The value – and empowerment – of common citizens in an age of danger

The value – and empowerment – of common citizens in an age of danger

By David Brin, 2001

For a more wide-ranging essay, see Some Notes about Calamity…and Opportunity by David Brin.

America’s flexibility and resilience in the light of recent events has been wonderful. Author David Brin does a great job illustrating our strengths. The following article is very much in the powerful voice he used in his book, “The Transparent Society.” I think you’ll enjoy it.
– Brenda Cooper

Following America’s worst single day of violent death in this century, pundits have engaged in a relentless tag-team shouting match. Security experts call for new government powers and tighter restrictions, while civil libertarians shout back that we should courageously accept risk in order to prevent “Big Brother” from peering into our lives. While they jostle for air time, both groups are foisting some rather unsavory shared assumptions.

  • that there is a basic, zero-sum tradeoff between safety and freedom… we can only augment one by diminishing the other,
  • that the tragedies happened because of a “security breakdown” requiring stringent fixes by a protective government,
  • that only professionals have a role to play in coping with 21st century dangers.

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.

Assumption number one: the widely held belief in a tradeoff between security and freedom.

Let me begin by illustrating this belief with a clipping from the latest manifesto by that influential internet-jacobin, John Perry Barlow, one of the most American human beings I ever met. What he says below, with typical eloquence and drama, represents an opinion sincerely held by many of our brightest – if most excitable – peers.

As most of you know, I believe that the United States has gradually, subtly, invisibly to most of us, become a police state over the last 30 years. This morning’s events are roughly equivalent to the Reichstag fire that provided the social opportunity for the Nazi takeover of Germany. I am not suggesting that… the authoritarian forces in America actually had a direct role in perpetrating this mind-blistering tragedy. (Though their indirect role deserves a much longer discussion.) Nevertheless, nothing could serve those who believe that American “safety” is more important than American liberty better than something like this. Control freaks will dine on this day for the rest of our lives….Those of us who are willing to sacrifice a little – largely illusory – safety in order to maintain our faith in the original ideals of America will have to fight for those ideals just as vigorously.

Note how Barlow propounds that everything has happened ‘invisibly to most of us’… conveying the same implicit contempt for the masses that nearly all ideologues foster, across the entire political spectrum. It feels so good to be one of the few who see The Truth – a sensation relished by our own native fundamentalists, libertarians, marxists, free-marketers, postmodern leftists, as well as a great many regular Republicans and Democrats, differing only in who they credit with sight and who qualifies as sheep!

In other words, spanning all extremes of reason and morality, it’s human. Not only does Barlow share this general thrust with the security mavens and officials he opposes — the deep-down roots are similar to the terrorists’ own profound need to feel special and in-the-know, superior in some profound way over the clueless rabble. (In their case, it was through the certainty of religion.)

Note that I agree with Barlow more than I agree with the security mavens! If forced to choose between snug despotism and risky freedom, I’ll fight for the latter, at his side. But is this dichotomy real? Or is it just another excuse for smug disdain toward the hoi polloi?

In The Transparent Society I talk about how the very notion of a freedom/security tradeoff is rather dismal and loathsome. Moreover, it is disproved every day by this society of people who are (even after 9/11) simultaneously both safer and more free than any of their ancestors could imagine. Indeed, the two aims appear to prosper hand in hand.

My response is to point out all the cameras and cell phones… a gazillion of them in private hands… that documented everything on 9/11 far more accurately and with quicker response times than CNN or all the official and corporate agencies combined. Just another example of how astonishing powers of vision and information are expanding, almost exponentially, into the hands of common people – the very same people who Barlow calls ‘mostly’ clueless – far faster than the same tools are being acquired by government or industry.

Let me emphasize this point.

  • Most of the video we saw on 9/11 was taken by private citizens, a potentially crucial element in future emergencies.
  • Private cell phones spread word quicker than official media.
  • Swarms of volunteers descended on the disaster sites. Overwhelmed local officials quickly dropped their everyday concerns about liability or professional status, in order to use all willing hands.
  • As rumors, hoaxes and conspiracy theories spread, the role of debunking falsehoods fell almost entirely on private web sites. (See footnote.)
  • Most important of all – the sole actions taken that day to effectively thwart terror were achieved by individuals aboard United Airlines Flight 93, armed with intelligence and communication tools – and a mandate – completely outside official channels.

What does all of this suggest about the coming era?

We’ll get to that in a minute, when I speak more about how tools of accountability may empower citizens in an age of amateurs. But for now, let me just say that common folk didn’t emerge from 9/11 resembling the sheep that both Barlow and his ‘control freak’ foes portray them to be.

Citizens proved resourceful, skilled and courageous. But the contempt of elitists will always blind them to this, even when heroes prove it time and again.

(Still, I’m helping to circulate Barlow’s warning because it COULD come true someday. Some (not all!) of our leaders make it quite imaginable. Let’s hope they surprise us in good ways.)

