Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 5, 2012

Poetics of homeland security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on May 5, 2012

For the ancient Greeks poeisis was the making, producing, creating of anything… including verse.

At this blog — especially with the encouragement of Christopher Bellavita (the Greek and Latin amalgam meaning Christ-bearer/Beautiful Life) — we periodically wonder and argue about the making of homeland security.

The last few days I have been in New England on various homeland security assignments.  After my last Saturday morning appointment I discovered the Brattle Bookshop at 9 West Street in Boston.  From their open air shelves (and shelves and shelves) of $1, $3, and $5 books, I purchased The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden (Random House, 1945).

This edition includes September 1, 1939, that Auden later exiled from his authorized oeuvre, but was so often quoted in the days following September 11, 2001.  Especially:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night…

The last stanza is my favorite, but it has been less associated with homeland security.  See comments for this bit.

So down a dim alley I found an old restaurant where I shared a late lunch with Auden.  Adam Gopnik later joined us, helpfully explaining what the poet means by “Double Man.”

At the time, and even at Auden’s death, the war poems were not critically admired.  Many claimed America had confused, even cheapened the Englishman.

But in our own war-time the words have found renewed resonance.  From Spring 1940:

O not even war can frighten us enough,
That last attempt to eliminate the Strange
By uniting us all in terror
Of something known, even that’s a failure
Which cannot stop us taking our walks alone,
Scared by the unknown unconditional dark,
Down the avenues of our longing:
For however they dream they are scattered,
Our bones cannot help reassembling themselves
Into the philosophic city where dwells
The knowledge they cannot get out of;
And neither a Spring nor a war can ever
So condition his ears as to keep the song
That is not a sorrow from the Double Man.
O what weeps is the love that hears, an
Accident occurring in his substance.

Last weekend I returned to my childhood home.  There most do not share our concerns.  The debt is a bigger deal than any pending disaster (rather is the pending disaster). For them TSA is a bigger threat than terrorism.  Should I disagree? Though I was happy to have an old friend guide me through the full-body scanner at the Peoria airport.

A bare remnant seeks the philosophic city where dwells The knowledge.

What are we to make of that, O Christ-bearer?

What are we to make of that, O beautiful life?

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 5, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

The final stanza of September 1, 1939:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I have to think it is “Of Eros and of dust”, but the book shows “Or Eros…”. Some quick googling seems to confirm this is a typo in my edition.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 6, 2012 @ 6:57 am

Phil! Personally I love your posts even though I understand some may question their relevance. I find them relevant as I find an educated mind trying to make some sense out of what is nonsensical but part of the human experience–specifically the organized and unorganized violence directed by those with the physical power to do so against the innocent.

To some extent of course we are all powerful to some degree and innocent to some degree. The collective continues to struggle with dissonance of those who might lead it to a better path. Why do we not listen more?

I am now in 7th year of living and working outside the beltway of Washington DC after most of my life since its opening in 1964 lived there. Time off for Law School and Army!

Many would argue otherwise but it is now an IMPERIAL CAPITAL and like all of those in the past its believes it deserves its status and most who drive that imperium believe not in their own ego and hubris but in their absolute certainty that they are owed their power and influence over the lives and fortunes of others, but especially strong is the strain of self-dealing that leads to the famous maxim “absolute power corrupts absolutely”!

Clearly where I know live there are various forms of corruption also. The last MENHADEN factory on the bay is not to me a sign of corruption but the sign of man’s willingness to believe that what he wants is necessary and not folly. Read the book “The MOST IMPORTANT FISH IN THE SEA” published about 2005 if you want some insights to Jared Diamond’s wonderful question “What was the last person cutting down the last tree on EASTER ISLAND thinking”? Obviously that person was NOT thinking.

So Phil thanks for evidence of some deeper thinking and pondering on what may well be unthinkable and imponderable.

I always thought the book by Herbert Kahn “Thinking the Unthinkable” was terrific. Unfortunately he in his own ego and brilliance did not have the courage of his thinking that nuclear weapons have no military usage and their possession alone is indicative that mankind may yet end not with a wimper but a bang. Apologies to Mr. T.S. Eliot and his deep understanding of humanity in his poem “The WASTELAND”!

We now have two more candidates for the Presidency, one who holds it already, who have no deep understanding of the threats to mankind and continue to allow the vision of the apocalpyse to drive their need for power. Let’s start here on this blog and indicate why the greatest single accomplishment to assist Homeland Security would be the renunciation by the US of any first use of nuclear weapons.

