Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 23, 2010

Crafting catastrophe, choosing resilience

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2010

If you have not read Assessing the Terrorist Threat by Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, stop, read no further, download, and carefully consume the 43 concise yet comprehensive pages.  Below I will focus on a secondary –tertiary? — aspect of the report.

Bergen and Hoffman write, “al-Qaeda is believed to lack the capability to launch a mass-casualty attack sufficiently deadly in scope to completely reorient American foreign policy, as the 9/11 attacks did.”   They  characterize the 9/11 attacks as “catastrophic.”

How were the 9/11 attacks catastrophic?   Bergen and Hoffman are too skilled as writers to offer pedantic definitions.  Their meaning is nonetheless reasonably clear.  Among other outcomes, the complete reorientation of American foreign policy in response to the attacks transformed a disaster into a catastrophe.

In previous posts I have offered a — very pedantic — definition of catastrophe.  The term originates in ancient Greek drama and signals a reversal of fortune and a sudden shift in the plot.  Our expectations are upended. Nothing is the same after the catastrophe.

In reviewing the failed Christmas Day underwear bomb, Bergen and Hoffman argue, “If Umar Farouq Abulmutallab had succeeded in bringing down Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the bombing not only would have killed hundreds but would have had a large effect on the U.S. economy, already reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression, and would have devastated the critical aviation and tourism business. It also would have likely dealt a crippling blow to Barack Obama’s presidency.”

Notice how the potential consequences depend on social interpretation of the event.  Why would the bombing of an airliner have the effects projected? Bergen and Hoffman offer projections regarding how media and public would make meaning  of the event and adjust attitudes and behavior to that meaning.

When the cause is natural or even accidental a plane can crash and its consequences are limited largely to the families of those on the plane.  Bergen and Hoffman make a (reasonable) assumption that a successful terrorist attack amplifies economic and political consequences.  That is certainly the terrorists intent.

The authors do not, however, make much more of this line of argument until their penultimate paragraph:

It is also important to acknowledge that how Americans respond to terrorist attacks can influence the worrisome trend by terrorist groups to radicalize and train recruits to carry out less sophisticated operations on U.S. soil. If any attack can succeed in generating significant political and economic fallout, then there is a greater motivation for undertaking these attacks. Alternatively, terrorist attacks that have limited potential to inflict serious casualties or cause disruption become less attractive if Americans display a greater degree of resilience by being better prepared to respond to and recover from these attacks. Since as a practical matter it is impossible to prevent every terrorist attack, the United States should be working in any event to improve the capacity of its political system, along with citizens and communities, to better manage how America deals with such attacks when they occur.

How we respond determines if an event is catastrophic or not.  How the survivors interpret the event is crucial.  We are, ultimately, the authors of the plot.  We are the heroes of the play.  Our orientation, our decision, and our collective action determines how the plot will conclude and its meaning.


Today is the anniversary of a resilient decision.   2490 years later we still live with the consequences of  a choice made by survivors.

The entire city and its port had been evacuated.  Tens-of-thousands of women, children and elderly were parceled out to islands, neighboring towns, and mountain hide-aways.  Families were separated.  Nearly every able-bodied male — from 14 to over fifty, slave and free — was with the fleet or in the army.

From their wooden ships the men of Athens could see smoke and flame rising from the Acropolis, a sure sign the Persians had vanquished the small band of priests, priestesses, the blind, lame, and stubborn who had barricaded themselves atop the sacred hill.

The Spartans and King Leonidas had fallen at Thermopylae six weeks before.  The invaders had swept through Northern Greece.  There was no repeating the miracle at Marathon.  Athens fell before the  seemingly irresistable onslaught.  

On the evening of September 22 a decision was made — and then unmade — to abandon Athens entirely and make a final stand at the Isthmus of Corinth.  Even in the unlikely event (if you accept Herodotus) the Isthmus could have been held, such a decision would have utterly changed human history.

The decision to stay and fight at Salamis emerged from a mix of fear, realism, strategy, trickery, and desperation.  Acts of courage on each side were fully matched  by cowardice and dumb luck on every side.  

Until the morning of September 23, Xerxes had been the hero.   Then in the narrow strait between the sandy shores of Salamis and Mt. Aigaleos the plot suddenly shifts and Thermosticles — conflicted, corrupt, creative and probably  irreplaceable  — wins the day and cracks the door for what we now know as Western Civilization.

A huge Persian army still threatened and winter was fast approaching as the people of Athens returned to their ruined homes and desecrated temples.  Somehow they came to see this as a great opportunity.  Over the next two generations there was an efflorescence of architectural, philosophical, literary, and scientific creativity.  The foundations of our civilization still stand on the ruins Xerxes left behind and what the Athenians decided to do in response.

On this day twenty-five centuries ago the Battle of Salamis set the stage.  The resilient choice was made at the broken threshold and empty hearth of each bereaved Athenian.

What will we choose? 

For further consideration:

Yesterday the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs received testimony from Secretary Napolitano, FBI Director Mueller, and Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.   I have had trouble accessing the Committee site — too much demand? — but you should be able to find the prepared testimony and perhaps video of the actual testimony at http://hsgac.senate.gov/

On Monday the Congressional Research Service released a report on American Jihadist Terrorism.  The public can access thanks to the Federation of American Scientists.

In March the Congressional Research Service produced good overview on International Terrorism and Transnational Crime.  This is also available from the Federation of American Scientists.

