When Red Lines Are Green Lights

As most people know, President Obama declared a “red line” warning the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons on its people. After the (colorblind?) Syrians ignored the warning, the President explained that it was not his red line but instead “the world’s.” Journalists have thus far been unable to verify this because “the world” seems to have an unlisted phone number.

The ensuing kerfluffle over whether the red line was the President’s or the world’s and whether it was wise or foolish got me wondering about just how useful red lines are. Thankfully, a current situation in my condominium complex has provided a possible answer to that question.

The complex is fairly large, totaling over 200 units, and features a generously sized swimming pool. For many years, three signs were displayed on the columns supporting the pool house. One indicated no lifeguard was in attendance, another listed the pool hours.

The third listed thirteen specific rules—no flotation devices, no children unable to regulate their bodily functions, no food or animals, no diving, and so on. At the bottom of this sign was the admonition, “Anyone not following the rules may be asked to leave.”

Lately, it seems, pool-rule breaking has been on the rise, though details about the number and character of the violations are sketchy. In response to this development, the condo’s board of directors has followed President Obama’s example and drawn a red line warning for pool rule violators by adding not one but two A-frame signs measuring four feet high by two feet wide, each bearing this stern message:

Failure to abide by the posted pool rules may result in the suspension of the resident’s right to use the pool.

The directors, I assume, expected that posting these words on not one but two large signs no more than twenty feet apart would produce sufficient trepidation in the community to put an end to the rule-violating.

Call me a skeptic, but I think they may have assumed a tad too much. Here’s why:

People who ignore clearly posted rules are not likely to change their ways merely because the size of the print or the number of postings has increased.

Saying a penalty “may” be applied is a waste of breath and ink because the word clearly implies that in all probability nothing will happen.

Saying residents may be punished implies that only residents use the pool when, in fact, relatives and guests also use it. Does the board really intend to bar a condo owner from the pool after her grandson violates the rule proscribing diving?

The board of directors obviously didn’t analyze the problem thoroughly. If they had, they would have asked themselves the following questions before ordering the signs:

What will happen if the new signs don’t produce the desired results? Will we add a warning banner across the clubhouse façade? If so, what will do if that fails? Have small aircraft fly overhead towing even larger banners?

Since the warning words on the original sign are being ignored, should we take action rather than adding more words? If so, what action? Hiring a pool monitor to enforce the rules? What should his authority be and what recourse should he have if those he asks to leave the pool refuse to obey?

The dilemma facing my board of directors, though miniscule compared to President Obama’s, is similar in kind. Both dilemmas reflect the reality that more and more people, and nations, are putting themselves above the rules. In such a world, “red lines” are meaningful only if they are well conceived and enforceable. If they are neither, they are likely to be interpreted as green lights.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved