Why America's Government is Treating Americans Like Terrorists

11/08/2007 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many years ago, I consulted to a Texas-based convenience store chain.

They had a 150% store manager turnover rate. They wanted to identify characteristics of higher-tenure store managers, so they could hire people who'd stay longer.

Turns out that they also administered lie detector tests every month to every store manager about whether or not they were stealing. After about six months, managers figured, "I guess they're expecting me to steal, and someone must be getting away with it -- I'll give it a try."

And there's your turnover.

A massively expensive approach to management. Note the cost of tests, the cost of theft. More importantly, the cost of forced turnover, and of the suspicion and paranoia in the system.

That's what happens when the only response to a trust violation is to treat everyone like a suspect.

That explains one of the most expensive solutions to low trust in the world today -- airport security systems. Imagine the savings if we could figure out how to target terrorists -- savings in time, money, personnel, equipment -- not to mention the general levels of suspicion and paranoia.

One reason for the cost is that we value fairness over efficiency. No matter it's your next-door neighbor grandmother and her grand-daughter flying to Dubuque -- she goes through the same x-ray machines as a sweating, furtive, cash-paid one-way ticket holder. Anything short of perfect screening isn't sufficient for us to violate a core set of values around fairness.

So -- treat everyone like a terrorist.

Another value is the cultural resistance to monetizing human lives. "If screening saves only one disaster," we say. But outside the bright lights of the public, others have to make serious trade-off decisions all the time -- doctors, public policy makers, safety engineers. The only way we seem to be able to face those decisions is to hide them from public view.

Once in the public view -- treat everyone like a terrorist.

Sarbanes Oxley is the result of a similar logic. Anyone could be an ethical terrorist, the logic goes. Better to realign entire industries to remove temptation than to make tough individual decisions about who to prosecute and imprison.

Treat everyone like a terrorist.

But the biggest reason of all may be a tendency to rely on systems rather than people. Seduced by technology and the siren song of metrics, fueled by paranoia about people we don't know, our social response to a connected world has been to systematize the human networks -- instead of humanizing the systems.

If "everybody's a terrorist" is our only solution to socially-hostile acts in a networked world, we quickly become hostage to the very thing we tried to prevent. We drown in costly solutions, trying to boil the ocean.

We need social solutions that:

• delegate accountability
• allow for human judgment
• recognize and deal with ambiguity and variance among people and situations
• allow a reasonable level of non-perfection of outcomes

and that do so in a socially acceptable manner.

You can't trust everyone. That doesn't mean you can't trust anybody. But our social policies--and our norms -- are blind to this simple truth.