Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 31, 2010

Cascading crises: natural, accidental, and intentional phenomena

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 31, 2010

My top three 2010 homeland security stories are exemplars of interdependency.  Each feature deadly incidents:

  • The January 12 earthquake in Haiti killed between 100,000 and 230,000 (estimates vary). 
  • The April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon platform killed eleven and unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in US history.
  • Hundreds were killed by terrorist attacks in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Drug violence in Mexico is increasingly political in its purposes and often qualifies as terrorism. In the United States several instances of deadly intention were thwarted.

Each of these incidents can be assigned a specific date and time.  But the incident’s initial impact — with all due respect to the first victims — is the raw beginning of a complex cascade of related incidents.  We might perceive an emerging quantum theory of homeland security, where particles (incidents) and waves (cascades) co-exist, interact, and undo our ability to precisely predict and effectively intervene.

                     AP Photo by Emilio Morenatti. Children suffering from cholera symptoms wait for treatment at the Doctors Without Borders temporary hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Haitian earthquake prompted an intensive international effort to contain the immediate aftermath of the incident.  For this purpose some success can be claimed.  But over the last nine months or so neither the Haitian government nor the international community nor the United States nor myriad non-governmental organizations have been able to get ahead of the unfolding cascade of consequences.  This has been most dramatically exemplified by the outbreak of cholera which as of this week has claimed more than 2700 deaths.  But cholera co-exists with many other “particles”: a failed election,  economic retreat, collapse of confidence in the United Nations administration, increasing frustration with the over 12,000 NGOs operating in Haiti.

                Picture by anonymous photographer, provided to the New York Times, explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon

Christmas Day the New York Times published an important story on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and aftermath.  It gives focused attention to a particle but situates the particle within a wave.

…This was a disaster with two distinct parts — first a blowout, then the destruction of the Horizon. The second part, which killed 11 people and injured dozens, has escaped intense scrutiny, as if it were an inevitable casualty of the blowout.

It was not.

Nearly 400 feet long, the Horizon had formidable and redundant defenses against even the worst blowout. It was equipped to divert surging oil and gas safely away from the rig. It had devices to quickly seal off a well blowout or to break free from it. It had systems to prevent gas from exploding and sophisticated alarms that would quickly warn the crew at the slightest trace of gas. The crew itself routinely practiced responding to alarms, fires and blowouts, and it was blessed with experienced leaders who clearly cared about safety.

On paper, experts and investigators agree, the Deepwater Horizon should have weathered this blowout.

This is the story of how and why it didn’t.

MORE: Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours

The blowout begat the platform’s destruction which begat — or at least abetted — the uncontrolled spill, which begat the spread of oil and dispersants across the ecosystem,  which begat economic shut-downs and political controversy and the begatting continues.

             Reuters/McDermid photograph of failed vehicle borne explosives device in Times Square

In the United States and most of Europe this has been a year of bullets dodged, plots preempted, and bombings bungled.  This is in stark contrast to the experience elsewhere.  What do the following “particles” tell us, if anything, of a possible “wave”?

1.  “The year 2010 has proven to be the bloodiest for the people of Pakistan since 2001 as the unending spate of lethal suicide bombings in almost every nook and corner of the country has killed 1,224 innocent Pakistanis and injured 2,157 others in 52 gory attacks between January 1 and December 23, 2010.” (MORE from The News (Pakistan))

2. “This year’s death toll in drug-related violence in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, the hardest hit by Mexico’s drug war, rose to 3,000 this week after two men were shot dead on a street, authorities said… More than 28,000 people have died throughout Mexico in the four years since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels when he took office in 2006.” (MORE from the Chicago Sun-Times)

3. “I have three observations about the evolution of homegrown and foreign-inspired radicalization. First, there has been a dramatic increase in the pace of homegrown and foreign-based incidents; second, more and more Americans are being recruited and are  joining the leadership ranks of al Qaeda and its affiliated groups; third, the internet has become the preferred way for American citizens to self-radicalize and for terrorists to indoctrinate and recruit new soldiers.” (MORE from Senator Joseph Liberman)

Crucially, there are many more particles we might consider: the Indus River floods, ethnic rivalry, sectarian conflict, generational shifts, social inequality, political instability…   With much more data, time and thought we might hypothesize a trend. We cannot accurately predict an outcome.

Yet the profound unpredictability of our situation is widely denied.  Each disaster prompts calls for predicting and preventing the next.  We are each Newtonian in our hopes and dreams, even more when Anderson Cooper calls us to account.  But freedom unfolds, randomness persists, and unintended consequences abound.

We exist in a quantum reality.  Especially in the most extreme events, we live with a level  of  complexity and interdependency that resists control.  Creativity may temporarily seduce complexity, but it is never fully subdued.  How might we (and I paraphrase), “accept the things we cannot change; find the courage to change the things we can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

“In the sharp formulation of the law of causality — ‘if we know the present exactly, we can calculate the future’ — it is not the conclusion that is wrong but the premise.” (Werner Heisenberg, 1927)

For the New Year ahead my resolution is to be as realistic as possible, which includes significant humility regarding what we know of the present and what it might mean for the future.

December 30, 2010

Snow, expectations, and resilience

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on December 30, 2010

Philip’s post on the problems wrought by the recent blizzard raises an interesting question regarding resilience: how big does an event have to be for people to not expect to be saved by government and instead start relying on themselves?

George Packer of the New Yorker tackles this topic with his personal description of the reaction of some New Yorkers to the blizzard:

Twenty inches of snow isn’t a 7.5 earthquake or Category 4 hurricane. Unless it’s life-threatening, an emergency rarely lifts human beings above themselves. A snowstorm like this is bad enough to make people parochial and aggrieved, but not disastrous enough to make them generous and heroic. The stories of people trapped on subway trains all night, of hundreds of 911 calls going unanswered for hours, remained abstract, because we were in no actual danger. And so, instead, it seemed as if our block was being singled out for idiocy and neglect. The scene on the street brought my neighbors and me into a fraternity of usefulness and scorn: we locals did one another little favors—here’s some salt, thanks for shoveling my walk—and remarked on the folly of outsiders insisting on driving a car through such snow. The circle of inclusion was now the neighborhood—more narrowly, the block—but this bond wasn’t strong enough to prompt one of us to put an orange cone of warning at the bottom of the street, let alone to organize all of us into teams that could shovel out the whole block. Urban solidarity had a limit, and some quaint notion of deserving city services kept us waiting passively on the silent street for the plow that, by midday Tuesday, still hadn’t shown up.

