Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 16, 2011

Resilience: The promise and the platitude

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 16, 2011

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.

Well… at least the BP stock price has been resilient.  Transocean and Haliburton too.

–+–

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.

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12 Comments »

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

September 16, 2011 @ 4:26 am

There is a grammatical error in the first sentence of the Obama quote – is it his or yours?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 16, 2011 @ 5:00 am

Claire… It is a cut-and-paste from the White House transcript. I have not seen/heard a video, so cannot be sure what the President may have actually said. I have to admit I did not notice until you pointed it out. I expect Eric Blair might have a comment or two on the error.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2011 @ 7:44 am

Apparently the Too-Big-To-FAIL banks are totally resilient whether domestic or international since the FEDERAL RESERVE continues to devalue the dollar to bail them out. Do they provide any services to the American people?
A great post however and interesting that many do find resilience a platitude. I argue it requires examination of highly specific sinews of what is being examined from the family to the nation-state. This is based on just on risk analysis and risk assessment but also on verification of capabilities. Thus, I argue for example that no bank and no airline in the entirety of the history of the USA has ever been profitable over its life yet much national and private treasure has been invested. Perhaps the same for railroads now down to just 5 nationally but I would suggest they are more resilient transportation modes over gas powered cars and trucks or gas powered airplanes. Perhaps not.

The USA continues to allow a free market of sorts to exist wherein risky technologies, risky in the sense that they destroy resilience, to flourish and be subsidized.

I once thought for example that HIGHER ED was a somewhat resilient sector of our culture but now understand that its resilience undermined by a desperate need to try and make it profitable at least for its administrators.

The corporate form is highly flexible and that is why it is successful in the USA. But with 50 states chartering its course it is highly unregulated. With over 10% of GDP in the non-profit sector but with the diminished resilience of that sector it is clear that norms and organizational arrangements do not make for resilience.

I also like the analytic framework of HROs [highly reliable organizations] but is that the same as resilient? Maybe or maybe not!

My bottom line is that risk taking may undermine resiliency for individuals or organizations so how is the line drawn? Is this the key question going forwards for a “free” country? Who draws the lines? And how are those lines drawn and decided and implemented?

Personally I don’t believe either the military or the law enforcement community should be the final line drawer for civil society but some would disagree.

One example might be FLASHMOBBING! Is it sympton or disease? 80% of those arrested in recent British riots had prior criminal records according to some reports.

It is clear that most of the political scene in the USA is an attempt by politicians to impose their beliefs [because they are right?] on others and the record of such past “victories” has led to some of mankinds most depraved activity. A treacherous time.

Let US hope that somehow resilience is not equated with survival of the fittest!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 16, 2011 @ 8:09 am

Bill, Your comments cause me to consider the potentially key role of failure in resilience. There are — too quickly — several ways that failure and resilience are related.

First, in an explicitly Darwinian fashion, resilient characteristics are often the outcome of adaptation to both threat and opportunity. Non-resilient entities tend to disappear, making room for more resilient entitites. I am not taking an ethical position, just stating what I understand is often demonstrated empirically.

Second, resilient entities often anticipate failure. In fact they can be seen as potentially over-investing in resistance/recovery to failure; over-investing that is until the cause-of-failure emerges and they suddenly seem prescient and prudent.

Third, there is some increasing evidence that lots of little failures can reduce the likelihood of catastrophic failure. This is especially the case if we do not work too hard to stop little failures (thereby increasing the probability and consequence of catastrophe). Embracing failure is an essential aspect of resilience?

Comment by Dan O'Connor

September 16, 2011 @ 9:14 am

There has to be risk taking and failure in order to both learn to be and exhibit resilience. Perhaps failure is the wrong word. With every experience we have our expectation both changes and adapts.

To both Bill and Phil’s points; it’s not the strongest that survives but the most adaptive… We learn by failing and reinforce by success, not the other way around. Here’s a recent article that alludes to that theme;

http://tinyurl.com/3nvehy2

There is no test or preparation for disruptive novelty, in my opinion. Did the Japanese have a plan for an earthquake? Probably. Did it have one for a Tsunami? Probably. Did it have one for a nuclear incident? Probably. Did it have one for all three, as a cascading action consequence? Probably not. That is a disruptive novelty.

