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.

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 31, 2010 @ 1:47 am

Well perhaps the Heisenberg Theorem applies–eye of the beholder. I would rank the Pakistani flooding ahead of the bombings but also would note that a total of Predator collateral damage–innocents injured–may in fact be closer to the bombing totals you cite than most would imagine.

The great failure in Haiti continues to be the world and US operating on the assumption that there is a functioning government. Remains to be seen IMO.

And that brings up the notion of exactly how would one determine that there is a functioning government? Is Mexico a nation-state with a functioning government? Do the audits of governance revealed by natural and man-made events help US to understand what good governance is in fact.

Perhaps an articulation of good governance would help US and others improve. Personally don’t believe divide and conquer policies reflect good governance. But others might argue otherwise.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 31, 2010 @ 7:49 am

Bill: Philip Alston the UNHRC Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions has argued that in our use of drones the US is the “most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world. This morning Xinhua is reporting that during 2010 there were 122 drone strikes in Pakistan killing at least 995 people. At least one-third of those killed are thought to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some estimate up to 80 percent of those killed are “collateral”.

See: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2010-12/31/c_13672471.htm

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 31, 2010 @ 9:01 am

You shall reap what you sow?

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 1, 2011 @ 6:06 am

It appears that like Pakistan which had floods impacting its national economic picture last year, the same is now happening to Australia.

Question for Mark? If you find any economic analysis of the NZ Earthquake last year could you post about it?

American economists have failed to reach agreement on the exact economic impacts of various kinds of disasters. For example official direct economic impacts of the 9/11/01 event are estimate to be about $80B. AQ estimates them at $600B, a figure I believe closer to the mark.

Oddly as huge an event as Hurricane Katrina looks like it provided economic stimulus in its wake not the opposite. Perhaps I am in error.

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