Late Friday the DHS Press Office issued the following:
Janet Napolitano will deliver a speech emphasizing the nation’s shared responsibility for preparedness at the American Red Cross Hall of Service. Her remarks—marking the conclusion of National Preparedness Month—will focus on the important role that citizens must play in building a national culture of readiness and resilience.
In a statement released on September 11, the Secretary offered,
Together, we must build a culture of resiliency and guard against complacency, so we are better prepared for terrorist attacks or disasters of any kind.
We can discern in these and other remarks the Secretary’s effort to build on the framework she set-out July 29 at the Council on Foreign Relations,
Now, a wise approach to keeping America secure should be rooted in the values that define our nation—values like resilience, shared responsibility, standing up for what is right.
This Tuesday it will be interesting to read if and how the Secretary continues this public exploration of policy and strategy fundamentals.
The Secretary — and most of the policy community — tends to be threat-oriented. Her early effort to avoid overusing the “T word” was attacked and ridiculed. She learned a lesson.
Despite ritual bows of obeisance to all-hazards or all risks or “disasters of all kinds”, terrorism captures the predominance of attention. Again, from her July speech in New York,
So how do we secure our homeland and stay true to our values? We do it with four levels of collective response. It starts with the American people. From there, it extends to local law enforcement, and from there up to the federal government, and then finally out beyond our shores, where America’s international allies can serve and do serve as partners in a collective fight against terrorism.
My understanding of human history — or just US history — suggests that the use of violence to achieve political purposes is a chronic condition. With ongoing care the risk can be significantly reduced, but it will not be eliminated.
I am even more certain we cannot eliminate flood, wildfire, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, pandemic… we could go on. These risks will persist and will from time-to-time emerge in their most extreme form.
In the October Harvard Business Review, three experts discussing risk-in- general propose,
Low probability, high-impact events that are almost impossible to forecast — we call them Black Swan events — are increasingly dominating the environment… Instead of trying to anticipate low-probability, high-impact events, we should reduce our vulnerability to them. Risk management we believe, should be about lessening the impact of what we don’t understand — not a futile attempt to develop sophisticated techniques and stories that perpetuate our illusions of being able to understand and predict…
This is what many of us mean when we write and talk about resilience.
I perceive Secretary Napolitano has an intuitive sense that we can usually do more about our vulnerabilities than our threats. She knows this from very personal experience.
But whenever she has begun to explore the policy implications of this insight, she has been accused of not being sufficiently attentive to some specific threat.
We should certainly know our specific threats: al-Qaeda, H1N1, or the chemical plant next door. When possible we should remove or reduce the threat. But threats innately tend to surprise us. So… we should expect to be surprised. If we are serious about such an expectation, we will give increased attention to reducing our vulnerabilities — not only to a specific threat or threats, but — to a range of risks.
If you have time to listen to the Secretary — especially if you are in the hall — on Tuesday, please share with the rest of us what you hear. As soon as I can, I will provide access to the transcript. Then let’s examine the balance of attention given to threat or vulnerability: preparedness for the worst we can imagine or resilience in face of what we never imagined.
I am not suggesting we need to choose between threat analysis or vulnerability analysis. We need both. But in my experience we are much more attentive to threats (that can be difficult to combat) and much less attentive to vulnerabilities, that are often entirely within our ability to reduce or mitigate across a range of risks.
The Secretary will be speaking at 2:oo pm (eastern) Tuesday, September 29, American Red Cross Hall of Service, 1730 E Street Washington, D.C.