I am glad George Kennan wrote a “long telegram,” instead of something as brief as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Otherwise Phil would have been long gone by now.
Since I am still coming to terms with what his leaving means for the future of Homeland Security Watch, I hope Phil delays his departure by finding more things to say about resilience, homeland security, authentic leadership, or risk. Surely there is much more to milk in those topics.
If I can offer a suggestion, I do not believe he has yet fully mined the homeland security implications of Thucydides’ History of The Peloponnesian War. Certainly someone as well educated in the classics (he would say “trained”) as Phil Palin can find something in Thucydides’ 600 small print pages to further extend what already has to be the longest goodbye in the history of blogs.
With some reluctance, I interrupt Phil’s farewell address (which I still hope is an elaborate April Fool’s joke) to present Thursday’s guest blogger: Lauren Wollman.
Dr. Wollman is an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security. This is her first post for Homeland Security Watch. One hopes for more.
1. Homeland Security doesn’t exist. If it ever did, it doesn’t anymore. Or if it does then it hasn’t anything to do with citizens and preparedness. Let me explain.
2. The Theory of Paralytic Fragmentation. Spinning incessantly, without regard to direction or energy usage, some bodies self-destruct if they stop moving. It’s natural for this to happen in cases where you have fast-moving targets, highly perishable knowledge and intel, an unpredictable and indiscriminate but certain enemy, a blurry theoretical framework, and nascent self-awareness. In the government context this manifests itself as the irresistible urge – especially in the wake of a catastrophe – to do stuff, or at least appear to be doing stuff. See Homeland Security Theater; TSA.
Applying the theory of paralytic fragmentation, Homeland Security as we commonly know it – as an outgrowth of 9/11 – becomes an artificial and empty construct. Everyone who had something to do with the security of the homeland: first responders, public health, public safety and emergency management, among others, still do more or less what they did before. DOD still casts its gaze outward, and those concerned with national security in theory and in practice still theorize about and practice national security. So it’s the same, but different. And creations of the Homeland Security Era look a lot like so much indiscriminate spinning: to wit, the Homeland Security Advisory System, butt of so many late-night jokes. And the searingly effective tactic of confiscating my lipgloss at the airport.
A student of mine is writing a very good thesis on the folly of the Homeland Security Advisory System. It turns out that if you superimpose the principles of risk communication, which every public advisory system must predicate itself on – the thing is a non-starter. It can’t work. Because ultimately, we want Americans NOT to think about terrorism, or homeland security. We want them to live the American dream, and go to Vegas and watch football and take their kids to the park without any fear that those venues will be blown to hell. As much as we ask vigilance of them, and for them to take the threat seriously, we want them blissfully ignorant of what it means to live in a truly vigilant, “homeland-secure” place. (See Israel.)
3. The Problem of the Null Hypothesis. In addition to wanting/not wanting the public to pay attention to Homeland Security (and exactly HOW we should pay attention to it is addressed further in #6 below), we who think about Homeland Security all the time for a living are hard-pressed to explain or describe it. It’s hard to define, measure, get a degree in, fund, or daily think about something that exists only in its own shadow. We know when we have failed, because there’s a terrorist attack (or in the all-hazards paradigm, we screw up a natural disaster response). But how to measure success? There are no metrics for this. And nobody I know can answer the more philosophical questions that would suggest a metric. What’s the actual public tolerance for terrorism? What would the breach of that threshhold look like? What would the fulfillment of the terrorists’ ultimate goals really be, and what kind of attack or cluster of attacks would it take to achieve, either because it/they so felled our infrastructure, annihilated our population, or so disrupted our equilibrium that we turned on ourselves?
It’s not just that Homeland Security can be measured only by negative evidence, as it were; its success is contingent on failure. In order to exist long-term, it must remain on the public radar. In order to do that, by some sick twist of irony, it must fail at its own mission.
We circle back our reliance on such tangible but meaningless Homeland Security busywork as shoeless check-points, homeland security degrees (which usually prepare one for homeland-securing the mall), and Homeland Security sections on job applications. We must be doing something right if we’re doing SOMETHING.
4. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The risk in doing something at any cost is of course doing an unnecessary or counterproductive something. Many (most?) Homeland Security research proposals I review involve fusion centers, collaboration, info-sharing, or some other insistent version of Homeland Security as a group activity. The trouble the authors of such research almost always encounter in the implementation of their ideas is that a lot of the people who end up doing homeland security are not great at playing nicely or sharing. They are ride-to-the-rescue, shoot-first-ask-later heroic archetypes. Info sharing, mission sharing, and toy sharing are turning out to be counterproductive because they are culturally anathema. Asking the fire department to collect intelligence or the intelligence community to push intel downstream just seems a little like a round-peg-square-hole kind of exercise. What would happen if everyone just stayed in their lane and did their job, even if that job has morphed a little? Isn’t a little redundancy a good thing for resiliency? Isn’t specialization conducive to efficiency?
5. There is beauty in simplicity. The impulse to make homeland security about sharing is accompanied, oddly, by the reflex to make it an individual sport. It’s one thing to construct a more sophisticated intelligence apparatus and to distribute its yield more broadly or regularly, but in a huge country, maybe Homeland Security comes down to the individual: the individual cop on the beat, the teacher, the bus driver, the citizen. The Homeland Security framers seized on this very American trait early on as perhaps the most central organizing principle. We should play to our strengths, right? And Americans do individual responsibility and responsiveness really well. Right?
6. The Paradox of the Public Trust. I can’t remember the exact numbers or the source (I guess rendering it a less reliable statistic), but at one point someone asked a lot of Americans whether they trusted the government. Most of them said not really, or not very much. On the other hand, we all still behave very much as though we expect the government to come save us, and handle things. The heartbreaking picture of such misplaced or over-placed expectation was standing on the roof, water rising, waiting……
But let’s say for the moment that on some level homeland security is just basic safety, security, preparedness, and situational awareness. Those in the citizen preparedness business are constantly frustrated and surprised by our collective refusal to prepare for pretty much anything, including death and taxes. I am an exception. I have “go kits” in my house and my car, first aid kits (up to the level of field surgery kits) placed every 15 feet or so, extra clothing and toys for the kids all over the place, lots of food and water stockpiled, even a second warehouse location within walking distance from my house with emergency supplies. I am on much less certain ground when it comes to my homeland security preparedness plan. What’s the correct survival cache for a terrorist attack? Batteries, duct tape, mask and baseball bat? Should I organize a neighborhood watch to watch for……terrorists?
7. The Law of 20-20 Hindsight. These are, of course, all good responses to things that have already happened and are unlikely to happen again. Cognitively, homeland security is a challenge because of retrospective sensemaking. Things makes sense to us only after they’ve happened, when we’re able to detect (or create) patterns, ascribe cause and effect, and construct a narrative. This is exactly why I am an historian rather than a political scientist; the latter looks pretty much to me like fortune-telling, and is why it’s hard to build Homeland Security policy on the fly.
8. What Remains Must Be the Truth. So what we have here is something between an epistemological mystery and hermeneutical challenge. When I started at the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security, the first cohort of Master’s students was graduating from the program. This was June 2004. I went to the graduation ceremony, even though I didn’t know the students, to get a sense of my new environment. The military excels at pomp and circumstance; the Naval Postgraduate School graduation ceremonies are no exception. As participant or observer of such a ceremony, one exhibits social discipline and observes careful decorum: no clapping in between graduates. In June 2004, though, when the Center’s graduates from New York City’s Fire Department (FDNY) crossed the stage, the audience and the rest of the 200-plus graduating corps erupted into spontaneous, proud, grateful applause. This happened at every NPS graduation – 4 times a year – until the spring of 2008, when the audience went silent. The FDNY guys crossed the stage just like everyone else, unremarked by the audience, un-singled-out by their peers. This was a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. How could these fellow warriors and good Americans NOT recognize the special heroism, the freshly-let blood and tears, the sheer symbolic POWER of the FDNY students?!
I know Homeland Security is centrally, inextricably about 9/11 because just about every master’s thesis I have read in the NPS program starts with, “In the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11…” I know for sure that the people responsible for or happy about 9/11 are still busy: the threat is indeed very real. But the rest has receded into the historical landscape; it has been reabsorbed into the national bloodstream. The same public safety, emergency management, national security, community and participation in civic life. The same heroism and courage, compassion and shared grief as every battle, every disaster, every other terrible and brilliant day in American life. What we name it and how we define and populate that naming seems now to matter less.