Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 13, 2010

Accepting responsibility, being responsible, and our ability to respond

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on May 13, 2010

President Obama said, “”Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill.”

British Petroleum’s CEO, Tony Hayward, said the company is “absolutely responsible” for the clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“The difference between the oil spill and Katrina is we didn’t have people stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘I’m responsible’,” says Robert Green. “In Katrina, you didn’t have the federal government, the governor and the mayor all saying what should be done. We have leadership now.”


Shortly after the Times Square bombing attempt an extremist website reported, “The Pakistani Taliban announced its responsibility for the New York attack in revenge for the two leaders al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir and Muslim martyrs.”

“It is looking like the TTP is responsible for this attempt,” John Brennan told CNN’s Candy Crowley.


“Homeowners that live near streams are responsible for their own flood insurance due to their decision of moving next to streams.  Most agree they should know what they are getting, streams can flood,” comments Loretta Arnold in the Examiner.

And just to be clear, according to the FEMA website, “… FEMA is not responsible for the design, construction, operation, or maintenance of levee systems and comparable flood protection structures. Likewise, FEMA is not responsible for implementing or enforcing State and local floodplain management regulations.”


To be responsible was originally to make a promise or pledge to another, often in exchange for value received.  The respondent promises to spend what is necessary to fulfill the obligation. 

The Latin root of response — spondere — is the same as for our English word spend.  We now think of spending mostly in financial terms, but to spend can involve a variety of outputs:  time, attention, talent, energy, and more.

 To re-spond is to promise back.  In exchanging vows the bride and groom respond to each other.  The godparent responds to the charge of the priest promising to spend time, energy, and more to assist the parents.  The bride and groom pledge to spend their lives with each other. 

Responsibility begins by being in relationship with one another.  Our ability to respond to one another often establishes the nature of the relationship.   Can I — should I — respond physically, intellectually, emotionally,  spiritually, financially, with patience or urgency,  restraint or passion, sympathy or anger, compassion or discipline?  Given the nature of the relationship, how should I respond?  Am I capable of doing so?

In Sunday’s edition of The Tennessean Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator, wrote :

In com­mu­ni­ties from Dyers­burg to here in Nashville, I’ve seen neigh­bors help­ing neigh­bors and local first respon­ders work­ing tire­lessly to help those in need.

FEMA per­son­nel are on the ground in Ten­nessee, as well as other states affected by severe weather, includ­ing Alabama, Mis­sis­sippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. On May 4, at the request of Gov. Phil Bre­desen, the pres­i­dent declared a major dis­as­ter for the state, which now cov­ers 30 coun­ties, with addi­tional assess­ments under way.

But it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that FEMA is not the team — we are part of the team. We’re work­ing closely with Gov. Bre­desen, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and local offi­cials through­out the west­ern and mid­dle parts of the state. The Ten­nessee Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (TEMA) has done an excel­lent job coor­di­nat­ing the response efforts with local offi­cials. It’s impor­tant we rec­og­nize the tire­less work of all involved at the fed­eral, state and local levels.

But the team can only be as strong as its most impor­tant mem­bers: the gen­eral pub­lic. I’ve spent sev­eral days in the state, and Ten­nesseans have shown what can be done with vol­un­teers work­ing side by side local offi­cials, and neigh­bors help­ing neighbors.

Who is my neighbor? With whom am I in relationship?  What is the nature of the relationship?  How is my life entwined with their lives? 

In modern society these links can be obscured and easy to neglect.  We may be in relationship, but not be aware of it.  This lack of awareness — and the absence of anything more than an instrumental and anonymous connection — increases our risk of being irresponsible: unable or unwilling to respond.

Consciously entering into relationship, cultivating a mutual understanding of the relationship, and regularly investing in the relationship strengthens the scope, scale, and effectiveness of our ability to respond.

For further consideration:

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection by Gretchen J. Reydams-Schils

The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy

The National Blueprint for Secure Communities by the National Council on Readiness and Preparedness

PrepareNow.Org: Supporting special needs and vulnerable populations in disaster by PrepareNow Partners (San Francisco)

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 13, 2010 @ 7:04 am

It may be worth noting a sentence from near the end of Wednesday’s post. Mark wrote, “Getting people to accept responsibility, learn from their experiences, and take steps to strengthen the relationships they depend upon to resolve crises is an innately human process.”

I had drafted most of today’s post before seeing Mark’s post. He had not seen my post. The thematic coincidence is meaningful to me.

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday with several professionals who have much greater technical and technological competence than I do. I am always a bit in awe of the potential offered by honestly earned technical expertise.

But I also came away from the discussions with an even stronger sense that unless the very messy human factors of communication, relationship-building, trust-making and related are effectively carried out that the potential of our technical capabilities will never be realized.