“The terrorists have made every citizen a soldier.”
- Senator Joe Lieberman

Assumption number two – there was a major breakdown in security, therefore we need to take a whole slew of new ‘measures’ no matter how much disruption and trauma they may cause to our lives.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Some security failures happened and lessons can be learned. For example we should emulate El Al Airlines by reinforcing cockpit doors and arming pilots. And our foes will certainly probe for new weak points. It certainly makes sense to invest heavily in security technologies.

Nevertheless, what strikes me is how WELL our security measures functioned!

Despite years of preparation, determination and well funded ingenuity, the terrorists could only smuggle aboard a few knives… small ones! Apparently plastic box cutters with razor blade tips.

Please think about that.

Plastic handled razors? How could any security system block such things? Any moderately clever person could find ways to smuggle aboard a razor blade – or something that looks plausibly like one. This level of threat cannot be effectively prevented. Moreover, trying to do so could harm us far more than the WTC collapse.

Despite the yammerings on TV, a lack of security measures did not cause this tragedy. No, the failure on 9/11 was almost entirely one of DOCTRINE — a policy on how to deal with hijackers that was taught to pilots, flight attendants and the public for forty years.

Back when hijackers wanted simply to make a political statement, it made sense to teach passive surrender. Better to safeguard passengers than risk some ‘foolhardy gesture,’ This policy of maturity and patience probably saved lives… and was never seen that way by terrorists who came from macho cultures. They saw it as cowardly and decadent.

Now, after more people died in a single murderous day than all U.S. aviation accidents combined, it’s clear the old doctrine was obsolete.

In fact, it changed within an hour of the first plane’s takeover, when passengers aboard UA93 heard about the WTC attacks on their cell phones. In minutes, one of them was telling an emergency operator that “… we’re all going to die anyway, so three of us are going up there to try and do something.”

Result number one? A crashed plane with everybody dead. The very thing the old doctrine of responsible passivity was designed to prevent.

Result number two? Thousands of lives saved wherever the terrorists planned to go next with a suicidal plunge.

The doctrinal transformation – or change in the rules of engagement – took place swiftly and decisively, without deliberation by sober government agencies or sage committees. Three average men changed it upon hearing news via their own ‘intelligence network’. They acted as soldiers, heroes, without waiting for permission. It’s called initiative, a civic virtue, part of our national character that doesn’t get enough attention. Not from leaders and certainly not from our enemies.

(For years I’ve given ‘futurist’ speeches, some of them to Pentagon groups, about the need to include common citizens in our defensive networks. In an afterword below I’ll expand a bit more on this. But the overarching point was made more eloquently by those three heroes.)

What the hierarchical powers in our culture should remember is that in the past all tribes considered their adult members to be potential warriors. Our grandparents knew this. Maybe it’s time – with some maturity and thoughtful care – to go back to that attitude.

Again, let’s stop all this frantic yowling about “lapses in security”. Security worked pretty well, all considered. We just have to be a little less responsible. And a bit more brave.

Assumption number three – only professionals have solutions -

It’s the common theme being spread by pundits and experts and politicians of every stripe – let the pros handle this. Would this be the same pros who let the mess happen in the first place? (All right, that statement’s not exactly a fair way to put it; caustic and exaggerated… but true.)

Hardly anybody talks about the role of the little guy.

Am I suggesting that common citizens take over the harsh job of retribution from the Armed Forces? Or the role of intelligence services in ferreting out terrorist cells? Or the responsibility of government and corporations to act in order to keep people safe? Of course not!

What I am saying is that events on 9/11 point to a trend of ever-enhancing roles for citizens in 21st Century society – the exact opposite tendency from what we observed for the last few generations, during which professionals took over management of great swathes of daily life, especially the reduction of danger.

Consider how 9/11 might have been different –

  • if the cell phone ‘intelligence network’ operated even faster, letting everybody on all of the affected planes know what was happening, just as soon as the first one was hijacked or aimed at a building. Might there have been more than one UA93? Perhaps even a passenger uprising that was fully successful?
  • if the doctrine of general resistance had already been in effect, letting pilots shout for help from all the men nearby, to overcome hijackers armed with box cutters…
  • if cell phones were equipped with small cameras, sending frames to any 911 operator, letting passengers transmit useful intelligence about perpetrators (applicable not only to this crime but any crime, anywhere or any time)…
  • if cheap ‘volksradio’ cell phones – using relay style communication formats – were dropped by the million into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, enabling locals to hear alternative views of current events, then helping them to discuss issues among themselves, unobserved by their tyrants, and additionally letting dissident elements talk directly to our intelligence agencies, via satellite, whenever they like. Add to this a crude camera feature and you’ve armed local populations for a struggle against despots, as effectively as dropping guns. (Go to to see how this kind of thing already works on a crude but effective level!)

All of these technologies, as well as many others too numerous to mention here, have entered the pipeline. They are on the way already. Government and industry can either encourage or thwart them for a short time. Privacy-panic may result in Luddite laws that hinder some bits – like instant face recognition – for a couple of years. But that’s it. The genie will get out, and soon common citizens all over the world will be empowered with exponentiated vision. Empowered to be part of the posse.

Ah, now the next question. (There’s always a next question!)

