Rather than asking how he did over the last 100 days, how did we do?
Despite Chris Bellavita’s thoughtful skepticism regarding the liturgy of threat-vulnerability-consequence-risk, I find it a helpful thinking tool. If we apply this framework to the last 100 days of homeland security, what does it tell us?
There are plenty. The President has already declared 19 major disasters. There was an unprecedented Red River crest. As drought deepens the prospect of wildfire worsens. Hacker attacks have substantially increased. This year’s hurricane forecast, thankfully, leans toward the historic mean. But some insist the long-term forecast is apocalyptic. Our self-declared adversaries continue at-large and are increasingly active. The potential for terrorist attack persists. The likelihood of such an attack almost certainly increases with each passing day. The surprising emergence of the H1N1 virus suggests how, in so many ways, our risks can swiftly shift
Again, more than we can list: Lots of old infrastructure; lemming-like relocation of population to areas especially susceptible to hurricane, earthquake, flood, drought, and wildfire; increasing concentration and interdependence of power, food, and water supplies; recently many have been feeling especially vulnerable regarding our economic system.
I will add another vulnerability not usually in the top ten: We have not found nor crafted an effective way to communicate about intentional threats. See the dust-up regarding “man-made disasters,” followed by controversy regarding possible right-wing extremism. Prior and similar cases can be recalled. In each case there are serious issues that might have benefitted from hearing and discussion. Instead we stood by while — or perhaps contributed to — a barrage of preconceived fears, accusations, clichés, and other forms of self-justification from all sides. The noise drowned out most chances of advancing anyone’s understanding.
Discouraged from meaningfully exploring our doubts, many are inclined to one of two extremes. The optimists among us tend toward hopeful denial. Our pessimists prepare grimly to respond. Prevention, mitigation and proactive resilience — which most agree are worth the investment — require a shared sense of reality that, so far, escapes us.
We would be less vulnerable if we could be less prickly and considerably more magnanimous in listening to others. This would — at least — allow the conversation to get started.
Map our threats to our vulnerabilities and the resultant interweaving of nodes and networks reminds me of Bartolomeo’s map of hell. What I have observed from the last 100 days — and well before — is that too many are too quick to lose a sense of shared relationship, mutual respect, and simple patience to listen to one another. This tendency is increasing the consequences we face from a variety of catastrophic possibilities.
There is a formula that some use to calculate risk. It is rendered as follows:
Likelihood = Threat / Vulnerability (for example, I live on top of a mountain, my vulnerability to flood is so low as to practically negate the threat. My vulnerability to fire amplifies that threat). Risk = Likelihood * Consequences.
We can often adjust our vulnerabilities much more easily than our threats. If the vulnerability I have identified above is accurate, one of the most effective means of reducing our risk is to communicate carefully, clearly, and courageously while listening to the communications of others with an authentic effort to understand. By reasoning together we can reduce the likelihood of harm.
One hundred days ago, the new President said, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
We still have some maturing to do.
(The Department of Homeland Security has released its own report entitled, 100 days of Homeland Security. A less tranquil take on the same 100 days is offered by James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation.)