The fact that the East Coast experienced both a earthquake and a hurricane within days of one another should indicate that novelty is what it is; previously unknown “newness”.

While there may be a failure of imagination in some instances, very few people think in that dimension of crisis. There is also something to be said about experiential resilience instead of theoretical resilience. In previous blog responses, we’ve read where we plan based on previous experiences. It’s less expensive that way.

Planning and exercising are only as good as their authenticity and ability to stretch comfort zones.

Platitudes aside, in order to be resilient there has to be some degree of discomfort as a reference point or baseline. Otherwise it’s just another overused buzzword; kind of like enterprise, convergence, homeland security, etc.

Historically one can make the argument that those who were able to weather the Great Depression, food and fuel rationing, and World War II were abundantly resilient. But to further the argument; what choice did they have? They had to adapt or die. That’s both literally and figuratively. And furthering the argument, their resilience and perpetual discomfort led to a lack of resilience or a laizze faire attitude towards National preparedness and posture.

In the book The Fourth Turning, the authors Strauss and Howe postulate that just after the millennium, America will enter a new era that will culminate with a crisis comparable to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. The survival of the nation will almost certainly be at stake.

Strauss and Howe base this vision on a provocative theory of American history as a series of recurring 80- to 100-year cycles. Each cycle has four “turnings”-a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis.

In another book; One Second After author William R. Forstchen paints a picture of the United States post an Electro Magnetic Post (EMP) attack. While a combination of factual accuracy and fictional outcome, I found his logic and reasoning…reasonable. Forstchen makes the prediction that without electricity and electronic devices 90% of the American population will die within one year. That’s 270 million people. Again, I found his logic and reasoning fair and quite appropriate. How do we prepare a Nation to withstand that kind of duress? Is that the resilience we are talking about?

Lots of little failures are lots of opportunities to grow and learn better more adaptive behaviors. We may be experiencing some of the cyclical happenings of Strauss and Howe and at the same time face the threats as described by Forstchen. In both cases, are ability or lack thereof to be or become adaptive, overcome, and create new solutions from previously unpredicted or disruptive novelty will be tested like never before.

Much like many of the excellent discussions and points of view seen over the years in this blog; our ability to define and clarify a point of view is on the one hand a good thing and on another an example of our bias’ and expectation of our previous experience. Until we are able to collectively synthesize solutions to emerging trends, we will continue to be shocked and dismayed, with both of these experiences not being productive in establishing resilience.

Comment by Tom Russo

September 16, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

Declining capacity does not equal resilience…no matter how many study groups, reports, conferences and collaboratives are rolled out!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 16, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

Mr. Russo, While I may agree, before I do, what sort of declining capacity do you have in mind? National economic, political, public safety… ?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 16, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

Dan, Many thanks. I might argue we have been in the midst of a major turn in human history since sometime after 1973… so most of my adult life. In my own reading of history the really big twists-and-turns require 50 to 60 years to work their way through. Along the way there are plenty of opportunities for each of us to play the butterfly-in-the-Amazon role. Of course the real butterfly in chaos theory is just living its life, moving from one source of nectar to the next. You and I are blessed/burdened with intention. In any case, I am trying to bat my wings as gracefully, creatively, and productively as possible.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

Something in DAN’s comment made me think of resilience and reliability also involving repairability. Why not design to allow quick repair if damage and not have to discard? Or is the modern world in fact designed for discardability and quick replacement? But as for energy grid transformers what if no stockpiles for quick replacement?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

Perhaps less might be more. Thoreau’s axiom redux of doing with less may in fact be more resilient and those needing more.

Comment by Dan

September 16, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

Well…one could look at the Ho ChiMinh trail as repairable, highly resilient,, and key critical infrastructure…just a thought

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

And DAN is that why we only fight now in the desert or arid clims?

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