Trendspotting – Intelligent Design

The bedrock of American society is our system of laws, and how we make, enforce and adjudicate these laws speaks volumes about our culture. Winston Churchill reportedly once said that to see the soul of a society, look at the community jail. A snapshot taken randomly around the United States provides an often-neglected barometer of how we are doing according to the “Churchill model.” Then August 29th happens and we get a more focused look at our society and culture than we ever wanted.

During the summer of ’05, we’ve had a few interesting items show up in our dyspeptic cornucopia, including a growing insurgency in Iraq, two Supreme Court vacancies, gas prices that are altering lifestyles and a presidential push to teach intelligent design. Then we get a “force of nature” that literally rearranges life as we knew it in three or more states; which brings me back to intelligent design.

Missing the debate on intelligent design is understandable, unless you are addicted to talking heads such as Larry King, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, Bill Maher, etc. If you are addicted to these and a few dozen more who are required (because our information-starved society demands it) to unceasingly report the news as they alone comprehend it, then you don’t have a life and aren’t reading this anyway.

But for those who do ponder the physical and metaphysical in your spare time, in a paragraph or two, let’s explore some forgotten lessons that Hurricane Katrina emphasized. Most of us who read Correctional News think of intelligent design as planners, architects, engineers, constructors and operators making deliberate and informed decisions about places of incarceration. For a correctional facility to succeed in the eyes of society, the evidence of intelligent design should be blatantly opaque, if not invisible. No one gets elected for building a beautiful jail, but some get un-elected for doing so.

In my biased opinion, America has an enviable stable of intelligent designers that has adorned our amber waves of grain with impressive examples of thoughtful, functional design. But the pop-culture definition of intelligent design is something different. The term first appeared in a Scientific American article in 1847, but found wings at a 1988 Discovery Institute conference in Tacoma, Wash., entitled; “Sources of Information Content in DNA.” A scientist named Charles Thaxton referred to a theory that the presence of DNA in a living cell is evidence of a designing intelligence. In doing so, he launched a national debate that now includes the president of the U.S. Senate and the president of the United States, as well as virtually every science teacher and self-ordained preacher in the country.

In a sentence, the scientific armor of the arrogant Darwinian evolutionists had been adroitly penetrated by the clever spin on two words by Genesis-thumping creationists. Politicians in several states rushed to pass laws mandating that overworked public school science instructors “teach the controversy.” All the while, whether by design, natural forces and/or divine intervention, Hurricane Katrina awakened as a patch of choppy surf off the coast of West Africa.

Since landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, America (and the world) has not lacked for film footage demonstrating the inconsistencies of intelligent design in the construction of communities below sea level, ineffective evacuation plans for the least mobile and non-enforcement of good order in panic-stricken neighborhoods. Apparently, few of the most basic lessons from 9/11 on the need for intelligent design in communication protocols to evacuation procedures to rescue techniques transferred well to 8/29.

America is a sackcloth-wearing nation of self-analysts. Four years after the events of 9/11 re-defined the daily activities of every citizen, we continue to probe, pontificate and politicize. The gallons of printer’s ink, miles of video tape and hours of “on-the-scene” reporting should remind any skeptic that we will not miss the opportunity to repeat the drill as the deadly waters of Katrina retreat to Lake Pontchartrain.

One of the post 9/11 tragedies has been the inability of “community,” in the most inclusive sense of that term, to grasp the potential of intelligent design. Citizens gave hundreds of millions and governments responded with billions of dollars to honor the dead, the left-behind and the towering spirit of an entire nation. Yet with all our collective intelligence, we can’t site a reflecting pool, much less embolden our past and our potential with a universally acceptable design for Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

Not for a moment wishing to diminish the lingering pain of 9/11, but in many ways the social, economic, and physical challenges facing the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans in particular, are far greater than those of a few acres in New York City. Entire communities, infrastructure and systems of governance must be re-designed. The processes and houses of justice must be among the first to be re-imagined. And this is where I have my greatest optimism because opportunity abounds for a rigorous application of intelligent design.

While politicians and pundits sort out the goring of bureaucratic oxen (and there may be a pasture full), Wellington boots are literally in the water assessing the need and the opportunity to intelligently design better justice systems and facilities along the Gulf Coast. Working from a makeshift, crowded former department store in Baton Rouge, Ron Budzinski, executive vice president at PSA-Dewberry and former chairman of the Academy of Architecture for Justice, is leading a team of architects, engineers, planners and managers in the restoration of justice facilities. Before the ink dries on this edition of Correctional News , Ron and Tom Allison (former Orange County, Fla. corrections director) will be joined by dozens, and perhaps hundreds, more to imagine a new future.

The conditions of employment involve 18-hour, six-day weeks with a 30-square-foot cubicle to call home. Yet, before the mind-numbing impact of bureaucracy drowns any hope for intelligent design solutions for reorganizing systems and replacing facilities, a few professionals will have a small window of time to imagine a better justice community that recognizes that, while created equal, we are not all endowed so.

I’m only a part-time columnist for this leading trade publication and don’t pretend to have metaphysical insights into the true meaning of intelligent design, but I do know that from adversity a clarity of priorities and vision can evolve. For now, the debate on its true meaning will be left with scientists, philosophers and theologians, while folks like you and me look inward, outward and upward for inspiration to support the efforts to design new systems and facilities that assure equal justice for all.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.

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