The Yin and the Yang

September 18, 2013 - 3:23 AM

We have spoken of this before: The veneer of civilization is very, very thin.

Anyone. Anyone can cause unimaginable horror to happen by virtue of doing something that you or I would never think of.

Such an event happened earlier this week at the Washington Navy Yard when a mentally disturbed contractor shot and killed 12 civilians who had gone to work that morning expecting that it would be just another day at the office.

Aaron Alexis, the shooter, had a significant number of dings on his record. A general (as opposed to an honorable) discharge from the military; at least two issues regarding firearms; and a deteriorating mental state that, near the end, included hearing voices.

Now that all of these events are strung together it is easy to say: How the hell could this guy have had a Secret security clearance?

The three main levels of security clearances are: Confidential, Secret, Top Secret.

There is also a level known as Top Secret - SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information). People who hold this level (known as TS/SCI) have access to some of America's most sensitive secrets.

There are levels above TS/SCI known as code word clearances, but I'm not allowed to know what they are and neither are you. Seriously. Code-word-level clearances are secret unto themselves. I have never held one. And I don't know anyone who has.

So, a Secret clearance is not particularly unique or special. That Alexis held that clearance is also not particularly unique or special.

Investigators can only go with what is (a) on the public record, (b) what the candidate tells them, and (c) what associates of the candidate say about him or her.

If Alexis fired a weapon illegally but was not charged, then it would not necessarily come to the attention of investigators for someone being cleared for Secret. If he was having mental issues, but he already held his Secret clearance, there would be no way for the system to track that.

That is little solace to the families, friends, and colleagues of the 12 people who were killed by Alexis. All they know is someone they loved, liked, and/or worked with is now dead at the hands of a man who was permitted to be among them, but shouldn't have been.

But, the veneer of civilization is very thin, and every time it is pierced it is horrifying.

Which leads us from the worst of what humans can do, to the best.

On September 5, 1977 the spacecraft known as Voyager 1 was launched, a month after its twin, Voyager 2, to explore, via fly-bys, of Jupiter and Saturn.

That was 36 years ago.

After they accomplished their primary tasks, they were still going strong and, because of an alignment of planets that occur about once ever 175 years, Uranus and Neptune were put on the schedule and they kept on going.

According to the webpage of the Jet Propulsion Lab: "Between them, Voyager 1 and 2 would explore all the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess."

Pretty good engineering.

Man has become the dominant creature on the planet (for better or, as we found out yesterday, for worse) in part because our ancestors recognized that they couldn't wrestle a wooly mammoth to the ground, so they would have to either chase it off a cliff or be able to throw something at it - preferably a bunch of somethings with points - that would kill it.

On or about September 12, 2013 Voyager 1 crossed over an invisible line that took it out of the influence of our sun and into what is known as interstellar space; about 11 billion miles away.

If my highly developed interstellar arithmetic, and Einstein's theory of general relatively are correct, at that distance it takes 21 days to get a radio signal from where the Voyager is back to Earth.

Unfortunately it happened during a week when we were consumed with an Op-Ed in the New York Times sent in by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the really crucial issue of Larry Summers' withdrawing from the competition to be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

From rocks to slingshots to arrows to trebuchets to cannons to rockets we have now flung a man-made object completely out of the solar system.

That's a very big deal and we should be proud of ourselves.

That all those things have happened in the same week demonstrates the yin and the yang of human existence.

On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to CNN's backgrounder on Aaron Alexis, to a list of national security clearances, to the JPL's webpage of the Voyager missions, and to Yin and Yang. Also a Mullfoto license plate that is interesting but curious.