Sunday evening at the Kennedy Center, President Obama said,
These past 10 years underscores the bonds between all Americans. We have not succumbed to suspicion, nor have we succumbed to mistrust. After 9/11, to his great credit, President Bush made clear what we reaffirm today: The United States will never wage war against Islam or any other religion. Immigrants come here from all parts of the globe. And in the biggest cities and the smallest towns, in schools and workplaces, you still see people of every conceivable race and religion and ethnicity -– all of them pledging allegiance to the flag, all of them reaching for the same American dream –- e pluribus unum, out of many, we are one.
These past 10 years tell a story of our resilience. The Pentagon is repaired, and filled with patriots working in common purpose. Shanksville is the scene of friendships forged between residents of that town, and families who lost loved ones there. New York — New York remains the most vibrant of capitals of arts and industry and fashion and commerce. Where the World Trade Center once stood, the sun glistens off a new tower that reaches towards the sky.
Our people still work in skyscrapers. Our stadiums are still filled with fans, and our parks full of children playing ball. Our airports hum with travel, and our buses and subways take millions where they need to go. And families sit down to Sunday dinner, and students prepare for school. This land pulses with the optimism of those who set out for distant shores, and the courage of those who died for human freedom.
Saturday in his weekly radio address, speaking of the continuing threat of terrorism, the President said, “no matter what comes our way, as a resilient nation, we will carry on.”
We may be a resilient people, but after huge wildfires in Texas, killer tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa, extraordinary flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and much more, the Disaster Relief Fund is just about depleted. The worst of hurricane season is probably still ahead. California’s wildfire season is just ramping up. I wonder when the San Andreas, New Madrid, or another past-due fault will shift.
While we may be resilient, so — we are told — is our adversary. Testifying Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Matt Olsen, the new Director of the National Counter Terrorism Center said,
Al-Qaida, its affiliates and adherents around the world, as well as other terrorist organizations, continue to pose a significant threat to our country. This threat is resilient and adaptive and will persist for the foreseeable future. America‘s campaign against terrorism did not end with the mission at Bin Ladin‘s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May. A decade after the September 11th attacks, we remain at war with al-Qaida and face an evolving threat from its affiliates and adherents.
A variety of reports tell us there has been no resolution of the “credible” threat to Washington DC and New York announced in the days just before 9/11. But on Sunday we did evidently kill Abu Hafs al-Shahri, a Saudi Arabian national who was chief of operations for al-Qaeda inside Pakistan.
According to Wednesday’s Report Regarding the Causes of the April 20, 2010 Macondo Well Blowout, resiliency was not readily found in the design, operations, or response to last years explosion, fire, and oil spill.
The loss of life at the Macondo site on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through the summer of 2010 were the result of poor risk management, last minute changes to plans, failure to observe andrespond to critical indicators, inadequate well control response, and insufficient emergency bridge response training by companies and individuals responsible for drilling at the Macondo well and for the operation of the Deepwater Horizon.
Resilience was once a radical reframing of homeland security strategy. Less than five years ago, a colleague passionately critiqued resilience as a dangerous, defeatist concept. I argued resilience is how we productively work with uncertainty.
Arguments over definition (and implications) can still be heard, but resilience is — already — making the transition from provocation to platitude. In too many speeches, editorials, memos, and blogs resilience has joined freedom, equality, love, and courage as meaning whatever the author wishes it to mean, especially if the author is advocating rigid, inflexible, and non-resilient notions.
I am reminded of Orwell’s essay on political language, “In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
When authors of platitudes are allowed to persist, their audience shares responsibility. Meaningful principles devolve into platitudes through unquestioning, self-indulgent, unthinking consumption. Orwell again, “Our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
As an antidote for foolish thinking about resilience, please give careful and critical attention to three recent considerations of resilience. Each includes its own platitudes or worse, but when thoughtfully consumed each promises greater precision in how we think about and practice resilience.
Community Resilience Task Force Recommendations (2011), Homeland Security Advisory Council, Department of Homeland Security. “The Task Force identified an urgent need for clear articulation of the relationships and dependencies between resilience and other homeland security efforts—particularly preparedness and risk reduction. Clarification of these relationships is crucial both to build shared understanding across diverse stakeholder communities and to motivate action throughout the Nation.”
Building Community Resilience to Disasters (2011) RAND and the US Department of Health and Human Services. “Community resilience entails the ongoing and developing capacity of the community to account for its vulnerabilities and develop capabilities that aid that community in (1) preventing, withstanding, and mitigating the stress of a health incident; (2) recovering in a way that restores the community to a state of self-sufficiency and at least the same level of health and social functioning after a health incident; and (3) using knowledge from a past response to strengthen the community’s ability to withstand the next health incident.”
Key Trends Driving Global Business Resilience and Risk (2011) IBM Global Technology Services. “Business resilience refers to the ability of enterprises to adapt to a continuously changing business environment. Resilient organizations are able to maintain continuous operations and protect their market share in the face of disruptions such as natural or man-made disasters. Business resilience planning is distinguished from enterprise risk management (ERM) in that it is more likely to build capacity to seize opportunities created by unexpected events. Another difference is that while ERM can be implemented as a management capability, an integrated business resilience strategy requires the engagement of everyone in the organization, and often means a change in corporate culture to instill awareness of risk.”
Bureaucratic writing is innately banal. Authors — including yours truly — try to gin up with length or style an authority not achieved in substance. Often we are busy trying to paper over unresolved conflicts and complexities. This results, Orwell explains, in two recurring faults: “First, staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.”
The three documents listed above are not the worst examples of bureaucratic writing, but they share the sins of their species. To nurture your critical reading with rich imagery and exacting precision, I suggest, You Think That’s Bad, a recent collection of Jim Shepard’s fiction. Between each of the bureaucratic reports read at least one of the ten short stories. Many in this collection struggle with issues of resilience. I especially recommend, The Netherlands Lives with Water.