The room seemed to transform from an oasis of air conditioning to a fiery furnace as soon as the words left Senator Corbin’s mouth and by the look on the Chairman’s face, Robert Corbin was one of the three Hebrew boys. The deep oak paneling of the Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation meeting room suddenly felt like being trapped in a jail of wood. And the smell of fire was near.
Chairman Monroe, a longtime senator from Connecticut, oversaw the Senate’s C, S, & T Committee with the detached sense of interest that follows years of processing budgetary requests and insignificant bills, but something about Senator Corbin’s objection caused him to lean forward and take note of who was present.
“Senator Corbin, is there a particular…”
His words were derailed by a cough from an elderly Senator sitting a few seats to the left of Senator Corbin. It was only the second month of the session and Robert had not yet become familiar with all his colleagues yet.
Senator Corbin watched a strange game unfold in the sudden silence that filled every corner of the room. From behind his desk at the front of the room, Senator Monroe glared at the senator whose name was fighting to surface in Robert’s mind. The senator leaned forward in his seat and glanced quickly around the room until his eyes came back to the chairman.
Chairman Monroe remained statuesque as his eyes slowly drifted over the face of each man present and then back the senator who had coughed. Robert felt like he had been transported back to middle school. He was watching the silent communication of best friends in class. No one else seemed to notice as the spoke quietly with their aids or looked over papers.
Subtle lines of frustration strained the edges of the senator’s eyes and in a move that almost seemed natural, he nodded toward the back of the room. Chairman Monroe’s eyes followed the clue and Senator Corbin watched as the question in his demeanor immediately changed to understanding.
“The committee will take a short recess for lunch. This meeting will resume at one o’clock.”
The knock of his gavel sent the senators and their aids scrambling towards the exit to get to their next appointment or meeting. Robert felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see the senator that had halted the meeting with a single cough standing before him. He might have been taller than Robert if not for the way he hunched over. His silver hair and deep wrinkles gave the impression of frailty, but one look into his piercing blue eyes dispelled that myth.
“Senator Corbin. I don’t believe we have had the pleasure.”
Like a skeleton key, his voice unlocked the name that Robert had been struggling to remember. He breathed a quick sigh of relief.
“Senator McDermit. It’s a pleasure.”
The icy hand inside his own gripped him with surprising strength.
“Would you care to have lunch with me in my office?”
He was scheduled to have lunch with an important lobbyist, but something about the way he asked suggested that it was not really a question.
“It would be my pleasure.” Robert attempted to give the warm smile that had helped him win his seat, but Senator McDermit had turned away at the first sign of acceptance.
The exchange left Robert feeling confused. It had been a long time since he had felt that way and it reminded of his high school chemistry class. That first test was the only one he had ever failed, but he submersed himself in the periodic table until he was asking questions his teacher had trouble answering. He was confident that this would be no different. He just needed more information. And the only way to get it was a lunch date.
Robert gathered his notes and looked around the near-empty room once more. Senator Monroe was staring at him just outside the exit. Robert smiled, but again the only response was for the senator to turn and walk away. As he shook his head he noticed something that he had not seen before. Sitting atop a black platform in the back of the room was a video camera with a small blinking red light.
Pictures of famous ships hung in place of the awards that decorated most Congressman’s office walls. A large model of the titanic rested beneath a glass cover under the window that looked out over Washington.
Theodore McDermit’s office was larger than Robert’s, but this was no surprise. He had done some quick research on these men before their lunch meeting. Senator Edwin McDermit was first elected in 1978. He had actually served on the committee longer than the chairman, but had never sought that appointment.
Robert arrived ten minutes early only to find the other senators in conversation at a table set near the window. A linen tablecloth, ceramic dinnerware, and silver utensils attempted to give the appearance of a formal meal, but the hollow knock of plastic rang out each time a dish was placed down.
Senator McDermit’s secretary ushered Robert to his seat before leaving, closing the door behind her. The men continued their conversation without the slightest acknowledgment that Senator Corbin had arrived.
“…it was an oversight on my part.”
Senator McDermit nodded thoughtfully before asking, “And what about his profile?”
He posed the question like a parent to their child and Robert began to understand why this lunch was in Senator McDermit’s office. Monroe may be the Chairman, but it was becoming clear that Senator McDermit held the reigns of this committee.