Too often we try to replace the human element with a technical solution. In the vast majority of cases technology is a multiplier of the human element. If the human element is dysfunctional, technology will amplify the dysfunction. If the human element is effective, technology will amplify the effectiveness.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 13, 2010 @ 9:07 am

Interesting dialectic when for 30 years the politicians have ruled by divide and conquer. Well that too may be about to pass as the trench warfare of politics may turn to the mobility of the American polity. To each his/her own ends up with him/her having very little. The recent upheaval in Greece which has not yet ended started with the Greek culture of evasion of civic duties including paying taxes. That culture pervades certain sectors of the American economy and guess what? That culture has totally failed in my opinion.
As to the documented theraputic community that spontaneous occurs post disaster in the immediate time frame, perhaps its fraying will now be mended. Let’s see what happens from Texas to Florida as their coastal economies are totally destroyed for the next two decades. What obligation will the rest of the country decide it has to this tragedy? We know we are willing to write-off the Katrina victims! We are willing to write off the Haitians! Now chickens coming home to roost. Personally, and I am not expert on personalities I believe CEO Hayward already understands that is firm will have pariah status in N.American the rest of this century. Perhaps good they have Iraqis as partners for exploration and upgrades. They have long had a reputation for causal approach to highly technical subjects. They have destroyed elsewhere and will be interesting to watch them sell out N.American interests to someone else. Ah yes responsiblity would be to have the courts rule BP and oil drilling and pumping is Ultra-hazardous Activity subject to strict liability. Today not tomorrow the US Department of Justice should be placing a protective lien on all BP assets it can reach.
And additonally we have now again seen the fundamental flaw in HSPD-5 as a crisis management document and strategy. Too bad Brennan, Jones, and Obama himself don’t understand anything about crisis management that does not involve the military or INTEL.
Obama has now nominated another SCOTUS want-to-be who has no clue that SCOTUS major efforts in the next two decades will be the role of the National Security State and whether any aspect of Federalism as Constitutionally mandated can survive. Very wicked problems as the public administration types would say. Time for the first team but believe they no longer are capable of being accessed by the United States.
And speaking of Haiti how much discussion have you seen of Chinese and Cuban efforts in that tiny country?

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 13, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

Phil, thanks for acknowledging the overlap between our two posts. I was very pleased to read your in-depth consideration of the implication of lack of awareness of our relationships. I did not address that too deeply in my original post, but believe, as it seems you do, that this is where crisis management often comes off the rails.

In our haste to place blame, we try to jump the queue. Bypassing awareness, failing to reconcile ourselves with ambiguity, and ignoring the need to adapt can render the willingness to accept responsibility meaningless. This is especially true in situations that do not involve single-point failures.

In your comment on my post, you noted the value of modeling and simulations as means of honing decision-making skills. I concur. The best uses of these systems involve exposing users to complex situations so they can acquire a degree of comfort dealing with ambiguity rather than building confidence in their choices. I have seen instances of users gaming these kinds of systems when they fail to recognize that they are neither designed nor intended to be used to separate winners from losers.

Comment by Ranlin

May 25, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

No they are just ignored as Bush said “just stall” them and by the time they figure out what happened he will be long gone!! How is it that people acknowledge how collaborating, playing double agent to the point of double talking actually insulting my intelligence! As according to the Patriot Act anyone who asks why did the Government do this or ask a question without getting an answer is a “terrorist” but if our government did not “terrorize” through taxation then who really is the “terrorist”? As legislation is written, appropriated without anyone being held accountable, responsible to those who have the ability to respond as dedicated Americans. When was the last time the IRS overlooked an honest mistake as penalties are accrueing from the time you submit your taxes until the time they send a notice as 2007 return to know about something even without a chance to defend in 2010 but I must accept responsiblity, being responsible and ability to respond if not Jail – witout passing Go? But how many times did politicians lie, fraud and not answer a question even when Congress or the GAO held hearings? If the government was not in the game to get over then there would be no reason for “whistle blowing legislation (which is not enforced), No Fear Act to really no you better fear should you act?!

Why are Americans paying for the safety of a stranger when Americans are not safe in their own country? As they are accepting responsibility of their own safety, being responsible for other’s safety and must be resilient in our ability to respond on our own?!

How is it that the Federal Government can legislate the Conplan including the Federal Response Plan pre 9/11 then post 9/11 delete the FRP substituting the National Response Plan. Another good example is the Federal Tort Claim Act, Whistleblowers legislation, No Fear Act, etc. if it was not apparent how the rules and regulations are violated outright to actually give examples to show the guilt factor? Turning it around to give confidence to those who have been violated, wronged and/or emotionally distressed are the wrong ones, retaliated against, fired, discriminatory reprisal, etc. Are we as Americans just dyslexis when it comes to reading words vs actions taken?

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