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    Exit strategy: World looks for a way out

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 2, 2003

    For weeks now, as the talk of war has mounted and confidence in stocks has plunged, news pages have been rife with references to exit strategies: Does President Bush have an exit strategy for getting out of Iraq? Do you have an exit strategy for getting out of the market?

    Then came the fire in the Rhode Island nightclub that killed 96. At least 25 bodies were found near the club's front exit.

    "They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem," West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said. "They didn't use the other three fire exits."

    Suddenly having an exit strategy meant something completely different. No longer was it just a coy bit of jargon for knowing when to stop shooting, or an investment technique no self-respecting venture capitalist could survive without.

    It had become a practical necessity for just plain surviving.

    "When patrons walk into nightclubs, they should figure out where the exits are, whether it's a club or a restaurant or a rock concert," said Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Christian.

    Stripped of its context, that advice -- know how to get out as soon as you get in -- becomes applicable to everything from driving to dating. Life, it turns out, is one long exit strategy.

    The term's roots are in business. In a 1995 column on "exit strategy," William Safire cited a 1979 article in the Harvard Business Review. The authors claimed they were only parroting a term that was already in use in the manufacturing field.

    Safire was writing about the term because it had jumped like avian flu from the business section to the front page.

    Politicians, mindful of the lessons of Vietnam, were badgering the Clinton administration about forming an "exit strategy" for Bosnia. Republican lawmakers were contemplating possible exit strategies if budget talks failed.

    The term became so overused that The New Yorker ran a cartoon in 1999 showing two men facing each other across a jail cell. The caption reads: "What's your exit strategy?"

    Usage had been on the wane until the showdown with Saddam Hussein demanded that pundits press it into service again.

    Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board chastised Bush for planning a postwar military occupation of Iraq without "a clear exit strategy." In France, according to the Montreal Gazette, some politicians want to know if President Chirac has "an exit strategy that will enable France to mend its ties with Washington and London."

    For Bush and Chirac exit strategies are elements of passing diplomatic crises. There are some who think it's no accident Bush has no exit strategy because he has no intention of leaving Iraq once he's in control.

    The rest of us are concocting exit strategies all the time.

    We arrange fake emergency calls to save us from potentially disastrous blind dates. Employment counselors advise us to know what our next job will be before we accept the one being offered to us.

    "Defensive driving is a 'strategy for survival,' " reads one driving manual. "Always ask yourself 'What if . . .?' What if someone cuts in front of me? Do I have enough space to stop? Can I safely move to the next lane?"

    The message is clear. Be prudent because someone else is going to do something stupid. You look for an exit on the highway for the same reason you do in a nightclub. You never know when someone is going to ignite a shower of sparks in a low-ceilinged room without sprinklers.

    We optimize our advantage. We minimize our risk.

    And if things don't work out on the job or in the marriage, there's always Florida -- America's exit state.

    At some point, though, during a lifetime of looking for the best way out we will find ourselves in a crisis we did not plan for. To find the open door, we will be forced to improvise.

    In 1999, after 11 people died when an American Airlines plane overshot the runway while landing in Little Rock, investigators asked the survivors if they had paid attention to the safety demonstration.

    A woman in the back of the plane, who described herself as a seasoned flier, said she'd ignored the briefing. When the plane crashed she saw thick smoke and flames. "She had worked in a burn center for 15 years and she didn't want to be burned," according to investigators.

    "She heard someone yell to go out the tail cone. She was one of the last passengers to go out the tail cone."

    Sometimes the best way out is not the way we came in.

    Bill Duryea is a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.

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