Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What You See and What You Don't

Fascinating article in the NYT about the ability - partially natural and partially acquired through hard work and experience - to recognize danger at a glance, before there's enough data to know what you know. The article focuses on the ability of some American soldiers to identify hidden bombs from afar, because of some minute detail that's "wrong". Much of the discussion is about the psychology and physiology of the matter: electric pulses in sections of the brain, that sort of thing.

Yet the story also demonstrates the opposite: that sometimes you can have something staring at you in the face and still be unable to see it. It starts with a true story:
The sight was not that unusual, at least not for Mosul, Iraq, on a summer morning: a car parked on the sidewalk, facing opposite traffic, its windows rolled up tight. Two young boys stared out the back window, kindergarten age maybe, their faces leaning together as if to share a whisper.
The soldier patrolling closest to the car stopped. It had to be hot in there; it was 120 degrees outside. “Permission to approach, sir, to give them some water,” the soldier said to Sgt. First Class Edward Tierney, who led the nine-man patrol that morning.
“I said no — no,” Sergeant Tierney said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan. He said he had an urge to move back before he knew why: “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling.”

At the end of the article, we read the rest of the story
That morning in Mosul, Sergeant Tierney gave the command to fall back. The soldier who had asked to approach the car had just time enough to turn before the bomb exploded. Shrapnel clawed the side of his face; the shock wave threw the others to the ground. The two young boys were gone: killed in the blast, almost certainly, he said.
The striking thing about the article is that it misses the central part of the event: that some Iraqi murderer purposefully used two young Iraqi boys (5 year olds) as a deadly decoy to kill Americans. The murderer knew the Americans would notice the children and want to help; he was evil enough coldbloodedly to sacrifice them for the purpose of killing Americans; and the sergeant, unlike the NYT reporter, was so profoundly aware of this possibility that it tipped him off to the danger.

Do you wonder where the murderer got the children? He didn't kidnap them as they weren't panicking; that wouldn't have worked. He probably knew them, and they knew him, and when he left them in the car he told them he'd be back in a moment and they shouldn't worry. So they didn't. But the Sergeant did.

And the reporter didn't.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

actually the most impressive part of the story is the basic decency of the American soldier whose first thought is to give comfort to the children ... what a contrast to those who put them in death's way

one of the things that for example may be wrong when two small children in a super-hot car are not displaying unease
- somebody must have fiddled with them, drugged them for example
- but a realization like that comes first with a gut feeling only and later much later and slower there will be rational explanations possible
and of course only a professional will trust that gut feeling and not telling himself to stop being paranoid, that's what's being professional is all about