Inspector O and the Safe Driver

O had picked a table off by itself on the far edge of the patio, which was not unusual. He was staring at the river, apparently deep in thought. “Pretty jaundiced view,” he said as soon as I sat down.

“A big hello to you, too, Inspector. By jaundiced, I assume you’re not referring to the view of the Hudson.”

He turned and smiled. I was instantly on guard. “Not at all,” he said in measured tones. “I love to look at rivers through Canadian smoke. But before we go too far in our dreamy paean to nature,” his smile got more intense, “let me give you three options for lunch. You can have something light, something hearty that will stick to your ribs, or something that will give you gas.”

I cast my eyes around for the waiter. “You’ve already seen the menu, I take it. Is there a special?”

“No, there isn’t,” he said firmly. “There are these three. Only these. Nothing else.”

“I see. Well, before we order, let me say, if you don’t mind, you seem out of sorts. I take it something has set you off. Bad flight?”

“Out of sorts? Me? Oh no, not me. Let’s just say there are questions, Church, questions, and more questions. You see, when we got our copy…”


“You know, the paper your friends just issued about highway safety.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

O leaned over and flashed a piece of paper in front of me before folding it carefully and putting it in his briefcase. I noticed he snapped the lock shut. “You’ve seen it already, I assume.”

“If it’s what I think it is, that’s not about highway safety.”

“Really? We thought it had something to do with insurance rates.” Big smile. “Like a good neighbor, the state farm is there, that sort of thing. Coercive drivers, offensive drivers, defensive drivers. Our boys came knocking on my door asking why you’d spend so much time on something like that—safe driving—given everything else going on. One of the younger analysts guessed you might be cataloging buber drivers.”


“He based his conclusion, which he admitted was tentative, on the fact that the next page was labeled key takeaways. He assumed it meant sandwiches, pizza, that sort of thing.” A killer smile.

I reverted to a long stare to show I wasn’t amused and to take a moment to think. “Inspector, this is serious.”

“Serious? Really, Church, we laughed until we almost couldn’t breathe. We have the whole document, of course, not just this handout. Those three coins at the top, is that really all you can come up with? I mean, come on, Church, it’s awfully thin. We want to see the dartboard you used.”

“The judgements are explained quite well. What you call coins are visual aids. You have the whole estimate? Where did you get it, if I may ask.”

“Don’t worry, not from a box in someone’s bathroom.”

“My advice, which you rarely take, is that you’d be better to ponder this seriously. It was all carefully considered by the best minds, Inspector, every sentence scrubbed, and it will have long-term consequences.”

“Yes, it will. Very long term. Tell us when you take off your blindfolds, then we’ll talk. Or do you think we’ll spend the whole time extracting concessions?” He smacked his forehead. “Oh wait, yes, that’s it! That’s the game! You got it, go team, you cracked the code. Targeted diplomatic actions. Ooooooo. Our goal is to intimidate our neighbors. Where does that verb declension come from? Let’s see if I have it straight. You influence, we intimidate. Maybe we need B-52s to graduate from intimidating to influencing.”

“Well, if…”

“And it’s clear you don’t think your actions influence our views or our decisions, except maybe to prevent our single-track minds from plotting even worse coercive action, which apparently is the only action we know how to take.”


“No, no, absolutely, I admit we have one-track minds. Let me reveal,” he looked around, lowering his voice to a whisper, “it happens at birth, it’s very secret hush-hush the way babies are fed special formula to mold one-track minds. Then they are programmed to use coercive non-lethal or possibly non-nuclear lethal methods—we have two special compartmented departments, one for each—in pursuit of the goal to press foreign governments into adopting positions favorable to our objectives.”

“I take it you disagree with the conclusions.”

“Let me ask you a question. What is a footnote? I mean, in these documents, what are footnotes?”

“If someone disagrees with the majority position or has a more nuanced view and cares to argue long enough, they take a footnote.”

“OK, we want to take a footnote.”

“I don’t think you get a vote.”

“I told them you’d say that, but I had to ask.” He opened a small blue notebook and crossed something out.