  • Will it be a good posse… alert-but-tolerant, respectful of diversity while always ready to protect the commons?
  • Or a bad posse like oldtime vigilantes and the more recent psycho-racist-selfrighteous militias?

That will be up to us. (I discuss this at length in The Transparent Society, where I contend that the next 100 years may come to be called the “age of amateurs.”)

Good posse or bad? Over the course of the next decade or two, the credit and blame for what’s to come won’t fall on these onrushing technologies, or the professionals who patronize us, even as they strive desperately to protect us.

The matter will fall ultimately on our own shoulders. Yours and mine.

In the long run, it will be people who stop all terrorists and thugs — and all wouldbe tyrants. In this, citizens may be aided by a government they own, not the other way around.

It had better happen that way, if there’s any hope for us at all.

A brief footnote regarding the current habit of ignoring civilian resources:

Above I addressed changing the specific doctrine that forbade resistance to hijackers. Now let me speak more generally. For several years, a few people have been suggesting that our leaders need to re evaluate the public’s role in dealing with modern problems, especially defending civilization against a myriad threats.

Take intelligence. There are simple measures that could help unleash a million skilled and voracious eyes into the world, poking their gaze into far more places than the NSA or CIA could ever manage. Chaotically and inconveniently, for sure! But there are some advantages to that. If done right, this approach promises a rich way to supplement standard intelligence methods, one utilizing and exploiting the advantages of an open society already filled with educated, technically-savvy people.

Or take resiliency in the face of threats to environment, infrastructure and public health – ranging from bioterrorism to toxic waste dumping. Already many of the detectors that the military have developed, to warn against gas attacks and other threats, have come down in price to the point where local county agencies and even corporations have started setting up automated monitoring systems. In the long run, won’t these devices work their way down to networks of activists and hobbyists? Who else will be better suited to monitor the local stream or watershed, or even the air ducts of the neighborhood school? Or to notice any sudden spike in chemical or bacteria counts? The scenario may seem far fetched this year, and maybe next. But what could possibly prevent it from coming true by 2010?

This lesson applies even to the military, for I believe the whole concept of “reserves” should be reevaluated, with vision toward enhancing and utilizing the vast levels of private expertise that are burgeoning all over our society. Above all, we must strive to shorten the time that it might take to ‘ramp up’ if ever civilization needs to help the thin gray line during a crisis.

Consider, our parents volunteered by the millions after Pearl Harbor, willingly stepping forward to avenge the professionals who were sacrificing themselves, buying time in the Battle of Bataan. Yet today’s military professionals make almost no allowance for such a possibility in the future. They wouldn’t have a clue what to do with two million volunteers. Their rationalization is that it takes 2 years just to prepare a young volunteer to begin specialized combat training.

With all due respect, this rationalization is bogus. There are several innovative approaches, akin to the Civil Aeronautics Clubs of the late 1930s, that could considerably shorten ramp times. The matter surely merits further investigation.

On the level of diplomacy and culture, consider the contemporary problem of Third World conspiracy fetishism.

Today, tabloids in Karachi and scores of other cities are blaring – believe it or not – that all the doomed jets on 9/11 were actually empty and radio controlled by a cabal led by Senator Joe Lieberman, as vengeance against George W, Bush for stealing last year’s election! No Jews were present at the WTC, according to this popular rumor, having been warned to stay away in advance… and so on. This is just one of hundreds of popular myths being spread with great verve and astonishing credulity.

Conspiracy fetishism is a truly malignant trend that undermines every western effort at reaching diplomacy down to the level where it matters most over the long run… down to the teeming, suspicious masses. Formal agencies are helpless to counteract such rumors because of their purported complicity in every farout scenario.

But private systems of debunking – enhanced by a myriad personal contacts – could prove far more effective. Take the incredible service done in recent weeks by the Urban Legends web site. Far more effectively than any government agency, they’ve debunked scads of awful rumors, hoaxes and fake photos. Leveraging the skills of a few hundred skeptical members – some of them retired technologists – the UL folks have freed formal agencies from having to follow up on some of these things. One more example of how private networks can serve civilization without necessarily being subsumed into formal hierarchies.

Now imagine this kind of phenomenon extended and extrapolated by a serious attempt to find and exploit first and second degree-of-separation personal contacts between Americans and common citizens in every third world nation. At relatively low expense, a ground level system of mutual trust building and rumor-squelching could arise, needing very little involvement by official agencies. This isn’t goody-wishful communitarianism, but a thoroughly pragmatic measure aimed at the simmering flame that feeds terrorism.

Where it comes to fighting terrorism directly, my point is that aversion to casualties has always has been pushed by politicians and mass media, not commonfolk. Increased formal security is not the answer.

The answer (admittedly oversimplifying) is better doctrine.

Again, those planes were filled with adult males who could overcome fanatics armed with knives. They had been indoctrinated to be passive, but those men aboard UA93 proved that citizens can be heroes. In fact, the call would stir our hearts and make us feel brave. If done carefully and responsibly, it would make us feel like men and women… adults with a role to play in defending our tribe.