This is the last in a five-part series:
Fragments from September 10, 2001 (Monday)
Eight years on we remain vulnerable to a wide range of terrorist attacks. Whether the nation is more or less vulnerable depends on an assessment of threat-capacity, specific local and nodal vulnerabilities, and projected consequences… on which experts will disagree.
Katrina confirmed another sort of vulnerability, where human error amplifies natural calamity. As if to pound home the point, this Spring a long-anticipated pandemic erupted… and it is neither Asian nor avian in origin. But at least — or so far — the pandemic is less deadly than expected.
Our expectations will be overturned again and again. This is not an argument for fatalism. It is, though, an argument for some humility. It is also an argument for resilience.
There will be another attack or series of attacks. A hurricane will shred a major city. The past-due earthquake will make up for lost time. Some combination of the natural, accidental, and intentional will wreak havoc.
Despite every effort to prevent and mitigate, despite the courage and skill of our response, the scale of destruction, injury, and death will shake our individual, social, and political foundations.
But the foundation will stand — and might even be strengthened — if we will admit such suffering is the one expectation in which we can have confidence. Such realism is the rebar in our foundation. Just as steel binds with concrete, so can a strategy of resilience strengthen every other aspect of preparedness, response, and recovery.
Government policy can nourish or diminish resilience. When government works too hard to control, or reduce variation, or sometimes even to protect, it lessens the ability of individual and society to explore, experience, and to derive meaning from exploration and experience.
In this use of “meaning” I want to suggest the sort of strange attractor around which complex systems self-organize. In the very complex system of a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl found three equally valid strange attractors. Frankl wrote, “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” (Man’s Search for Meaning)
How can government policy encourage creativity and action? How can government policy encourage building relationships? Should government policy engage the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering?
Creativity and Action
Establish a national not-for-profit to facilitate the private sector’s role in homeland security. This would be helpful in collecting risk-assessment data (without FOIA exposure), coordinating voluntary high-risk vulnerability reduction (without potential regulatory complications), and might even become a sort of Ebay for financial contributions, volunteering time, and connecting those that want to help with those who need help.
Initiate a mini-grant program that awards $125,000 in homeland security grants every three months, with a maximum award of no more than $10,000. Have award recipients selected by a panel of 500 homeland security professionals voting online, with 100 “electors” turning over every three months.
Reconceive Citizen Corps. Instead of trying to manage its own programs with waaay too little funding, the Citizen Corps could become evangelists of homeland security best practice. The Citizen Corps at every level — national, state, county, local and neighborhood — should identify needs and priorities. Using the Citizen Corps network, the “world leader” in addressing each need or priority is identified. The Citizen Corps would also find existing capability to work with the world leader. Then the Citizen Corps communicates results, celebrates victories, and matches what is learned in one place to needs in other places. If you don’t like evangelists, think broker or matchmaker or entrepreneur or community organizer or gadfly or Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors and a bit of his mavens and salesmen too.
Substantially expand federal funding for interagency, intergovernmental, and private-public training and education related to homeland security. Use learning to build networks of relationships and incent (rather than regulate) good practice.
Establish a federal accrediting process for homeland security training and education. Replace the slow and often conservative approval process for courses and curricula with an open consumer-driven process consisting mostly of state, local, and private sector personnel. (Encourage creativity and relationships with the same program.)
Subsidize travel and lodging for more homeland security conferences, courses, alliances, consultations, and other reasons to get together. We all know the biggest value at most meetings is the personal networking. Even if the speaker is bad — sometimes because the speaker is bad — the side-bar conversations can be fabulous. If you are concerned about a typical “junket attack,” schedule the meetings for Fargo in February. In any case, most of the meetings should involve folks from the same region. So we are talking about a two hour drive and lunch in Peoria, not Paris in the Springtime.
Attitude toward Suffering
Lincoln at Gettysburg, Roosevelt in the depths of the depression and again after Pearl Harbor, Reagan when the Challenger exploded…
There is a role for the nation’s leaders — and our government — in shaping the attitude we take toward suffering, unavoidable or not.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 President Bush understood this role. At the National Cathedral on September 14, he offered,
It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded, and the world has seen, that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave. We see our national character in rescuers working past exhaustion; in long lines of blood donors; in thousands of citizens who have asked to work and serve in any way possible… In these acts, and in many others, Americans showed a deep commitment to one another, and an abiding love for our country.
Unfortunately, the single greatest influence on the public’s attitude toward suffering after 9/11 was probably a series of Travel Industry of America advertisements with the President calling on Americans to shop, travel, and “enjoy life”. There were sound economic reasons for the message. But the message was mistaken.
Resilience is not achieved by denial of suffering but in how we embrace its reality. As individuals we know this well. As a society, our attitudes are complicated and often conflicted.
It is not the role of government to resolve these conflicts. But in times of great suffering, it is well for the government to share our grief rather than try to distract us.
Nor should the government seek to diminish our experience of grief when we have chosen to place ourselves at risk. There is no good purpose for government subsidies, direct or indirect, to mitigate our experience of avoidable suffering.
We are more resilient when we accept the reality of flood plains, wildfire zones, beachfronts and other high risk contexts. The distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering can be debated, but do we need to debate the principle that government should not subsidize a persistent denial of demonstrated risk?
We take risks. Because they are risks, we sometimes fail. In failure I may suffer. I can also learn. From the alchemy of suffering and learning, I am empowered to create and act, in creating and acting I come into relationship with others. Through this cycle of creating, acting, building relationships, suffering or succeeding, and creating anew we become resilient.
Resilience is mostly an outcome of the home, neighborhood and workplace. But federal and state policy can encourage resilience with inputs that support — or at least avoid complicating — Frankl’s three sources of meaning.