inertia kicks in as society alters course and humanity adapts to a new trajectory.  More importantly, the topic and its surrounding sub-issues become available for public consumption.  Tragedy inspires action.  The greater the devastation, the greater the momentum.

In response to 9/11, our government created the Department of Homeland Security.  You’re likely familiar with its overriding mission statement — “If you see something, say something.”  Hey, it’s a great slogan.  Straightforward and direct.

But how does that spiffy jargon apply to a hypothetical, asymmetric cyber-disaster?  Even worse, one that’s generically predictable with a discernible inevitability in play?  History screams that Americans will dutifully suppress their intellectual curiosity while government and private industry faithfully hold steadfast to a course of complicit inaction.  Until…