When describing the earliest moments following a disaster, emergency managers never miss an opportunity to remind the public that there may be a period where they have to rely on themselves.  This is the theory behind having a plan and keeping several days of food and water, among other supplies.  Elected officials, however, find it more difficult to tell the public that they may not be there for them immediately following an event (and in the case of a certain New Jersey governor, that is literally true…). Added to the mix are those voices that insist that officials shouldn’t plan for true catastrophes but instead focus on the most likely threats.  This line of thinking supports the notion that the government should be prepared to handle common events, and the average citizen as taxpayer should expect immediate results.

Perhaps instead we should broaden our conception of even non-catastrophic events. Describing the efforts of a moving crew to dig themselves a path out of his block, Packer links expectations held by citizen of government and government of citizen:

They had plowed our street with shovels. Outsiders on the clock, they had done the city’s work—our work.

(h/t to Conor Friedersdorf at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish)

Blizzard’s blast bites Bloomberg

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on December 30, 2010

The Boxing Day Blizzard hit the Northeast hard.  The New York City region received two to three feet of snow with high winds.  Two days later the New York Times headline reads: City Limps as Storm Impact Chastens Mayor; Many Streets Remain Unplowed.  This and other media reports are full of emergency response delays and their tragic consequences. 

From a distance the biggest recovery problem appears to be the number of vehicles — including city buses — that were left snowbound in the middle of many streets.  Wednesday Mayor Bloomberg “took responsibility” and indicated he was “extremely dissatisfied” by the city’s response.  According to the Times Mr. Bloomberg also suggested some other responsible parties:

The mayor also spread some of the blame for the city’s problems on to its citizens, who he said had failed to heed requests that they not call for help unless they faced true emergencies. Those calls, the mayor said, “overwhelmed” the emergency communications system, a failure that he said he had assigned an official to investigate. City residents also compounded the problem by trying to drive in the storm, only to have their cars stuck in the path of plows. (Bloomberg Takes Blame)

Does the 911 system habituate dependence and discourage citizen preparedness? This was a recurring theme at a recent UASI conference. 

On Thursday morning December 30 the Times is leading with Inaction and Delays by New York as Storm Bore Down.   The reporting implies officials underestimated the risk and did not take action that could have mitigated the impact. 


No one remains who personally recalls the Great White Hurricane of 1888.   Twenty-two inches of snow fell in Central Park.  Winds were 40 miles per hour.  In other parts of the city unofficial totals of three to five feet of snow were reported.  Two-hundred New Yorker’s died.  Some claim this calamity pushed New York to build the subway rather than depend on the more vulnerable elevated trains.  Are there similar strategic lessons to be learned today or will we focus entirely on tactical and operational issues?

Following are excerpts of the New York Times report on the March 13 1888 storm (thanks to nycsubway.org)


The worst storm the city has ever known
Business travel completely suspended

New York helpless in a tornado of wind and snow which paralyzed all industry, isolated the city from the rest of the country, caused many accidents and great discomfort, and exposed it to many dangers.

The storm of wind and rain, which began to sweep over this city and the neighborhood on Sunday evening, gathered force as the night progressed. The temperature began to fall albeit and snow descended in succession and the wind be- came boisterous. Before daylight dawned yesterday a remarkable storm, the most annoying and detrimental in its results that the city has ever witnessed, was in full progress.

When the people began to stir to go about their daily tasks and vocations, they found that a blizzard, just like those they have been accustomed to read about as occurring in the far West had struck this city and its environs and had held an embargo on the travel and traffic of the greatest city on the continent. What the presence of a blizzard meant was soon manifest.

Before the day had well advanced, every horse-car and elevated railroad train in the city had stopped running; the streets were almost impassable to men or horses by reason of the huge masses of drifting snow; the electric wires- telegraph and telephone — connecting spots in the city or opening communication with places outside were nearly all broken; hardly a train was out from the city or came into it during the entire day; the mails were stopped, and every variety of business dependent on motion or locomotion was stopped.

Thus the city, to a great extent, was at a standstill yesterday, and the prospects are not much better for to-day. People vexed at the collapse of all the principal means of intercommunication and transportation became reflective, and the result was a general expression of opinion that an immediate and radical improvement was imperative. So the blizzard may accomplish what months, if not years, of argument might have failed to do.

Probably it had not been for the blizzard the people of the city might have ignored one for an indefinite time enduring the nuisance of electric wires dangling from poles, of slow trains running on the trestlework, and slower cars drawn by horses in the streets dangerous with their center tearing rails. Now two things tolerably certain that a system of a really rapid transit which cannot be made inoperable by storms must be straightaway devised and as speedily as possible constructed and that all the electric wires — telegraph, telephone, fire alarms, and illuminating — must be put underground without any delay.

The elevated roads and the elevated electric wires are not only made useless by a severe storm, but they are made dangerous. The city is liable to be put into darkness and the consequent perils. There is also that danger of conflagration through the failure of the fire alarm wires.

In looking back at the events of yesterday the most amazing thing to the residents of this great city must be the ease with which the elements were able to overcome the boasted triumph of civilization, particularly in those respects which philosophers and statesmen have contended permanently marked our civilization and distinguished it from the civilization of the old world — our superior means of intercommunication. Before the fury of the great blizzard they all went down, whether propelled by steam or electricity. The elevated trains became useless; so did the telegraph wires, the telephone wires, the wires for conveying the electric lights, the wires for giving the alarms of fire. And, worse than useless, they became dangerous…

It is hard to believe in this last quarter of the nineteenth century that for even one day New-York could be so completely isolated from the rest of the world as if Manhattan Island was in the middle of the South Sea.

December 29, 2010

What I Learned in 2010

The end of one year and the beginning of another gives one pause. New beginnings are a chance to start over. If we’re honest with ourselves, a bit of reflection can help us enter the knew year equipped with insights that help us avoid or at least reduce the impact of new calamities like those that confronted us in the year before. As I look back at 2010 for lessons, here are the top five things I saw that make me wonder what the year ahead holds in store:

We still don’t know security when we see it. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped in a landmark First Amendment case that he knew hard-core pornography when he saw it. Unfortunately, the naked truth about homeland security is we still know know what it is when we see it. Full body scanners and aggressive pat downs to search airline passengers have, however, hinted at the limits of public support for security theater. That said, we still have few clear hints how we should balance the competing interests of civil liberties like privacy and security.

We may be smarter, more successful and skillful than our adversaries, but that ain’t saying all that much; or, maybe it’s just hard to find good help these days. Most of the homeland security successes we witnessed this year, seem more like lucky strikes than genuinely skillful performances by our security services. Maybe that’s because our adversaries have had less success recruiting skilled operatives than we might have imagined. This makes me wonder: with unemployment still running nearly 10 percent nationally (and much higher in some minority communities) why is it so hard to find skilled help? What’s more, as local and state governments find themselves in the death grip of fiscal austerity, how will they meet public expectations of them for safety and security? Judging by public criticism of the response to severe weather events as we end the year, not well at all.

It’s the economy, stupid. Before we had even managed to stop writing or typing 2009 when we meant 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that some estimates suggest killed more than 250,000 people and left millions more homeless. As the year came to a close, the country languished in the grip of a cholera epidemic and a presidential succession crisis. The flow of aid lagged far behind pledges from international donors, leaving the impoverished country barely clinging to life. If we ever had any reason to doubt the fact, Haiti confirmed that poverty is any adversary or calamity’s best friend. The corollary to that observation is equally clear and simple: Resilience is about resources. The fungibility of capital — that is the ability of any individual or group to apply their stores of human, social or political capital to conduct transactions that transform natural, economic or material resources to their own or others’ benefit — depends on both the sufficiency and diversity of those hard assets as much or more than any degree of cleverness or incentive to apply themselves. Necessity is the mother of chaos, not invention. In the absence of resources, don’t expect that to change unless you are willing to watch things get worse not better.

Victory (sometimes) favors the unprepared. The benefits of diverse stores of all forms of hard and soft capital was aptly illustrated by the New Zealand response to September’s earthquake in Christchurch and the numerous and still ongoing aftershocks. People there weren’t all that well prepared (especially for the specific event that occurred), but they knew how to use what they had to take care of what they needed. As such, they fared much better than the Haitians and required no outside assistance. The Chileans too, although better prepared than either the New Zealanders or Haitians, demonstrated that was all the more true when a society’s resources and mindsets are both well-adapted to the environment they inhabit.

Casting oil on the water sometimes makes waves. Rather than calming turbulent seas, the explosive destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea made waves for months. Rather than crystallizing public opinion on energy policy and the need to invest in alternatives to petroleum, the federal response — both on a regulatory level and an operational level — came under intense criticism for ignoring the needs of local citizens who depended upon the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood. Never mind that some depended upon industries that posed a risk to these ecosystems while others depended on the ecosystem itself, the debate never fully confronted the difficult policy choices facing the country now or in the future. As the federal government continues its work with Gulf Coast states on a recovery plan we should be looking forward not backward for answers about the future.

Clearly, many more things happened in 2010 than I have covered here. What were your top lessons learned from 2010? And what are your hopes for the year ahead?

December 28, 2010

Eleven homeland security-related stories you might have missed in 2010

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Humor — by Christopher Bellavita on December 28, 2010

The British artist Ben Nicholson wrote:

Satire is fascinating stuff. It’s deadly serious, and when politics begin to break down, there is a drift towards satire, because it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

Here are eleven “stories” I first heard about this year in various issues of Congressional Quarterly’s Behind the Lines newsletter (one of the quickest and most engaging homeland security reads I know about. )


1. Hillary Clinton Drags Taliban Leader’s Body Through Streets Of Kabul

As members of the international press looked on, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rode on horseback through the streets of Kabul yesterday, dragging the mutilated remains of Taliban chief Mullah Abdul Jalil through the dirt behind her. “Graaaaaggghh!” Clinton shouted as a frenzied crowd of supporters shot AK-47s into the air. Earlier in the day, Clinton had led a band of mercenaries through rugged mountain terrain to hunt down Jalil, whom the former senator eviscerated with a single stroke of her gleaming scimitar. U.S. soldiers marched alongside the triumphant, blood-soaked Clinton to the center of Kabul, where she ordered the Taliban leader’s gutted body be hung from the town’s tallest spire, where “all may behold it.” White House sources confirmed that upon returning to Washington, Secretary Clinton burst into the Oval Office, threw Jalil’s head down on the president’s desk, and let out a deafening war cry.  [The Onion]

2. Newscasters Appeal to FBI to Create Easy Nicknames for Terrorists

The underwear bomb terror attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was the straw that broke the camel’s back in America’s news casting business. In a rare show of agreement between the top media outlets, news commentators from every major prime time and cable news program, excluding PBS, has asked the FBI, CIA and other law enforcement and governmental spokes persons to create shorter nicknames for terrorists as soon as any new terrorist threat or action is leaked to the news. “Not only are we finding it hard to pronounce the names when they come in, but because of the fact that most of our newsroom interns are unpaid students, they don’t have the international spelling skills necessary to get names like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab correct,” FOX News associate producer John Smith said. “If the CIA could create a list of simpler names for news gatherers to follow at the outset of these terrorist acts, we could spend more time on gathering the facts instead of looking up the correct pronunciations of these foreigners’ names.”  [Glossy News]

3. Government To Sell Naming Rights To Hurricanes

As part of his latest effort to jumpstart the economy in an increasingly volatile political climate, President Obama announced a plan to replace the existing hurricane naming process with a corporate sponsorship program that is expected to add at least $500 million annually to the federal coffers. “It’s a plan that says even in the aftermath of possibly the worst natural disaster to strike an area, we may cry, but, uhh, we’ll cry all the way to the bank,” Obama said. “So when the forecast calls for pain, middle class America won’t be left holding the bag . . . Aww, who am I kidding: middle class America is always left holding the bag. But at least now the bag will be sponsored.” Treasury’s Office of Domestic Finance will oversee the application and bidding process, which will begin as soon as a storm is forecast to become a hurricane. Treasury officials acknowledge that the $50 million starting price tag could be a bit steep for all but the largest multinational corporations.  [CAP News]

4. Google Responds To Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology

Responding to recent public outcries over its handling of private data, search giant Google offered a wide-ranging and eerily well-informed apology to its millions of users yesterday. “’We would like to extend our deepest apologies to each and every one of you,” announced CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking from the company’s Googleplex headquarters. “Whether you’re Michael Paulson who lives at 3425 Longview Terrace and makes $86,400 a year, or Jessica Goldblatt from Lynnwood, Wash., who already has well-established trust issues, we at Google would just like to say how very, truly sorry we are.” Acknowledging that Google hasn’t always been open about how it mines the roughly 800 terabytes of personal data it has gathered since 1998, Schmidt apologized to users — particularly the 1,237,948 who take daily medication to combat anxiety— for causing any unnecessary distress, and he expressed regret — especially to Patricia Fort, a single mother taking care of Jordan, Sam, and Rebecca, ages 3, 7, and 9 — for not doing more to ensure that private information remains private.  [The Onion]

5. Jesus Added to ‘No Fly’ list“

Facing harsh questions about Jesus Christ being placed on the no-fly list before the House Subcommittee for Members We Don’t Know What to do With, TSA director Laurie Partridge explained that the Savior of the world was in no way singled out and it shouldn’t be seen as a religion thing. The tense atmosphere was only broken by Sen. Lieberman wandering through aimlessly. After security officers escorted Lieberman to his place at the Senate Committee for Pretend Legislation, the TSA chief recovered splendidly, according to observers. After some whispering with counsel, she explained. “This is merely a policy matter. Mr. Christ, a Palestinian, comes from a region termed a ‘hot zone’ by our State Department, has no visible means of support, and an arrest record.” [Glossy News]

6. Report: Majority Of Government Doesn’t Trust Citizens Either

At a time when widespread polling data suggests that a majority of the U.S. populace no longer trusts the federal government, a Pew Research Center report has found that the vast majority of the federal government doesn’t trust the U.S. populace all that much either. According to the poll—which surveyed members of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches—9 out of 10 government officials reported feeling ‘disillusioned’ by the populace and claimed to have ‘completely lost confidence’ in the citizenry’s ability to act in the nation’s best interests. . . Out of 100 U.S. senators polled, 84 said they don’t trust the U.S. populace to do what is right, and 79 said Americans are not qualified to do their jobs. Ninety-one percent of all government officials polled said they find citizens to be every bit as irresponsible, greedy, irrational, and selfishly motivated as government officials are.  [The Onion]

7. U.S. Government: We Have Not Forgotten About Osaka Binn Rogen

High-ranking intelligence officials said Monday that the military was still aggressively pursuing notorious terrorist Osaka Binn Rogen, declaring that they had not forgotten about bringing the leader of the Al Hydra network to justice. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates assured citizens that American forces were actively hunting down Osaka Binn Rogen, and asserted that locating the mastermind behind the tragic 19/11 attacks is as pressing now as it was when their search first began, six or 10 years ago or however long it’s been. “This homicidal madman committed terrible atrocities against the American people, and we have never, ever lost sight of that,” Gates said. “Binn Rogen is the most wanted man on the planet, and he remains our No. 1 priority.” Based upon field surveillance and intelligence, officials recently widened the search for Orlama Win Roben by dispatching CIA paramilitary officers and Delta Force soldiers to track down, capture, or assassinate the terrorist leader, who has been described as a “very bad, very tall guy with a beard.” [The Onion]

8. China to Stop Spying on its People; Will Use Facebook Instead

The Chinese government announced today that it would disband its extensive domestic spying program that gathers personal information on its citizens and would instead use Facebook. According to the head of the domestic spying operation, China decided to scrap its elaborate array of spy satellites, eavesdropping devices and closed-circuit surveillance cameras after recognizing that Facebook put them all to shame. “At the end of the day, we were not getting as much intimate personal data as Facebook does,” he said. “So as of today, every man, woman and child in China is officially our ‘friend.”’ The Chinese version of Facebook, launched next week, will feature addictive online games reminiscent of the American version, such as Collective Farmville. [The Borowitz Report]

9. CDC: It’s Time To Panic

The Centers for Disease Control has announced that panic season has officially begun this year, recommending that people immediately begin working themselves up into a state of debilitating, irrational fear over diseases they’re extremely unlikely to get. The CDC suggests people panic initially over West Nile virus, and work up to hysteria over Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Both are carried by mosquitoes, so basic panic should definitely include covering yourself in a thick down parka no matter what the weather, and sealing yourself and your family in an airtight room until December. This year’s panic season is expected to be especially lively due to the Florida frenzy over dengue fever, despite the fact that only about eight people have gotten it and the World Health Organization recently admitted to basically making it up so they’d have something to do. Sources say it’s akin to the big to-do over avian flu a few years back.  [CAP News]

10. Mexico Killed In Drug Deal

In the latest incident of drug-related violence to hit the country, all 111 million citizens of Mexico were killed Monday during a shootout between rival drug cartels. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the violence was sparked by a botched drug deal involving an estimated 20 kilograms of marijuana, a dispute that led low-level members of the Sinaloa cartel to open fire on local dealers in Culiacan. Within seconds, the gunfire had spread to Chihuahua, Michoacan, Yucatan, and, minutes later, the other 27 Mexican states, leaving every person in Mexico dead. “Witnesses reported hearing roughly 357 million gunshots, during which time the Mexican populace was caught in the crossfire and killed,” DEA administrator Michele Leonhart said, adding that a four-gram bag of cocaine was also recovered by agents. The agency has sealed off the 761,606-square-mile crime scene…. [The Onion]

11. Bald Eagle Tired Of Everyone Just Assuming It Supports War

Frustrated by the widely held assumption that he unequivocally endorses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bald eagle said Monday that his thoughts on the conflicts were far more nuanced than many Americans might expect. Speaking to reporters from his nest in the upper branches of a 175-foot ponderosa pine tree, the eagle explained that each member of his species was different and none should be taken for granted as a lockstep supporter of American military policy. “I think World War II was justified, and I got behind the first Gulf War [in 1990],” said the bird, who has served as the national symbol of the United States since 1782. “But the recent war in Iraq, with its shifting rationale and poor planning, was clearly a huge mistake.” The majestic bird of prey, who said he is not registered with any political party, admitted to having some ambivalence about the current mission in Afghanistan, lamenting that any argument one could make seemed to prompt an equally valid counterpoint. “I’m not a hawk or a dove,” he added. “I’m an eagle.”  [The Onion]

December 25, 2010

Wishing you a catastrophic Christmas

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on December 25, 2010

A decade ago my supposed specialty was in prevention.  In more recent years I have advocated resilience.  Over the last year I have focused mostly on catastrophe.

This trend may seem pessimistic.  But the goal remains to prevent – or at least mitigate – the experience of harm.

We live in a world well-acquainted with suffering and grief. This will persist.

If we can predict anything, we can be sure of earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, death and taxes.  We can be equally sure the violence of an infinitesimal few will trouble and terrorize whole nations. Future historians may well call this the Age of Terror.  This is our shared narrative, the apparent plot of the play in which we find ourselves.

This is why I wish you a catastrophic Christmas.

In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle explains that katastrophe – often translated as reversal of fortune – “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite… Thus in the Oedipus the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, produces the opposite effect.” (Poetics XI, scroll to bottom of link.)

For Christians the birth of Jesus remains a catastrophic event.  The plot of our play has been permanently altered.

The painting is Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli.  The inscription along the top reads: “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him buried as in this picture.”

Botticelli was sure he was living through the end-times described in the Revelation according to St. John.  His was a troubled time full of religious, political, and economic convulsion. Yet we now look back and see – especially in the art, architecture, and literature emerging from the struggle – an apogee of human creativity.

Commenting on Mystic Nativity, Sir Kenneth Clarke wrote, “This vision of joy and love has not been achieved, as in a Buddhist painting, by peaceful contemplation, but through participation in disasters.”

The key is how we choose to participate. Botticelli kept painting. He found in his art and faith the strength to keep creating, even as all around him others chose to destroy.

We are each co-authors of the play.  The plot is ours to choose and – with our neighbors – to craft meaning from the troubles that will surely come.  May we choose joy and love.


More is available on Mystic Nativity from the National Gallery of Art (London).

December 24, 2010

Applying scriptural analogy to the homeland security context

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 24, 2010

(This is the final post in a series.  Links to prior posts are available below.)

Many Americans seem to view Muslims with a disdain similar to that with which the Jews of Jesus’ day viewed Samaritans. Like the Samaritans, Muslims are a religious minority in our midst. They strike the majority of Americans as profoundly “other.”

Twenty-five percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Center report know “nothing at all” about Islam. “Not very much” is the way another 30 percent answered the question, “How much do you know about Muslim religion?” Nearly 60 percent of Americans say they do not know a Muslim.

Prior to 9/11 these differences were easy to tolerate. But when terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam attacked the United States and the United States went to war in Muslim-majority Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not surprising that tolerant ignorance might slide into ignorant intolerance.

Contributing to the troubled Samaritan-Jewish relationship was the complicity of Samaritans in Hellenistic oppression of Jerusalem over several generations before Jesus. Religious otherness, ethnic otherness, and political otherness combined to produce deep prejudice between Jew and Samaritan.  Contemporary attitudes toward Islam are influenced by profound political, ethical, social, and religious  disagreements that ought not be obscured.  These disagreements are expressed within Islam, as well as between Islam and other faith traditions and cultures.

In the six references to Samaritans we have examined, Jesus accepts the difference between Jew and Samaritan. If anything Jesus highlights the differences to encourage his Jewish listeners toward greater self-criticism and self-awareness. The gospels seem to say: if even a Samaritan can know and do God’s purposes, how do you explain your separation from God?

The religious practices of Samaritans – or Jews – did not much concern Jesus. As long as the rituals served to bring believers into a mindful and loving relationship with God and neighbor, Jesus honored the effort and participated in the practices. But religious practice was secondary.

As with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus calls us to approach each other with profound respect for the particular person. Who is this neighbor? Samaritan, Greek, leper or whatever is less important than knowing how this person is in relationship with God and how we are to be in relationship with each other.

If there is a helpful analogy in all this for homeland security it may be in the sort of discrimination we bring to any encounter with the “other.”   The Samaritan sayings of Jesus absolutely depend on a mindful sense of otherness.  We need not — ought not — obscure the differences.  The differences have myriad implications.  The differences are worth serious engagement.  Is homeland security dealing directly with such contemporary differences?

But we should avoid using the differences to exalt ourselves and disdain the other.  The Samaritan sayings are consistent in engaging the other not as an undifferentiated group but as particular personalities with specific attributes both good and bad.  Is this our practice in homeland security?  Is this the character of our political and social discourse?

In most of the sayings Jesus uses the otherness of the Samaritans primarily as a tool to clarify and restore the core principles of his Jewish audience.   The “other” is engaged to expose the gap between “our”  principles and behavior.  In the homeland security domain, how might an American encounter with otherness expose — and bridge — any gap between our principles and our behavior?

In word and example, the Samaritan sayings encourage positive and proactive engagement of the other as a way of learning more about the other, more about ourselves, and how we are in relationship.  I began this series with a focus on the Muslim “other” and this remains my primary cause.  But I close the series recognizing the analogous potential for a range of  relationships important to homeland security: public-private, inter-governmental, inter-disciplinary and more.


Previous posts in this series:

The first post on December 3 was Tis the season… to deal directly with religious difference.

The second post on December 4 was Avoid Samaritan Towns.

The third post on December 5 was The Woman at Jacob’s Well.

The fourth post on December 11 was Jesus accused of being a Samaritan.

The fifth post on December 12 was A Samaritan town rejects Jesus  (including several reader comments).

The sixth post on December 18 was The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The seventh post on December 19 was The Thankful Leper (including several reader comments).

December 23, 2010

Homeland Security…and Santa Claus?

Filed under: Humor — by Arnold Bogis on December 23, 2010

For those of you with young children or grandchildren (or just simply young-at-heart), I would like to point out that the men and women of the NORAD are defending our homeland against the EMP threat poised by a bearded man flying high above our defenses powered by magical animals!

What missile defense systems do we have in place to counter such a threat?!?

By that I mean to point out that wonderful service men and women are donating their time and energy in “tracking” Santa over Christmas.  I’ll let the “Nukes of Hazard Blog” explain:

Because for more than 50 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), have tracked Santa.

The whole deal is pretty high tech, involving radar, satellites, Santa Cams and even fighter jets.

That’s right… fighter jets.

According to NORAD, Santa tracking begins with something called the “North Warning System.”  On December 24, NORAD keeps a constant eye on this system, consisting of 47 installations along the northern border of North America, for signs that Santa has left the North Pole.

Once Santa has lifted off, satellites positioned in geo-synchronous orbit at 22,300 miles from the Earth’s surface and equipped with infrared sensors that enable them to detect heat begin tracking Rudolph’s nose — which, naturally, gives off an infrared signature.

Then the Santa Cams kick in.  The Santa Cams are fairly new (they’ve only been around since 1998, the year NORAD went online with its Santa Tracker) and capture images and videos of Santa and his reindeer as they deliver presents to children the world over.

Last, the jets.  Canadian CF-18s and US F-15 and F-16s fly alongside Santa and, I guess, make sure he’s safe from terrorist attacks?

Seriously, though, the website is adorable and changes daily.  Today, Santa apparently took a short break from making toys to dance with Mrs. Claus, who no doubt feels a bit neglected this time of year.

And before you flip over such an egregious use of government funds (scrooge), rest assured that the program is primarily funded by the likes of Booz Allen Hamilton, Google, and Toys for Tots.

The NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center (NTSOC) opens on December 24th at 4:30 a.m. EST (3:30a.m. CST, 2:30a.m. MST, and 1:30a.m. PST) until 5:00am EST (4:00a.m. CST, 3:00a.m. MST, and 2:00a.m. PST) on December 25th.  Official Santa trackers are standing by at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO to take your calls.

A huge tip o’ the hat to Nukes of Hazard.  If you have any interest in proliferation issues, I would urge you to check out their blog.

For the official NORAD Santa-tracking site, please visit: http://www.noradsanta.org/

DHS Thinking Ahead Regarding Climate Change

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on December 23, 2010

Just when I get close to the point of absolute frustration with the near total reactionary nature of DHS policy, a small bit of news appears to cheer me up.  Per the Homeland Security Newswire:

DHS has a new task force to battle the effects of climate change on domestic security operations; DHS secretary Janet Napolitano explained that the task force was charged with “identifying and assessing the impact that climate change could have on the missions and operations of the Department of Homeland Security”

While I personally believe in the danger of human-influenced climate change, what is most heartening about this DHS initiative is that it is truly forward looking.  Very little of the Department’s policies seem to fall in this category.  Instead, we are treated to security measures that deal with the last threat.  Though in all fairness, I was aware of some nascent FEMA efforts directed toward understanding potential climate change impacts:

The study, undertaken by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the insurance program, aims to determine how seawater will surge onto shorelines around the United States as warming oceans expand and rise. It also seeks to establish how warming temperatures will affect inland flooding nationwide, potentially revealing the likelihood of more damage in some riverine areas.

I understand there is already backlash from some corners regarding the fact that DHS is even considering the possibility of climate change as something that will impact their operations.  As a pre-emptive rebuttal, I would just like to point out that this is something mature departments should do–for example, the Pentagon was already considering potential climate impacts on their operations during the Bush Administration:

Global warming may be bad news for future generations, but let’s face it, most of us spend as little time worrying about it as we did about al Qaeda before 9/11. Like the terrorists, though, the seemingly remote climate risk may hit home sooner and harder than we ever imagined. In fact, the prospect has become so real that the Pentagon’s strategic planners are grappling with it.

In sum, the risk of abrupt climate change remains uncertain, and it is quite possibly small. But given its dire consequences, it should be elevated beyond a scientific debate. Action now matters, because we may be able to reduce its likelihood of happening, and we can certainly be better prepared if it does. It is time to recognize it as a national security concern.

The Pentagon’s reaction to this sobering report isn’t known—in keeping with his reputation for reticence, Andy Marshall declined to be interviewed. But the fact that he’s concerned may signal a sea change in the debate about global warming. At least some federal thought leaders may be starting to perceive climate change less as a political annoyance and more as an issue demanding action.

December 22, 2010

Do Nothing

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Mark Chubb on December 22, 2010

Last week I noted in response to Arnold Bogis’s post on nuclear attack readiness and recent research on the effectiveness of different response strategies that research coming out of New Zealand, like the studies he cited, was raising uncomfortable questions about our conventional notions of what it means to be prepared or to respond effectively. The New Zealand research suggested that the people of Canterbury and Christchurch who experienced a M7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010, were not very prepared but had proven quite resilient.

This raises some obvious questions. For starters, what do we mean by “prepared.” And for that matter how did the researcher define resilience. The research to which the New Zealand news source remains as yet unpublished, but as I am familiar with the territory I think it’s worth taking a stab at answering these questions for the sake furthering our ongoing discussions about resilience and its application to homeland security threats.

As it turns out, the people in Christchurch were not much better prepared than those in most communities we might survey here in the United States, which is to say that the great majority of them had taken no concrete steps to prepare themselves, their households or their businesses for an earthquake or other major emergency. Few people had stockpiled supplies, and only a few more had given any thought to how they might communicate with others or what actions they might take in the moments after the event.

That said, they did pretty much what you might expected someone to do when the actual event occurred: They waited for the ground to stop moving, picked themselves up, looked around and started asking themselves just what the hell had happened. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that there had been an earthquake, and quite a substantial one at that. As they surveyed their homes in the pre-dawn darkness and went outside they began interacting with their neighbors who were doing the same thing. Those in areas that experienced liquefaction, especially those in areas close to the coast, began questioning the wisdom of staying put and some started to head inland to higher and drier ground together.

Others who found themselves less convinced that further peril was imminent attempted to check on loved ones. Those who could get a cellphone signal usually couldn’t get through. So they tried texting. In most cases that worked fine, and they quickly established confidence that they could rely on others to help them and vice versa.

As dawn broke and the damage to commercial buildings and public facilities became evident, people started looking for opportunities to help out. Those who were already part of some organized group, like the university students association or the local rugby club for instance, relied on these social networks to assemble others and organize them to lend a hand in whatever way they could be most useful. In most cases, these working parties participated in activities completely unrelated to the organization’s customary function and, as such, had to invent some of the rules governing how they would work together as they went along.

From these descriptions we can discern a couple of things: First, preparedness is not about stuff or plans. It is a mindset. People were not surprised that an earthquake occurred. Although they were not materially prepared, they understood that the event was a call for them to do something, anything even, as long as it was reasonable and useful. This leads to the second observation: resilience is characterized in such situations by three elements:

  1. Spontaneous, often unplanned and usually ad hoc efforts to employ available resources,
  2. In ways that either attain or help maintain the stability of existing networks,
  3. In a dynamic or hostile environment characterized by unusual levels of uncertainty, ambiguity or both.

The resulting responses encourage further adaptive efforts, often out of scale to their material effects on the situation, by mobilizing or encouraging complementary or cooperative efforts by others. The resulting shared experience yields benefits to participants and the society as a whole by forging new, often more efficient pathways for the allocation of resources and effort.

Why is it important to clarify these definitions? For starters, we still struggle mightily with questions about what steps we should be taking now to ensure resilience emerges at some point in the future. If the Canterbury experience is indicative, maybe we need do nothing or at least nothing peculiar or particular to homeland security and emergency management.

In the current fiscal climate we might do well to consider whether we can do anything more effective than simply staying out of the way. We may just discover all that’s required to improve community resilience is for us to do nothing that impedes or discourages people from doing what they will anyway. If we’re lucky a can-do culture just might emerge.

December 21, 2010

Project Blue Light in 2010: Remembering Those Who Serve at Home

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on December 21, 2010

155 law enforcement officers have been killed in 2010.

83 fire fighters lost their lives in 2010

At least 18 emergency medical service personnel were also killed in the line of duty this year.

I don’t know how many other people who provide the public’s safety died during 2010.

Any are too many.

In 1988,  Mrs. Dolly Craig of Philadelphia, PA, wrote a letter to an organization called Concerns of Police Survivors.

According to the Washington D.C. chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors, Mrs Craig wrote that she’d

… be putting blue lights in her window that holiday season to remember her son-in-law, Danny Gleason, who was killed in the line of duty in 1986, and her daughter Pam, Danny’s widow, who was killed in an auto accident earlier that year. She thought others might like to share her idea. Dolly’s idea is now her legacy. We shared it with others, and nationwide thousands of blue lights shine in support of law enforcement during the holidays.
You may already know about Project Blue Light.  (We wrote about it last year around this time.)
The color blue is a symbol of peace. Put blue lights in your window, decorate your tree in blue, trim the outside of your home or the police station in blue lights. Let our blue lights shine in support of law enforcement this season.You will be sending a dual message that you support America’s peacekeepers and that you hope the coming year will be a year of peace.
If you can, please consider — during these final days of 2010 — displaying at least one blue light.

It is a small way to remember the many people whose often unknown efforts allow us to have moments of happiness with the people we love.

December 20, 2010

Late updates from London, Washington, and Los Angeles

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 20, 2010

Terror targets included Parliament and shopping malls

Counter-terrorism officials launched a major operation over fears of multiple bomb attacks in Whitehall, central London, and on Christmas shoppers and revellers in the West Midlands, the Guardian has learned.

In a series of co-ordinated pre-dawn raids in Stoke, Birmingham, Cardiff and east London, police arrested 12 men aged 17 to 28 and began extensive searches of a number of properties.

Sources with knowledge of the operation said the arrests followed intelligence that targets including “public spaces” and shopping areas in the West Midlands were part of a suspected plot. Sites in Whitehall, including around the Houses of Parliament, were also said to be possible targets. Sources said it is believed that the targets had been scouted as part of the alleged plot.

If the intelligence and assessment by British counter-terrorism officials are correct, it means an attack may have been averted with days to spare. The multiple arrests followed a long undercover investigation led by MI5, according to counter-terrorism officials. MORE

Washington Post: The Monitoring of America

The lead story in today’s Washington Post is a major investigative feature on domestic intelligence operations.  The online version of the story includes even more details.  Please see: Top Secret America.

“Storm of the Decade” Hits Southern California

Thousands are without power as winds, rain continue to pummel the Los Angeles area…  More than 5 inches of rain have already fallen in downtown Los Angeles this month, and the record of 8.77 inches for December is within reach. Mammoth Mountain has already recorded the highest December snow levels ever. After four days of pounding rain, another major storm is expected to hit Los Angeles on Tuesday and last through Wednesday night. Then another storm is expected to settle in over the Christmas weekend.  MORE

European Travel Chaos

Heathrow authorities effectively cancelled the Christmas plans of hundreds of thousands of travellers yesterday as the Transport Secretary admitted the chaos at Britain’s busiest airport was “not acceptable”.  The whole story suggests a classic intersection of natural hazard and human organizational amplification. MORE

Fresh snowfall overnight caused further setbacks at Frankfurt Airport, with no planes taking off or landing on Tuesday morning. Around 130 departures, and a further 130 arrivals, were canceled at Germany’s biggest air terminal.  One of the airport’s three runaways was reopened, allowing the first plane of the day to land at 8:28 a.m. MORE

Swine flu: three more deaths as 200 fight for life

Doctors have warned they are seeing the worst flu outbreak in 10 years in some areas as fears grow that three more people may have died after contracting swine flu.

The new deaths would take the total to 20 so far this winter, with the majority linked to the H1N1 swine flu virus. Laboratory tests on the latest deaths in Leicester are awaited.  MORE 


Monday afternoon I was one of nineteen “preparedness professionals” seated around a table at the emergency management headquarters of a major jurisdiction.   I was the only one focused on preparedness for catastrophe.  There was one other colleague who often works with me on catastrophic possibilities.  So… we might say there was a 9-to-1 ratio in terms of disaster-to-catastrophe attention.  Frankly that’s much higher than usual.  Consistently investing five percent would be great.

The collection of stories above suggests why.  Flood, blizzard, and other less-than-catastrophic threats abound. Just these can strain our readiness and seriously complicate our lives.  Yet an investment in catastrophic thinking pays dividends by helping us be less-surprised by the less likely, catastrophic or not.

UK arrests: Christmas bombing intended?

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 20, 2010

I have been waiting to see if anything more detailed might emerge from the dozen arrests made early this morning in the UK.  I’m not seeing anything credible that was not at the top of the news this morning.  I will be in meetings or traveling most of the rest of the day.  So… here are a few links to three “aggregation” sites related to terrorism.  If anything new is worth telling, these are three top candidates for bringing us the news soonest:

The Telegraph  Terrorism in the UK

The Guardian  UK Security and Terrorism

The Daily Mail  Christmas plot at advanced stage

Despite the Daily Mail’s (“Voice of Middle England”) headline, most of the reports I have seen suggests the plot — whatever it might have been — was in its earliest stages. 

It is worth noting that despite the dramatic pre-dawn raids across England and Wales, the top stories in British media are all related to the snow storm and travel delays.  All-hazards makes its case once more.

December 19, 2010

“Cyberspace is fundamentally a civilian space” says Janet Napolitano

Filed under: Cybersecurity — by Philip J. Palin on December 19, 2010

Friday Secretary Napolitano delivered a speech on cybersecurity to a forum sponsored by The Atlantic and Government Executive.  About mid-way through the remarks there was something that sounded new to me:

Now, there are some who say that cybersecurity should be left to the market. The market will take care of it, and there are some who characterize the Internet as a battlefield on which we are fighting a war. So it’s the market or the war. Those are the two analogies that you hear.

Not surprisingly, I take a different position. In my view, cyberspace is fundamentally a civilian space, and government has a role to help protect it, in partnership with responsible partners across the economy and across the globe.So let me just say that again. In my judgment, both the market and the battlefield analogies are the wrong ones for us to use. We should be talking about this as, fundamentally, a civilian space and a civilian benefit that employs partnerships with the private sector and across the globe.

So we’re proud to be a part of that global effort. We believe in the importance of an open Internet, but we cannot have an Internet that is open, but not secure, nor an Internet that is secure but not open. And I think just by saying that, that lays down the challenge that we confront.

So… like a watershed, or a fishery, or deep sea oil deposits, or the radio spectrum, or other “common pool resources” there is a shared public-private responsibility.  If that’s the model, Elinor Ostrom would appreciate the emphasis on “fundamentally a civilian space.”  

Dr. Ostrom’s research and that of her myriad disciples — including yours truly — suggests that when the emphasis starts and stays on user management then resilient systems are more likely to emerge.  Effective norms are developed by users — who know and depend on the resources most — and are adopted not just as rules but as fundamental expectations across the system.

When government is a facilitator, trusted source of information, and a last resort of enforcement against norm-breaking users, public-private partnerships usually thrive.  Government insisting on taking an aggressive lead is an early symptom of collapse in many a commons.

Perhaps I am reading too much between too few lines. The Secretary did not say much. Maybe she was just sending a turf-claiming signal to DOD. There was no footnote pointing us to Elinor Ostrom. Imposing a Nobel Laureate’s meaning on the Secretary’s remarks may be a stretch.  But I like the stretch.

Earlier in the speech the Secretary had a paragraph that did not sound new (at least to me), but when read in combination with what is excerpted above takes on new meaning (at least for me):

Finally, I want to stress that cybersecurity isn’t about control. It’s not about government control. It is about partnerships. But partnership needs to have some effectiveness. There needs to be meat on the bone when we say partnership. And there needs to be widespread distributed action toward that goal, so that we view this much more as creating, if I may, layered security involving partnerships, as opposed to top-down or government-down. So we are working more closely than ever to identify the private sector partners who we need, and work with them, and also across the federal family.

H1N1 messaging muddle? Or leading indicator?

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on December 19, 2010

For the last two or three weeks I have noticed much more attention to flu stories — and especially H1N1 — in the British media than I have seen in the United States.  But when I have checked the health  informatics I have seen no statistically significant difference. 

The divergence in attention has, however, finally gotten to the point where I will at least aggregate some of the recent reports for the benefit of the — mostly stateside — HLSWatch reader.

If swine flu pandemic is over, why the panic?  (The Telegraph)

Warning over number of previously healthy swine flu patients suffering lung problems (The Mirror)

Doctors warn of flu crisis (The Guardian)

Seventeen people die from flu this winter (The Press Association)

Swine flu now dominant virus as cases rocket (The Mercury)

Region is facing major flu crisis (Norther Echo)

Sussex facing flu epidemic as patients refuse vaccines (The Argus)

There is some indication that — unlike in the US — the percentage of the British population receiving flu vaccinations has dropped from last year.   How much of this is a “health vector” and how much this is a “perception vector” would require more attention than I have given the issue.

Basic information on the status of influenza is available from:

World Health Organization Flu Net (information is a bit dated)

UK Health Protection Agency Weekly National Influenza Report (December 16)

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Weekly FluView (December 17)

Luke 17: The thankful leper

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 19, 2010

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.

As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Again the significance of the other is highlighted, not obscured. The Greek translated as foreigner is allogenes literally other sort, other nature or other tribe.

The Jewish audience of Jesus generally despised Samaritans. Jesus applies that sense of otherness to encourage his listeners to self-criticism and self-awareness.

The key issue here is not the religious identity of the leper, but his faith and his thankfulness. All ten had sufficient faith. Only one had the humility and care to return, praise God, and give thanks… and he was a Samaritan.  The Samaritan identity — heretical, unclean, and potentially dangerous — serves to underline the essential role of thankfulness.

In the Samaritan stories Jesus tells us that whatever other we encounter we are to look beyond our prejudices to the faith of the other, the behavior of the other, and especially how the other is in relationship with God and neighbor. Jesus tells us to recognize the other as neighbor and as an expression of God.

We also see in the Samaritan stories how our encounter with the other can help us see ourselves more clearly and experience our relationship with God more fully.

Next Friday, Christmas Eve, some thoughts on the potential relevance to homeland security of the six texts we have examined.


This is the seventh post in a weekend series that will conclude on December 24.  The purpose is to examine possible principles for inter-religious relations emerging from six scriptural texts.

The first post on December 3 was Tis the season… to deal directly with religious difference.

The second post on December 4 was Avoid Samaritan Towns.

The third post on December 5 was The Woman at Jacob’s Well.

The fourth post on December 11 was Jesus accused of being a Samaritan.

The fifth post on December 12 was A Samaritan town rejects Jesus  (including several reader comments).

The sixth post on December 18 was The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

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