Why Centralization Fails

While the politicians discuss ways to further centralize security here let’s take a moment to review why centralization, specifically as it relates to security, fails. Imagine a society where private firearm ownership is illegal. In this society the only people who have access to firearms are the military, the police, and the attackers. It’s not hard to imagine since I’ve just described a good percentage of countries.

Under such circumstances society consists mostly of soft targets with a few hard targets scattered about. The hard targets consist of military bases, police stations, and any place where a soldier or police officer may be at a particular point in time. Everywhere else is a soft target. There are two major and very apparent weaknesses with this setup. First, the soft targets are all known. Second, the response time of somebody capable of thwarting your attack can be reasonably determined.

Attackers can cause a great deal of damage by finding a high value target far away from either a military base or a police station (and in societies, such as the United States, where the military is legally prohibited from operating in civilian spaces without approval you can focus primarily on police stations). For example, a school, museum, or sports stadium 10 to 15 minutes away from a police station will give attackers a lot of time in a target-rich environment, which will allow them to cause a great deal of damage.

Centralization fails precisely because the central points of failure can be identified and worked around. Decentralized systems tend to be more difficult to exploit because central points of failure either don’t exist or additional layers exist to support the centralized ones.

We can illustrate this by making a single alteration to our above model. In addition to soldiers and police we will allow licensed armed security agents to own firearms. Assuming any place can hire a security agent the difficulty of identifying soft targets becomes more difficult. Selecting a target now requires determining how far it is from a military base or police station and whether the it employs armed security agents. Another layer of security has been added and the complexity of pulling off an attack has increased.

Let’s take things a step further. In addition to soldiers, police officers, and licensed security agents we are now going to allow any adult who wants to own and carry a gun to do so. How do you identify the soft targets now? While a school, museum, or sports stadium may be 10 or 15 minutes away from a police station and doesn’t employ armed security agents anybody within the facility could be armed. While there is no guarantee that an armed individual will be at any specific target the possibility of one or more armed individuals being there always exists. Another layer of security has been added and the complexity of pulling off an attack has greatly increased.

What I’ve just described is a concept known as defense in depth. The idea is to have multiple layers of overlapping security so any single layer failing doesn’t result in total failure. As the politicians continue to argue that security must be further centralized under the State remember that the more centralized security becomes the more fragile it becomes.