UPDATE: About 2:00 Eastern today (Thursday) Bruce Hoffman posted a summary of yesterday’s testimony, the CRS piece linked above (American Jihadist Terrorism), and the BPG report co-authored by Dr. Hoffman and Mr. Bergen.  It is a helpful crystalization of the core message of the important report (rather than the more tangential aspect on which I have focused).  Please see Dr. Hoffman’s post at The National Interest: Where’s the Beef?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn



September 23, 2010 @ 5:01 am

Unfortunate recruits and paramilitary history.

Dedijer dismissed and became a paratrooper. Yelled “long live Stalin” instead of “Geronimo”. We aren’t going to chute you so armor or fortifications can be useless in certain situations. The guys built a jail and ended up behind bars. There aren’t enough bars to put them behind. Try not to slow the paramedics down when seconds count. When bad men combine the good must associate. Common interest promotes common security. Common sense isn’t always that common. Long live liberty, no chute needed on the way up and it’s a long way Troopers. Keep your taps wet and hope flowing eternally.


September 23, 2010 @ 5:16 am

On a personal level. Moon clunker needs shocks from hitting too many potholes and OH kids want to go to some beach for Christmas waves. What’s this going to cost? Look for tour pack ages I guess.


September 23, 2010 @ 6:19 am

Secret-money and bronze insulated in the canteen. Water is back on and canteen is full. It was full of bourbon on Operation Homefront and that was a long difficult operation. Can’t disclose details. The action was good and the world runs on acts not words. Take them to the would shed and keep plenty of fire wood stacked. Stihl life! Split the difference and keep pitching or flipping them b’s. Big flop in Washington ahead Miss Management.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2010 @ 6:39 am

Well a great post and reminder of one of history’s “close run things” [attributed to the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo]!

Readers of my comments on this blog and my own blog know that I define “catastrophe” much differently than most. Not only unplanned event or incident occurring but one which directly and adversely impacts governmental capabilities. On that basis 9/11/01 does NOT qualify. First of all geographically limited event and occurring in two of the most capable geographic areas of the US. This is why I think the targeting was sound but could have been even more destructive.
So protection of governmental capability does mean COOP and COG but even more resilience in the ability for reconstruction and reconstitution from the liklihood of an unplanned event impacting governmental capability. Hurricane Katrina was a better example of widespread geographic destruction. FEW Governors plan on incident or events that may overwhelm their government physcially or their planning efforts and few Mayors and Chief Executive Officers do either. And of course perhaps a best 20% of citizens and residences can have life support (lifeline systems such as energy) cut off for more than 72 hours and not be in great distress.

What we do know and has been documented if you read between the lines in various government reports [some of which are budget and financial not directly assessing preparedness capability] is that the total preparedness of the US has declined since 9/11/01. Why? Failure to use our brains and allowing a corrupt culture to impede preparedness. This is especially true at the governmental level where for example just in the last three years documentation exists of over 25,000 public safter personnel being cut from STATE and LOCAL payrolls. Whatever the number of the HS types, and many claim to be expert who are not, we do know from FEMA and NGA documentation that it would be rare for any jurisdiction in the US to field 300 highly competent public safety types out of jurisdiction to assist another one that has been overwhelmed. LEONIDES did lose after all although he bought precious time. And of course Greece and Athens in the classical age destroyed the forests of Greece building all those Tiremes and Biremes. So choices to survive may work in the short run but make life difficult or impossible in the long run.

Thus, the absolute shallowness and incompetence of the response of the Congress and others to 9/11/01 is shocking to me. Let’s suppose some portion of the $50B spent and wasted by DHS on IT activities [note not cyber or computer security]had been spent on upgrading the skills, competencies, and deployability of 300 highly trained personnel out of jurisdiction? Mark Chubb’s recent post about his personal situation is a wakeup call and warning as well. Yes there is a price for preparedness and it is clearly not one with high rewards for the political class and perhaps the incompetency of that class to really enhance preparedness as we continue into the last year of the decade after 9/11/01 should be the focus. The specifics of the failure of technology (airport screening devices deployed when all knew they did not work is just one example!

Well the Spartans and Athenians made their choices. If the choice of the financial sector as the beneficiary of $12 Trillion in bail out funding directly and indirectly proves to be a false and bad choice we have no one to blame but ourselves. Fewer than 10,000 EM types have any kind of adequate training and funding in the STATE and LOCAL governments. The same goes for the PUBLIC HEALTH sector at STATE and LOCAL level. There is no effective disease vector surveillance system in the US. EVEN DOD does not have one for its own forces (our forces)!

Well the documentation is pretty clear but also clear that no one wants to discuss the fact that “the king has no clothes on”!

Perhaps over the next year this blog can help create some new threads for the King!


September 23, 2010 @ 6:42 am

Pig flop too. Flip an egg over easy for the kids. Need to crack some laws to have an egg war. Washington looks like an omelet. Chevy looks like an omlet and we can’t hear you so well. Clunker needs exhaust work. You always hear the chainsaw. No sense chasing pigs going to slaughter anyways. Saw wild geese in formation and gas stations in the sky. I’ll have a long talk with you when you’re at liberty to talk. For now silence is golden. Your stationary needs a pigskin case and I need sears and fuses. Piece of cake.


September 24, 2010 @ 3:50 am

Running a Torch operation. Real hot for 3,000 years. I’ll consult with Coon and we’ll get back at you. Keep your taps wet in the mean time. I just gave the bomb away. Valve job was done. Needs wired and fuses. Piece of cake.

Pingback by The Terrorism Threat « In Case of Emergency

September 27, 2010 @ 6:57 am

[…] This is a bit more terrorism focused than I’m used to, but I found a couple of sections interesting (scratch that, I found all of it interesting, and a couple sections relevant). I found Assessing the Terrorism Threat from the HLSWatch.com blog, who posted on it last week. […]

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>