Among the horrors that lurked in the public mind as the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded was the realization that "the system" didn't work.
This seems obvious, but what isn't so obvious is what "the system" is:
"The system" is a fiction of lawfulness maintained by lawyers.
Imagine the outrage that would follow if programmers were to take over the government, automating every aspect of "the system". It would be obvious to everyone that something was wrong when only a select few could understand the "the code".
But let's look at the paragraphs of code underlying the lack of response by the military to the hijacking of commercial jet-liners on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Did you follow all that? People differ on the interpretation of this chain of directives - some even believing the June 2001 directive to have been a deliberate "stand-down" by S.A. Fry (Vice Admiral, US Navy and Director, Joint Staff) to give Donald Rumsfeld the option of allowing a hijacking to succeed in drawing United States forces into a war in the middle east. Others insist the earlier directives created the bottleneck at the Secretary of Defense which led to a failure to respond to the hijackings of September 11, 2001.
- From directive CJCSI 3610.01A dated June 1, 2001:
event of a hijacking, the NMCC will be notified by the most expeditious
means by the FAA. The NMCC will, with the exception of immediate
responses as authorized by reference d, forward requests for DOD
assistance to the Secretary of Defense for approval. DOD assistance to
the FAA will be provided in accordance with reference d. Additional
guidance is provided in Enclosure A.
Looking up "reference d" we have
d. DOD Directive 3025.15, 18 February 1997, "Military Assistance to
- From directive 3025.15:
4.7.1. Immediate Response. Requests for an immediate response (i.e., any
form of immediate action taken by a DoD Component or military commander to save
lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate great property damage under imminently
serious conditions) may be made to any Component or Command. The DoD
Components that receive verbal requests from civil authorities for support in an exigent
emergency may initiate informal planning and, if required, immediately respond as
authorized in DoD Directive 3025.1 (reference (g)). Civil authorities shall be
informed that verbal requests for support in an emergency must be followed by a written
request. As soon as practical, the DoD Component or Command rendering assistance
shall report the fact of the request, the nature of the response, and any other pertinent
information through the chain of command to the DoD Executive Secretary, who shall
notify the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and any other
appropriate officials. If the report does not include a copy of the civil authorities'
written request, that request shall be forwarded to the DoD Executive Secretary as soon
as it is available.
And reference g:
(g) DoD Directive 3025.1, "Military Support to Civil Authorities (MSCA)," January 15,
- From directive 3025.1:
4.9. Emergency Priorities. When guidance cannot be obtained from higher
headquarters on a timely basis, due to attack on the United States or other emergency
circumstances, the DoD Components should apply DoD resources to MSCA in the
following order of priority:
4.9.1. To save human life and mitigate human suffering, and to protect
essential U.S. Government capabilities, including:
126.96.36.199. Continuity of the U.S. Government.
188.8.131.52. Protection of U.S. Government officials.
184.108.40.206. Prevention of loss or destruction to Federal property.
220.127.116.11. Restoration of essential Federal functions.
18.104.22.168To preserve or restore services of State and local government.
But the most common "interpretation" of the above is something more along the lines of "Ah, who cares? Who can afford the time it takes to run down all the references and figure out to which section they apply? Even Google can't really solve the problem. Gotta go... The boss is on my ass to get a PowerPoint presentation together for the next funding cycle."
Some people are of the mind that this is OK since there are "top men" who are looking after our interests and are going to make sure everything is "logical" at the top levels. On the other hand, remember what the response would have been to "top programmers" taking over government and automating everything.
In one of the most militarily prepared societies in history, the Spartans outlawed written laws. One reason was that if the laws were so complex that the people could not comprehend them through acculturation -- which in Sparta was very intensive -- then such laws were merely impediments to an effective society. Writing could record precedents and myths -- all part of acculturation -- but not laws.
While it is generally accepted that a return to a Spartan system of law-through-acculturation is impossible, the comprehension problem hasn't gone away. It has gotten worse. It isn't so obvious that governance by lawyer (or their counterparts in military bureaucracy), which antiquated Spartan law, is going to survive technological civilization. As more people become familiar with the concepts of open source software engineering, they will increasingly wonder why, after nearly half a century of Moore's Law, do we have to put up with Byzantine systems of law so riddled with holes (sometimes called "loopholes"), many of which were intentionally engineered, the body of law resembles a maggot-riddled corpse more than a corporeal entity?
The hole in the New York City skyline is a ghastly reminder of the practical effect such "engineering" can have in a technological civilization.
If more people could have participated in the "testing and debugging" of "the system" it may have been possible to clear up the weak points in advance of events. If "the code" were in a form that personal computers could interpret, then Moore's Law could be applied to The Law, and the open source culture might have been able to participate in finding the potential holes in the national security.
In Hewlett-Packard's, now defunct, E-Speak project a lot of similar problems in formal language arose - problems with real-world legal consequences when electronic commerce is scaled up and automated. A system I asked the management to examine as a substrate for E-Speak was Natural-language Legal Expert System Builder which is based on Normalized English input. Normalized English allows automatic interpretation of test cases. An example was codified for a Tennessee law:
Subsection (a). IF AND ONLY IF
The important thing here isn't that this is that much more readable, or less Byzantine, than the directives governing military response to a hijacking crisis -- but rather this is automatically interpretable code that is about as readable.
(A) A person has threatened or attempted suicide or to inflict serious
bodily harm on himself, OR
(2) There is a substantial likelihood that such harm will occur,
(B) The person has threatened or attempted homicide or other violent
(C) The person has placed others in reasonable fear of violent behavior
and serious physical harm to them, OR
(D) The person is unable to avoid severe impairment or injury from
specific risks, AND
(3) The person poses a "substantial likelihood of serious harm" for
purposes of subsection (b).
Subsection (b). IF AND ONLY IF
(1) A person is mentally ill, AND
(2) The person poses a substantial likelihood of serious harm because of
the mental illness, AND
(3) The person needs care, training, or treatment because of the mental
(4) All available less drastic alternatives to placement in a hospital or
treatment resource are unsuitable to meet the needs of the person,
(5) The person may be judicially committed to involuntary care and
treatment in a hospital or treatment resource.
If there is some need to employ huge numbers of programmers world-wide to codify private business logic then why stop there? How much more important is it to codify the natural language rules that govern our most critical public institutions in a no-less-readable constrained-natural language form that can benefit from Moore's Law on desktop computers now available to the public? If the rigors of open source can produce more secure software, can't similar rigors be applied to the law? What are the other options to regression test to see whether someone has, intentionally or unintentionally, put out a rule that "breaks the system"?
If their workmanship were as shoddy as the laws upon which technological civilization is based, the towering physical structures of technological civilization would be razed to the ground by building inspectors, as too hazardous for human occupancy. Humans deserve better from the legal profession than the body of law they are supposed to follow. The tools are coming available to apply the necessary engineering rigor.