How Fire Fighters fight fires

I was sitting at my desk this morning looking up at the ceiling (yes, I'm procrastinating working on the Visi Typer). I saw the water sprinklers that are part of the fire suppression system hear at the awesome StackMob offices. I recalled learning about how fire fighters fight fires.

I think I was 7 or 8 when I asked why fire fighters have axes. The fire fighter I asked this question of told me that the approach that fire fighters take is to destroy everything that could be fuel for a fire. This was especially important in a city where buildings are close together and fires can spread quickly from one building to another.

I was dumbfounded… shouldn't it be a goal of fire fighters to preserve some of the building where the fire is? Shouldn't the fire fighters work to preserve as much of the building where the fire is?

As I've gotten older, I've realized that the cost of each micro-decision to preserve a family picture or a piece of furniture could distract a fire fighter from the larger goal of containing and then extinguishing the fire. The only this that is more important that extinguishing the fire is human life. That now makes sense to me.

The War on …

I think our country and our society has adopted the fire fighting mentality for almost all the challenges that face us. We view the challenges that we face as so grave that we are willing to destroy the building to stop it from burning.

Second World War Legacy

The United States really came together during WW II. The country pulled itself out of the economic and self-loathing problems of the Great Depression to come together and become The Greatest Generation.

The US focused and worked together to defeat a particularly terrible foe. Hitler and the Nazis were horrid creatures and they were also extraordinarily skilled and well organized. It took some greatness on the part of the US and England to fight back across the water and rescue Europe.

There is also the US getting into the war very late and not acting earlier cost many lives.

In the case of WW II, the US did in fact have to destroy the building to fight hitler. We had to draft soldiers and send them off to war. We had to ration resources (not the free market, but government imposed decisions). We suspended many rights and imposed a lot of restrictions on what people did. Some of those (e.g., the Internment Camps) were tragically wrong decisions.

It seems to me that the US it trying to relive WW II in every challenge we face. This "destroying the building to put out the fire" mentality has cost us dearly.

The Communist Threat

Post WW II, there was the Red Scare.

The Red Scare led wars in Korean and Vietnam. We had to make sure that Communism didn't spread further in Asia.

I grew up at the tail end of the Specter of Communism. By the mid 1970s, being a "Commie" was more of a joke and the House Un-American Activities Committee was disbanded.

Up through the end of Reagan's presidency, "Better dead than red" mentality was still part of American culture (I often wonder how the red-state residents feel about that… but I digress).

The War on Drugs

The Nixon White House escalated the US anti-drug policy to the status of the War on Drugs. Somehow, the United States determined that a war would pull people together and vanquish the drug problem once and for all.

Drugs are not something that we can end. We can reduce consumption and we can reduce the societal harms of drugs, and I support both goals. However, dealing with drugs is something that requires constant work rather than a war that should have a definite end.

Further, treating drug issues as a war means that we're willing to have collateral damage… we're will to destroy whatever needs to be destroyed in order to fight the fire or end the war. That is not and cannot be the case with drugs. There will always be drugs and always be people who are addicted to drugs and families and communities damaged because of those addictions. We should have a societal view that every member of the drug use cycle requires our attention and help.

The War on Terror

The War on Terror is the new War on Drugs, except this time we're opening using military force.

There always have been and always will be terrorists. There will always be people who value their point of view more than human life. There is no way to extinguish these people from the face of the earth.

On the other hand, there are ways to minimize their impact.

A full frontal assault on terrorists, especially when there is civilian collateral damage, will not have the desired effect. These kinds of activities will only create a class of people who could be persuaded to follow the vision of people like Osama Bin Laden. The more we hit civilians and attack people who have little or nothing to do with actual terrorist acts against the United States, the more we will offer the lunatics "talking points" to convince others to join them.


The fire fighting mentality has taken over at the airports.

We are told we must submit to strip-searches, naked videos, and other forms of humiliation in order to be secure. We are at war with a formless enemy and thus we are all the enemy and are treated as such by the TSA.

