Willful blindness occurs when there are things we could know, should know but somehow manage not to know. We are willfully blind when we don't open the credit card bill, manage to miss the health checkup and studiously ignore the fact that our partner's college drinking habits haven't matured. Companies and organizations are willfully blind when they ignore warning signs because they are too tired, stretched too thin, badly structured or too rigid in the way they do things. Ken Lay and Enron. Jimmy Cayne and Bear Stearns. Janice Karpinski and Abu Ghraib. Tony Hayward and BP.
Bradley Manning, the U.S.Army private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks represents a classic case of willful blindness by the military. As in all cases of willful blindness, at first the blame goes to the "Bad Apple" who, unique among his peers, did a terrible thing with no provocation or warning signs at all. Then, as an investigation ensues, it turns out that there were warning signs: In Manning's case, extreme emotional episodes and screaming at officers. A mental health expert recommended that Manning not be deployed -- but he was ignored. Once in Iraq, Manning assaulted a fellow officer and was deemed unstable enough to have his weapon disabled. But nobody helped Manning. They just took notes, turning a blind eye to a growing problem.
And there was more. One of the contributory causes of willful blindness is sheer fatigue. It isn't just that long days and long shifts without breaks make us feel lousy. Brain functions don't deteriorate equally. What goes first is our capacity to reason, to think. Our thalamus works overtime, struggling to stay alert as the parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex lose glucose. The areas of the brain most affected are those that distinguish between ideas, between good and bad.
How did Manning describe his working conditions? "You had people working 14 hours a day... every single day... no weekends... no recreation... people stopped caring after 3 weeks ." This would go a long way towards explaining why he acted as he did -- but also why those around them had long since ceased paying attention to physical security: "Weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis... a perfect storm." You could call it the blind leading the blind.
Such blindness is willful because the science of sleep deprivation is well-studied and understood. We have known for many years that it is severely implicated not just in mechanical failures and industrial accidents but also in the bad decisions people make when they are worn out.
What makes us think that we can work others -- or even ourselves -- this way? Why don't we acknowledge our limitations? We may like to imagine we're super heroes, inexhaustible and immortal. But willful blindness to our own limitations leaves us exposed and Manning unprotected.