“It’s good. Better than average. His Driver profile suggests he is calculating, but without the penchant for vengeance that is typically associated with that trait. He has a reputation for being loyal.”
McDermit scoffed. “Reputations are meaningless until they have been tested. I would not jump out of a plane with a parachute that had never been used just because someone believed it would work.”
Robert did not want to interrupt, but quietly questioned if they were speaking about him.
“He graduated at the top of his class and has a history in finance. I’m not going to be around forever and he seems like the best fit.”
“They are talking about me!” Robert thought.
He found himself torn between speaking up and waiting patiently to be included in the discussion. Interjecting could be seen as a strength, but men of their generation tended to hold to the philosophy of “do not speak until spoken to” when it came to younger men. He decided to hold his tongue.
Senator McDermit turned his calculating eyes on Robert and studied him for a moment.
“I wonder… Are you a lion or lamb?”
Robert took the opportunity and spoke for the first time.
“I have found myself to be both, depending on the circumstance.”
Senator McDermit coughed a wheezy laugh. At the sound of it Senator Monroe relaxed notably and began to fork large portions of mashed potatoes into his mouth while Senator McDermit continued.
“Is there a particular reason you held a rejection to the budgetary request today?”
The question confirmed Robert’s suspicious of foul play. After being assigned to the committee, he had submersed himself in learning everything he could about the departments within the government that they oversaw. He began to notice some inconsistencies within the number of requests that were granted for each branch and it all revolved around the Department of Transportation. Last year the committee had approved a 2.3 million dollar request for a traffic study, but had denied the Department of Science a request for stem-cell research for close to the same amount. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Pouring through records, he found that this had been going on for decades. Robert had determined to follow the money.
“I have found some budgetary discrepancies that I don’t quite understand and I don’t want to have my name on something until I understand it. Maybe you could help me with that?”
Senator McDermit looked over to Senator Monroe who gave a might-as-well shrug as he chewed a bite of steak.
“In 1992 the Department of Transportation conducted a year-long study of drivers in D.C., Philadelphia, and New York using thousands of traffic cameras in order to determine how dangerous talking on a cell phone was to driving. As you can imagine, they found that being distracted causes a significant increase in accidents. Four years later, a technology analyst within the department named Josh Poole began an unauthorized project to keep himself awake during his night shift using the data collected from that study. What he found changed our national security forever.”
National security? Robert leaned forward. This is not what he had expected.
“Josh had seen a story in the news about a serial killers that had just been arrested in D.C. In the story they interviewed neighbors who could not believe it. They talked about how polite and kind he was. Josh wondered if he had ever shown signs of what lay beneath his ‘perfect neighbor’ act. With the access he had to the study, as well as Department of Transportation databases, he found that the killer had been taped driving as part of study.
Over the next few months he began to research murderers, rapists, and other criminals. He gathered a list of 134 that had been recorded during the study and wrote a computer program to search for common driving habits. When he saw the results he did not believe them so he put it to a test. He had his program comb through the data collected by the cameras each night in search of drivers who displayed those same habits. Within six months 27 of the 42 drivers on his new list had committed a violent crime.”
Robert took it all in, but it still didn’t quite make sense. Something was missing.
“So we spend million of dollars each year trying to profile murderers and rapist? We can’t arrest them before they act so what’s the point?”
Senator Monroe spoke up for the first time in a hushed voice.
“Where were you the day Bush was assassinated? Or do you remember what you were doing when the Supreme Court was bombed?”
Robert looked at him like he had lost his grip on reality until like a ray of light breaking through the clouds he saw the implications so clearly he wondered how he could have ever missed it.
“That’s right” Senator McDermit resumed. “The technology was inefficient at first, but still useful enough to fund. But with the advancements in video technology and facial recognition software we now have a system in place that can accurately determine any U.S. citizen’s penchant for violence.”
Thoughts fought for attention inside his mind. Was this an invasion of privacy? How many lives had the system saved? If it could spot terrorists, what else could it find? It was the last question that won the battle.
“You said spoke about my ‘driving profile’. This system isn’t only for spotting terrorists is it?”
A thin smile touched Senator McDermit’s lips.
“Very good. The national security applications ensure it’s continued funding, but the possibilities are limitless. People are never more true to themselves than when they are alone. How they react when no one is watching to being cut off, or slow traffic, or even tire in the road reveals everything about them. But we are watching.”
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake