Preemptive strike

On Wednesday, the people of Boston prepared for a snowstorm that was to be of epic proportions. Snowfall was to begin around 6:00 AM, and was expected to dump 8 to 12 inches of snow upon the city in a matter of hours. Having seen the major snowstorms that had just blown across the Midwest and much of the Atlantic Coast (newscasters have been referring to “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse”), Boston braced itself for the impact of its own winter storm.

For days, news programs and Internet news sources had been showing other major U.S. cities buried under snow, and officials in Boston must have gotten these images into their heads. In cases like this one, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and it seems that city planners had already decided, the day before the storm was supposed to hit, that it was going to be very bad.

So they began shutting things down.

E-mails flew hither and thither for much of Tuesday, with just as many speculative one-liners as there were lengthy notifications. Every time we were informed that something else had closed for the next day, another round of questions would circulate. The office just announced that it will be closed tomorrow. Do you think class will be cancelled, too? No one was quite sure how many doors would be closed in anticipation of the storm.

Several local government offices declared a one-day furlough. Schools announced early dismissal. My office was down to skeleton staff, and walking across campus, I saw flyers notifying students of the cancellation of several conferences and special events. Class was never cancelled for us (Mother Harvard never says die), but several universities in the area cancelled all classes for the following day—again, in anticipation of what was to be a terrible storm.

I awoke at 7:00 am on Wednesday and peered out the window, expecting to see the beginnings of a winter wonderland. There is that special white glow that comes with the arrival of snow in the early morning hours, and I was sure that I could see it peeking around the edges of the blinds. When I opened the blinds, though, my suspicions (along with everyone else’s) were proven incorrect. There was no snow!

Not even so much as a vagabond flake.

Quickly realizing that nothing that had not already been cancelled would be cancelled that day, I reluctantly began to get ready for a (normal) full day. Later in the morning, a few flakes began to fall—tentatively, as though they really had no business being there and couldn’t make up their minds as to whether to stay or go. The on-and-off precipitation turned to cold rain later in the afternoon, and because of the sheer moisture of it all, nothing stuck to the ground. It was not until much later in the day—perhaps around 7:00 pm—that the snow really began in earnest.

Now, when the snow did come, it was quite fierce. Winds were high, and for much of the night it was snowing sideways. Hearing the howl of the storm outside my window was definitely a happy reminder of the warmth and security of home. But the storm arrived a day late and a dollar short, as my grandpa likes to say, and all of Boston’s careful preparations had been for naught. Even the next morning, when the worst of the storm had died down, there were only a few inches of snow upon the ground.

What does it all mean? I can’t help but think that there’s an important lesson in this great “snowbacle”—perhaps more than one.

For one thing, it seems almost ridiculously comic that much of Boston shut itself down for something that never came. While safety and advance planning is always essential in an urban center, this seemed more like an example of winter-weary workers declaring that they were going to take a snow day whether nature gave them one or not. As one of my disgruntled professors put it at the beginning of class that day, “This snowstorm was a total bust! I wanted to get out of class today, too, you know…”

It all reminded me of a quote from Carl Sandburg, who wrote in The People Yes, “Someday they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”

Actually, Boston’s entire reaction to the impending snowstorm reminded me very much of the military notion of the preemptive strike. The preemptive strike is a hugely controversial military decision, because it may, in the end, prove totally unnecessary. Useless school closings may be comical the day after a snowstorm that never arrives, but shattered targets and lost lives should be something that we never see unless their necessity can be established with absolute certainty.

Unfortunately, in both the military and in meteorology (as in life in general, I suppose), almost nothing can be established with absolute certainty. In both cases, we trust the experts (or don’t) and make our decisions accordingly, despite the fact that neither they nor we have all the facts.

To some extent, I do think we need to trust the wisdom and knowledge of experts even if their conclusions may differ from our own. To some extent, this is how the world keeps turning. And sometimes, even without the input of experts, popular sentiment or well-distributed rumors may dictate results.

But whether we’re waging war or watching the weather, I would hope that we would never hide behind expertise or rumors as an excuse for complacency. I would hope that we would never throw up our hands and say that we have no questions simply because someone else—perhaps someone higher up—has told us that it is so.

Most of all, I would certainly hope that we would never call a snow day just because we wish to have one and not on the basis of the facts—lest we look foolish when it becomes clear that the necessity never existed at all.

And, just in case you missed the analogy, the same goes for war.


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