Editors’ Note: To Better Understand Police, Read (and Write!) Fiction

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on March 1, 2016

There are tons of pol­i­cy dis­cus­sion web­sites out there, with a mil­lion dif­fer­ent lev­els and types of fund­ing. But there are painful­ly few that uti­lize one of the most effec­tive means we humans have of under­stand­ing a com­pli­cat­ed issue: sto­ries. We think it’s time to fix that.

To that end, we have teamed up (with some help from War on the Rocks’ Alex Hecht) to cre­ate Viewscreen, a web­site of fic­tive pol­i­cy sto­ries.

Lost in the end­less flur­ry of pol­i­cy brief­in­gs, op-eds, white papers, tes­ti­monies, polit­i­cal horser­ace whis­per cam­paigns, and click­bait hot takes is a very sim­ple fact about our soci­ety — pol­i­cy reflects and affects peo­ple in the real world. The many dry dis­cus­sions one can find about cur­rent events — troop lev­els in Syr­ia, car­bon emis­sions in Chi­na, health­care expen­di­tures in the Unit­ed States, the role of jour­nal­ism in soci­ety, or land man­age­ment in Ore­gon — are ulti­mate­ly about peo­ple and how we orga­nize and man­age our com­mu­ni­ties. The human side to pol­i­cy is often lost in the tech­ni­cal debate about which one should be imple­ment­ed. These poli­cies are fun­da­men­tal­ly about pol­i­tics; and pol­i­tics are fun­da­men­tal­ly about sto­ries.

Human under­stand­ing is based on sto­ry­telling. This is why elec­tion pun­dits are obsessed with “nar­ra­tive.” This is why our news media presents new infor­ma­tion in the form of a sto­ry. It is the pri­ma­ry means by which we ingest pop­u­lar cul­ture. In the secu­ri­ty realm, there is grow­ing under­stand­ing that nar­ra­tive sto­ries can have a pow­er­ful effect on, say, the appeal of a ter­ror group or the effec­tive­ness or a counter-ter­ror response.

Sto­ry­telling is inher­ent to our exis­tence, yet when it comes to the poli­cies that con­strain and deter­mine our lives, there is almost no sto­ry­telling to help us under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of the issues we all face. Apart from the occa­sion­al spe­cial issue of a web­site or a mag­a­zine here and there, the pow­er of sto­ry­telling to illus­trate some fun­da­men­tal truth about our world is, for the most part, miss­ing from dis­cus­sions about poli­cies and their impacts.

There are sto­ries that need to be told, that have mer­it, that explain the way the world works, that sim­ply can­not be told through a con­ven­tion­al non-fic­tion­al for­mat. You need to invent some­thing to get the point across, to explain in crys­tal clear terms what is going on and what the stakes are. At the same time, there is a cer­tain ground­ing that’s nec­es­sary in good fic­tion to con­strain its scope. “Truth is stranger than fic­tion,” Mark Twain famous­ly said, “because Fic­tion is oblig­ed to stick to pos­si­bil­i­ties; Truth isn’t.”

Here’s the deal: each month we will pub­lish a short sto­ry from a cre­ative pol­i­cy expert (or a wonky writer), which is used to help us under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of our world through the organ­ic, lib­er­at­ing medi­um of sto­ry­telling. Our sto­ries will be solid­ly ground­ed in the world, yet won’t be held back by it. Accom­pa­ny­ing each sto­ry will be an ana­lyt­i­cal review essay, around 2,000–3,000 words or so, that uses that month’s sto­ry as a jump­ing off point to explore the top­ics in a more ana­lyt­i­cal fash­ion. We are also reach­ing out to artists who can illus­trate these sto­ries. We will play with ideas, illu­mi­nate cur­rent and/or near-future pol­i­cy chal­lenges, and maybe even pro­pose cre­ative and uncon­ven­tion­al solu­tions to prob­lems with­out (we hope) falling into myth-mak­ing.

We are eager to hear from you. One of the most frus­trat­ing aspects of the pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ty in Wash­ing­ton, DC is how clois­tered it can be. Too many go to the same schools and learn the same things from the same peo­ple. We think a diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ences, view­points, and ideas is the only healthy way to approach under­stand­ing the world. We have room for Ivy League-edu­cat­ed think tankers, but also hard­scrab­ble aid work­ers just in from a lengthy stint in the field. Both per­spec­tives are impor­tant and nec­es­sary.

There have been some efforts to focus sto­ry­telling and art on under­stand­ing the future of war­fare, but Viewscreen has a much wider aper­ture. Sto­ries rely on con­flict to engage their char­ac­ters, so there is a clear role for sto­ries where the con­flict is phys­i­cal as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal. But the world is big­ger than just war and peace: it’s ecol­o­gy, it’s eco­nom­ics, it’s per­son­al. Rather than try­ing to fit every­thing into the bounds of secu­ri­ty, we think there’s val­ue in let­ting these issues breathe on their own.

That being said, we do see a com­mon thread to our approach. We are not lim­it­ed by genre or time­frame, but we antic­i­pate near­ly all of the sto­ries we run will have a sci­ence-fic­tion edge to them. In the intro­duc­tion to Green Earth, Kim Stan­ley Robin­son observed:

[T]hese days we live in a big sci­ence fic­tion nov­el we are all writ­ing togeth­er. If you want to write a nov­el about our world now, you’d bet­ter write sci­ence fic­tion, or you will be doing some kind of inad­ver­tent nos­tal­gia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain con­fused.”

We agree. Our first sto­ry, about hack­ers on the moon, has a “cyber” edge to it, but it also hints at the cul­ture of Sil­i­con Val­ley, nation­al­ism, and about dis­place­ment. The accom­pa­ny­ing essay, by Brett Fujio­ka, explores these themes, as well as how lit­er­a­ture and fic­tion can enhance our expe­ri­ences of tech­nol­o­gy.

We have more sto­ries and analy­sis com­ing about eco­log­i­cal col­lapse, refugee flows, and oth­er set­tings. But we want to get more sto­ries, more essays, and more ideas about our world and the chal­lenges it faces into the pipeline. We want to hear your take; and we want to help you real­ize it in a new and inter­est­ing way. Wash­ing­ton, DC can some­times seem painful­ly devoid of cre­ative think­ing. That’s a damned shame. With Viewscreen we hope to bridge that gap and re-intro­duce the pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ty to the pow­er that sto­ries have in shap­ing our world. And maybe, if we’re lucky, improve it.

Joshua Foust is the pub­lish­er of Viewscreen and a nation­al secu­ri­ty fel­low at the For­eign Pol­i­cy Research Insti­tute. He is a for­mer mil­i­tary intel­li­gence ana­lyst.

Michael Hikari Cecire is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Viewscreen and an asso­ciate schol­ar at the For­eign Pol­i­cy Research Institute’s Project on Demo­c­ra­t­ic Tran­si­tions.

Alex Hecht is the edi­tor-at-large of Viewscreen and a secu­ri­ty ana­lyst in Wash­ing­ton, DC. He is the edi­tor of Molo­tov Cock­tail at War on the Rocks.