“Can we order, Inspector? Just an appetizer would be good. Maybe it would be better to sit inside, out of the smoke.”

“Before that, I have something to show you. It was specially declassified just for you.” He fished in his pocket for a key, unlocked the briefcase, and took out a large red folder. He looked at his watch, noted the time, then pushed the folder across the table. “There was a lot of grumbling, but the decision from up top,” he looked at the ceiling, “that you should have a chance to see it. But no notes, no pictures. You can look, that’s all. First, though, initial the sheet on the front.”

“No deal,” I said. “I don’t initial anything you give me.” O pretended not to hear. I had time to skim the pages, barely, before the folder was pulled away and put back into the briefcase, which was carefully locked. I’d never seen him so meticulous.

“You saw it. No questions. I couldn’t let you see the whole thing because you don’t have the clearances. And I’m not authorized to answer anything, though, off the record, I can tell you what you just saw are the key judgments of the draft of our estimate of your policy for the next 10 years. And what do you know! There are three points. What do you call it? The Golden Lox method.”


“Point number one: We consider it most likely you will continue the coercive strategy your side has employed against us for decades, with occasional periods of diplomacy that you are incapable of sustaining, with the inevitable result that your policy—strategic coma some have called it—devolves into long periods of economic, diplomatic and military pressure designed to destabilize us—a feckless goal if there ever was one. There was a brief debate over whether you actually want to expunge our existence from the planet. It’s a footnote.

Point number two: We believe you won’t resort to a nuclear attack, which would be stupid, and we do not judge you to be stupid. But then again, the chances of your sitting down to have a serious, rational conversation with us is unlikely, not non-zero, but unlikely. It’s not zero only because it did happen a few times in the past. Unlikely, very unlikely, a snowball’s chance in hell—that was left open.

Point number three: Your policy is best summed up in the words of the old song,

‘Second verse,

Same as the first,

A little bit louder

And a little bit worse.’

That is to say, same assumptions, same conclusions, same meshugge approach.”



“I know what it means. I’m afraid to ask where you learned it.”

“Never mind my career path. Just one more question.” He paged through his little notebook.

I sighed, audibly. “Yes, what is it?”

“Why do you think it very unlikely—not just unlikely, but very unlikely—we would go to what you call a defensive strategy. It’s like you put it in as a throwaway, you needed a third option, or someone insisted it at least go in. But why wouldn’t we prefer that if we had a chance? We have lots to do, you have lots to do, all God’s children have lots to do. We don’t really need external boogeymen any more than you do. We have weaknesses, mistakes, failures. We talk about them all the time, which you would know if you paid attention. You ever watch Pyongyang television? No, of course not, you’re busy going through 100 channels of your own garbage. But if you watched our TV, you’d see that we are not afraid to show people what material life is like elsewhere. But we can’t focus on those things without some sort of assurance that you’ll leave us alone and stop threatening.”

“My turn,” I broke in before he could continue. “First of all, it’s not the job of our estimates to take into account US policy. If that seems odd, live with it.”

He shrugged. “You want me to hold your coat when you go over the cliff?”

“Second of all, when have we ever threatened you?”

“Oh, brother, we don’t have all day for me to count the ways. Let’s start with nuclear-armed Honest Johns, 8-inch howitzers, Nike Hercules, Sargent, 155-mm howitzer, and Davy Crockett.”

“Old business. Something more recent?”

“Ever had bombers and stealth fighters screaming up your coast at night?”

“That’s deterrence.”

“Ah, thank you, more verb declensions. You deter, we provoke.”


“We threaten, but you demonstrate a range of military options.” He clearly was just warming up.

“Yes, but…”

“You are trying to scare us, we are trying to scare you to stop trying to scare us.”

“Let me just…”

“You push us, Church, we push back. And you can take that to the bank.” He stood up.

“Leaving so soon?” I was only half surprised. “We haven’t ordered yet.”

“No time, I’m off to see a lizard.”

I thought about it a moment before I realized what he meant. “Wizard,” I shouted after him, “Off to see the Wizard,” but he was already out the door.

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