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Rules for Calamity and Crisis

NEW YORK -- Several years ago, my daughter lay in a coma after a serious fall. Two nurses came into her hospital room to prepare for a transfusion. One clutched a pouch of blood and the other held my daughter’s medical dossier. The first read aloud from the bag, “Type A blood,” and the other read aloud from the file, “Alexa Holmes, Type A blood.” They then proceeded, following a script, to switch props and roles, the first nurse reading from the file, “Alexa Holmes, Type A blood,” and the second reading from the bag, “Type A blood.”

Why do well-trained professionals, when struggling with a rapidly unfolding emergency, adhere to rules laid down in advance? The principal reason is that in times of crisis people fall into predictable but avoidable errors, largely because of panic. Over time, detailed protocols have evolved for such confusing situations to encourage cool-headedness and minimize the risk of avoidable error.

The value of improvisation in the face of novel threats does not imply that existing rules should be peremptorily discarded. This point is almost trite, but it remains virtually unnoticed by last-ditch defenders of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Even today, the leading Republican presidential candidates suggest that the rule of law is an unaffordable luxury in the battle with al-Qaeda. They claim that constitutionalism and due process, if meticulously followed, reduce the government’s “flexibility” in devising ways to prevent terrorist attacks.

It is easy to imagine situations in which flexibility can be increased by curtailing individual rights and abandoning pre-established decision-making rules. But generalizing from these exceptions is unwise. An administration that has consistently boasted of its willingness to bend (and sometimes break) the law to meet an unprecedented threat has become notorious not for its flexibility, but for its rigidity.