What would happen if the TSA treated us like we all had the same goal?

What would happen if the TSA stopped destroying anything that could be dangerous because the danger could spread… the fire fighting mentality, and instead treated every passenger as a potential terrorist target?

Could we work together and in cooperation with the TSA? Could we adopt a less intrusive and more effective? I think we could. For example, with the exception of the racial profiling aspects, Isreal has adopted successful airport security measures.

The Impending Cyberwar

Between SOPA, CISPA, and the upcoming changes to CALEA, the US Government is trying to destroy the building to stop people from doing illegal things online.

I got some news for the government, encryption is easy. Anybody can encrypt anything and deliver it to anyone else.

Freenet exists and it ain't going away.

Encryption exists and it ain't going away.

Linux exists and it ain't going away.

Anybody who wants to run a computer system or a computer network and exchange information that cannot be read by anyone else can do so. There's nothing that can stop this.

If our government spent as much effort to get business to adopt and maintain reasonable security policies as it does worrying about spying on citizens, we'd have a much more secure infrastructure. It is a lot easier to identify the 50,000 or so prime industrial targets in the US or perhaps 150,000 worldwide and give them help with security policies to insure that they are following best practices.

Further, each time we have a back door into a system, that's another advertised point to exploit. The exploit may be a technical one or a social one (who actually has access to the data and how do we know to trust those people?).

All the above laws will do is make every user of the Internet the "enemy" in the name of making us safer. It will drive a wedge between "law enforcement" and the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. It's an us and them… and when law enforcement is at war with the folks they are supposed to be enforcing the laws to protect, the laws become mis-used.

We are not at war on the Internet. Yes, there are bad people using the Internet to plan bad things. They will keep doing that. But treating each person on the Internet as a criminal or a potential criminal will not stop the bad guys. It will only reinforce an "us vs. them" mentality and when the building has to be destroyed to save the neighborhood and the neighborhood has the be destroyed to preserve the city, and the city has the be destroyed to preserve the state, we have lost site of why we have laws and what the United States is about.

Patience (Grasshopper)

Sometimes, especially in this current time of long-term recession/depression, it's hard to remember how many resources the United States has. We have natural resources. We have intellectual resources. We have people who generally share common goals. You know what, we can win with patience and perseverance.

The same is true of Europe.

Once we accept that:

  • Drugs are not going away, but we can minimize the impact they have on individuals and society, then we can create a plan to reduce the impact of drugs. It's not a war, but an eternal vigilance just like the eternal vigilance we have against crime in general.
  • Terrorist are not going away, but we can minimize the number of people they draw into their sphere of insanity. Our policy should be one of respecting other peoples and other nations. We should not be imposing our will or our way on others in a heavy-handed way. We can, however, help countries to grow over the long term. What if we invested in nations like we did post-WW II with the Marshall Plan? Could we help countries like we did with South Korea? Yes, it'll take many generations, but it will ultimately cost less than invading yet another country and dealing with the anger of families who have seen non-combatant loved ones killed by our armies.
  • Air travel is insecure, but we can make more secure by treating passengers as allies rather than assuming that every passenger is the enemy.
  • Bad stuff will always happen online. Let's teach our kids and our businesses how to be more secure. Let's build our systems to be more resistant to attack. Let's use more open systems which have more eyes looking at them so that we all can see how secure things are.

All in all, I think we need a national dose of patience. We need to chill out. We need to stop calling everything suboptimal a war and we have to stop using to solve every problem.

If we as a nation led by example, I think we'd be much better off. I think we could show others that patience and talk and cooperation will lead to better long term results than war. Our relationship with Europe was much stronger after WW II than it was after WW I because we stopped treating Germany as the enemy and rather we embraced Germany and created a cross-Atlantic sense that the US and Europe was one unified group. It worked. It took a long time, but it worked. Why not try that kind of strategy with other entities that we're currently at "war" with?