I’ve both seen and heard this going around, and after a while, it started to pique my curiosity. I hadn’t paid much attention to it because I thought I knew what it meant. An example would be security personnel manning the X-ray machines at airports, ports and other entry/ exit points. After a while even the best of them start to miss things. Even when the security managers do things like rotate duties and “gamify” the work, people still miss things. Artificial Intelligence, so called, hasn’t progressed to the point where it can replace humans in such work. That’s what I thought it meant.
A cursory look on the internet yielded details like it has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, although not according to the Thomas Jefferson library, apparently. Timothy Taylor has a good piece on the “Conversable Economist” about someone called Anna Berkes who took a deep dive and came up with some interesting records. However, that’s not what I’m concerned about here. What I want to do is briefly talk about ideas and beliefs that such a quote might conjure up.
For a start, “eternal vigilance” is not eternal. What it means is living in a constant state of high alertness, even while sleeping. I have done field work requiring twelve-hour shifts for all participants, meaning effectively thirteen hours working and eleven hours sleeping or resting. One hour was for the incoming shift to take over from the outgoing one. Tiredness would naturally set in even while one was on shift. My experience has been that someone could ask me a question while I was actually sleeping in a chair and I would awake instantly and answer that question in a coherent and accurately relevant manner. Jack Weatherford in “Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world” describes how an elderly woman heard the sound of horses’ hooves while everyone was deep in sleep and awoke to sound the alarm in time for Temudjin (Genghis Khan in later life) and his companions to get away or they would most certainly have been killed. The Chinese have a saying that “In times of peace, a true gentleman keeps his sword at his side at all times.” There is a sense of purpose, that remaining in a state of alertness is necessary if you want to continue living well.
It is not “eternal vigilance” which leads to indifference. It is the lack of vigilance. What I mean is that vigilance which does not arise from compulsion and fear. It is a vigilance that stays alert from a position of mastery and strength. It is a calm alertness, not a wide-eyed, panicked one. It stems from a mindset of confidence and the knowledge that one is in control even when danger suddenly appears.
Indifference is spawned from a lack of care and benevolence towards others. If we care for others around us, staying vigilant raises the collective alertness and we will then be able to rest and sleep peacefully, waking up utterly refreshed.