The President took some hits for a comment Bob Woodward included in his most recent first draft of history. On page 363 of Obama’s Wars we read:
During my Oval Office interview with the President, Obama volunteers some extended thoughts about terrorism.
“I said very early on, as a Senator and continue to believe, as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack. We will do everything we can to prevent it. but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it, and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.”
Then he addressed his big concern. “A potential game changer would be a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists, blowing up a major American city. Or a weapon of mass destruction in a major American city. and so when I go down on the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that’s one area where you can’t afford any mistakes. And so right away, coming in, we said, how are we going to start ramping up and putting that at the center of a lot of our national security discussion? Making sure that that occurrence, even if remote, never happens.”
The partisan tit-for-tat regarding this comment was mostly about casting and cleaning red herrings. With that behind us (I hope), what is the President telling us about his view of resilience?
The unstated implication — and principal source of the fishy critiques — is that there will be another successful terrorist attack on the United States. We have already seen the Ft. Hood shootings and the fizzled Times Square bombing. Other attacks are undoubtedly being planned. The Taliban-in-Pakistan has specifically threatened an “amazing” attack on Washington D.C.
It is realistic rather than fatalistic to recognize there will be another successful attack. Responding to several surveys over the years the vast majority of Americans (usually more than 80 percent) say they expect a terrorist attack. In the first half of 2010 a survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press found that 58 percent of respondents expect a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon.
Experts disagree on the scope and scale of future terrorist attacks on the United States. In September the Bipartisan Policy Center provided the following assessment:
Despite al-Qaeda’s long interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, on the infrequent occasions that it or its affiliates have tried to deploy crude versions of these weapons their efforts have fizzled, as was evident in the largely ineffectual campaign of chlorine bomb attacks by “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” in 2007. Militant jihadist groups will be able to deploy only crude chemical, biological, or radiologicalweapons for the foreseeable future, and these will not be true “weapons of mass destruction,” but rather weapons of mass disruption, whose principal effect will be panic but likely few deaths.
In contrast the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction has argued:
- First, there is direct evidence that terrorists are trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
- Second, acquiring WMD fits the tactical profile of terrorists. They understand the unique vulnerability of first-world countries to asymmetric weapons—weapons that have a far greater destructive impact than the power it takes to acquire and deploy them. The airplanes that al Qaeda flew into the World Trade Center were asymmetric weapons.
- Third, terrorists have demonstrated global reach and the organizational sophistication to obtain and use WMD. As recent actions by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula demonstrate, the al Qaedanetwork is expanding through international partnerships. In particular, it is well within their present capabilities to develop and use bioweapons. As the Commission’s report, World at Risk, found, if al Qaeda recruits skilled bioscientists, it will acquire the capability to develop and use biological weapons.
- Fourth, the opportunity to acquire and use such weapons is growing exponentially because of the global proliferation of nuclear material and biological technologies.
The President shares the expectations of most Americans regarding the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack. While he considers the probability of a nuclear attack to be “remote,” he has given considerable attention to preventing such an attack. During the campaign he gave a major speech on the topic that clearly set the stage for key elements of the National Security Strategy. A series of administration actions since the inauguration follow-through on what was outlined in the July 2008 speech.
In terms of resilience the President evidently makes a distinction between attacks that the nation can “absorb” and an attack that would be a “game changer.” While it goes beyond his specific statement, the logic seems to be there is a fairly high threshold up to which the nation will bounce back. This threshold is at least as high as the 9/11 attacks.
But the President assumes there are some attacks that would produce a fundamental shift in the national game plan or even the national game. He specifically calls out, “blowing up a major American city” with a nuclear device. He seems to suggest that such an attack would ipso facto prevent a bounce back.
National resilience — especially in such a rich, large and populous nation as the United States — is as much a psycho-social-political response as anything else. Certainly a 10K blast in any major city and especially in Washington D.C. would severely test our resilience. Would it necessarily break it?
The fact that a significant majority of Americans already expect such an attack increases our potential resilience. The facts on the ground may also redound to our potential resilience. In a 2009 essay in Homeland Security Affairs Journal, Robert Harney writes,
Contrary to the predictions of traditional analysis and experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the more “realistic” analysis presents a picture that is much less dire. Fatalities are 20% of those predicted by the standard analysis, while injuries are 10% of those predicted and the damaged area is 5%. Much of the infrastructure will survive. Most evacuation routes will remain viable (permitting relocation for fallout mitigation). Food, water, sanitation, power,communications, and transportation will remain available to most of the city.Transportation to or from the rest of the country, especially air travel, is likely to be minimally affected. Airports are seldom located in the high population density areas that are attractive for casualty production. The first response system will remain intact. At most one or two police precincts and fire stations will be within damage zones. Only a small fraction of first responders will be among the casualties. The majority of the health care system will remain intact. Few hospitals, clinics, or potential shelter areas may be located within the small damage zones and thus will remain intact and operational. Few health care professionals will become casualties. Regional health care facilities (an estimated 60,000-70,000 beds at three beds/1000 people) have the theoretical capacity to handle the most badly injured. However, most of the 60,000-70,000 beds are occupied during ordinary times and emergency rooms are almost always crowded. Diagnostics and elective procedures account for at least part of the occupation of beds and many emergency room visits occur in lieu of seeing primary care physicians. In a major emergency, many could be discharged by applying triage to those already at the facilities as well as to the victims of the explosion. Nevertheless, emergency treatment facilities will be stressed. This should be considered during planning for disaster preparedness, as well as in any discussions of generally improving national health care.Although horrific and highly stressing of existing resources, this scenario is nearly ideal for disaster response and relief by local, state, and national entities. Because structures and roads will be undamaged outside the immediate blast area, the effects of fallout from a single nuclear event can be minimized through immediate and effective response including fallout prediction and a combination of evacuation, sheltering in place and/or decontamination. Sheltering for as little as one day can reduce the fallout exposure to less than 20% of the maximum possible accumulated exposure at any location, even if the individual then elects to remain in the contaminated area. It can reduce the total exposure to less than 1% of the maximum possible if the individual elects to walk out of the fallout zone (estimated to take a few hours at most). There is a place for renewed interest in civil defense.
Harney starts his essay with, “The unthinkable is probably inevitable.” But 58 percent of Americans are already thinking about it. What is the resilience potential if we would forthrightly and specifically deal with a range of catastrophic possibilities?
The San Andreas fault will shift (a recent study says it will be even worse than previously projected), so will the New Madrid fault. Each will produce consequences far beyond the scope and scale of an improvised nuclear device. A Cat-5 hurricane will pummel a major city. An urban wildfire will jump the lines with frightening death, injury, and destruction. A pandemic will emerge with all the surprise of H1N1 and thirty-times the punch.
Terrorism is not the only — or most likely — source of catastrophe. But expecting the worst mitigates its impact. Preparing for the worst is even more effective. We should certainly invest in prevention. But in one form or another we will be catastrophically challenged. I perceive that if we would creatively engage this reality, the nation is even more resilient than the President may imagine.
For further consideration:
The Little BIG Things (Resilience Chapter) by Tom Peters
Building Resilient Communities: A Preliminary Framework for Assessment by Longstaff, Armstrong, Perrin, Parker, and Hidek
A quide for implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action by local stakeholders (UNISDR and Kyoto University)