Sunday, January 16, 2005

Acting on the Truth

Have you ever read a news account about a subject you actually knew well? Not something you had read a great deal about or an event you attended as a spectator, but something you had experienced intimately? Perhaps you were disappointed because it did not come close to describing your more nuanced reality — or maybe in some places it was flat-out wrong. So you resolved to look at all such stories more skeptically in the future.

Have you ever seen a person revealed for someone other than the person you once saw? Most likely you were disappointed, and you resolved to look more deeply, to be more careful and less trusting.

These moments make us conscious that we are mere readers of events, skimming the surface of surfaces. Nowhere is this truer than when we try to come to terms with complex national issues. We don't have the direct experience or command of all the facts, and the motivations of the prime actors remain opaque. So we can think about something else, follow the crowd or do our best to understand.

We scan opinions that appear deeply founded because they are expressed in strong language, selective facts and vivid images — and then gravitate to those that best accord with our own grip on reality. We connect the dots and fill in the gaps, and we call this knowing. And even though we have little to go on beyond the words of strangers and our own intuition, we may call it the truth.

Have you ever been faced with a critical moment of truth and acted to do the right thing? Okay, enough about you. Let me tell you a story.

In the early '90s a man who owned a nearby business was found brutally murdered in his home. Clues indicated that he had taken someone home from a bar with sex on his mind, while his new companion had planned robbery. I worked with a designer who was close friends with the murdered man, and had been at the club with him the night of his death. He was very deeply shaken. Posters covered the Warehouse District where the victim worked, featuring a police sketch of the suspect who had last been seen with him. All this heightened my sensitivity to the crime.

One afternoon, I was running an errand at a shopping center when I saw the man featured on the poster — a short, slightly stocky guy with a blonde Rod Stewart shag. He was walking with a tall, thin, Jeremy Irons type, and they were laughing! Adrenaline sent my heart hammering as I followed the pair, searching for a pay phone where I could call the police without losing track of them.

I could hardly speak from the stress as I explained who I had seen and where they had gone. The operator told me they didn't need me around, to let the police handle it. I waited for awhile to see them arrive, but the anticipation became unbearable, so I went home.

That night I watched the TV news. Nothing. In the newspaper the next morning, nothing. Probably still interrogating them and checking out their alibis. I went to work planning to reassure my friend about the capture of the suspect. On the way, I passed one of the posters.

The face on the poster looked nothing like man I had seen. Not even close.

In the mall, I had seen what my subconscious needed me to see, I was certain, and I had the courage to act upon what I "knew."

Graham Allison begins his book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, with a terrifying, real-life scenario. A CIA agent reports that Al Qaeda terrorists have obtained a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb apparently taken from the poorly secured Russian arsenal. It is exactly one month after the 9/11 attack, and agent says the bomb in now in New York City.

There's no way to independently verify the report, nor to dismiss it. If the report is wrong, warning the city and quickly launching a broad search could spread panic resulting in needless deaths as New Yorkers flee. If there is a bomb, how can it be found with so little information about the threat? Allison walks through the possible responses to what strategists call "the problem from hell."

I'll deal with Allison's thesis on preventing nuclear terrorism in a future post. Here, my interest is the problem of acting when facing what we believe to be a great evil.

Of course, when I fingered my murder suspect, I didn't have satellite photos and weapons inspectors and intelligence and military and diplomatic and political advisors offering conflicting points of view with evidence I had no way of personally verifying. No one died. I didn't lose my credibility among nations. No one called me stupid or wrote articles placing side-by-side the poster and a photo of my suspect.

My impulsive screw-up simply ruined an afternoon of shopping for a couple of guys at the mall.

I still believe the President was wrong in attacking Iraq, and his administration has compounded the error. But I am less inclined to doubt his motives and more empathetic to the terrible choices he continues to face — because we all face them, just not in real-time and without the responsibility to act.


Blogger Charlie Quimby said...

As a side note to problems associated with taking the right action based on imperfect information, see what the Hennepin County prosecutor and local police are doing to enhance the reliability of eyewitness identification of suspects. The new protocol aims to provide a clearer view of the truth, reduce the possibility of wrongful convictions and improve trust in the justice system.

9:22 AM  

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