Those who have not lived and cared for these weapons do NOT understand why this simple step would cause a different kind of fallout throughout the world and society than that from actual detonations.

Gary Wills “Bomb Power” gives some insights into what drives the Imperial Presidency. The so-called 3 AM phone call is likely to find no one at home to answer.
And a line long dead.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 6, 2012 @ 8:02 am

Bill, I am sure that many (most?) find my more literary/philosophical posts not only irrelevant but a pretentious distraction. From time to time I worry they are right. I appreciate your patience as I struggle with these potential imponderables. We are, after all, engaged in issues of life and death, liberty and its potential loss, national purpose and the most profound human aspirations. An occasional reference to something other than a GAO report or Congressional testimony might do some modest good.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 6, 2012 @ 8:42 am

If our democracy [a Republic actually] is to survive we need more Palin’s to assist US! Thanks again for the efforts. The end product is wonderful!

Comment by Fiscal Hawk

May 6, 2012 @ 8:45 am

The analysis of context is the way to make “some sense out of what is nonsensical,” so I too value these discussions.

The “self-dealing” in the Imperial Capital has become worse over the years. To some degree, it is human nature and cannot be eradicated completely. However, it now is such an anchor weighing down every small and large decision that is made daily at all levels of government that doing the right thing takes substantial courage by an individual and invokes retribution by superiors who have some personal stake in a specific outcome.

The culture of ethics has degraded. I attribute some of this to the initiatives to bring in people who have succeeded in the private sector. The original goal was to make the government more efficient, which is a laudable goal. However, the missions of the private sector and the government are different and the nuance of taking actions for the common good (tragedy of the commons) are lost on those with private sector zeal.

The young incoming generation of ambitious new federal emplyees get the lay of the land and quickly come to the conclusion that the downsides of bending the ethical rules (to the degree that they understand them in the first place) are minor and the upsides of doing whatever an ethically challenged manager wants is career enhancing. If anything, such a manager has an unconscious need for large doses of respect and kowtowing. Anyone willing to fill that need will do well in government these days.

Yes, we have lost sight of our purpose. Without true leaders who demonstrate it to us in ways both large and (especially) small, we instead revert to looking out for ourselves.

The SES cadre and those aspiring to SES have no incentive to deeper thinking. To them, it is about appearances, marketing, and endearing themselves to those in authority. This is not lost on the average employee.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 6, 2012 @ 11:49 am

Mr. Hawk:

The ethical issue is, it seems to me, further complicated by a shifting sense of the “Good.” This has always been treacherous, but especially in transitional times such as ours.

In my experience younger people — Feds or otherwise — are just as inclined to want to do and be Good as ever. Sometimes I think twenty-somethings are much more concerned along-these-lines than I was at their age.

But I inherited a fairly well-formed framework for defining the Good that is simply not present for many of my younger colleagues. I knew, for example, that my careerist ambitions were secondary to the Good and could often be competitive with the Good. This did not always result in my deferring to the Good. But unless I was inclined to be especially self-deceiving, I understood the choice being made and, at some level, accepted the consequences.

It seems to me the choice is not always as clear to those thirty-or-more years younger than me. The uncertainty does not arise from less self-awareness, but perhaps from less exposure to religion, literature, philosophy, and history — not as academic subjects — but as imaginative laboratories for making choices.

I turn to the Greek philosophers, or Auden, or the Bible, or historical analogies because these are, at least for me, very operational frameworks for choosing. I don’t think these frameworks have the same influence as they once did and they have not (yet?) been effectively superseded by other as-meaningful frameworks.

Comment by Michael Brady

May 6, 2012 @ 2:24 pm



“I am sure that many (most?) find my more literary/philosophical posts not only irrelevant but a pretentious distraction. From time to time I worry they are right.”

There was a time when the well-educated person was expected to secure a liberal arts education as a foundation for subsequent study. Homer, Thucydides, Shakespeare, and their more modern brethren, such as Auden, have much to offer the well-rounded mind as we struggle with difficulty, uncertainty, and fear. We are the better for you reminding us – and one hopes, those within the beltway – that we are dealing with the human condition.

“There most do not share our concerns. The debt is a bigger deal than any pending disaster (rather is the pending disaster). For them TSA is a bigger threat than terrorism.”

On any given day the ruined economy IS the average citizen’s real problem. For most air travelers the indignities inflicted by the TSA ARE worse than anything Al Qaeda has perpetrated in over a decade. So long as disagreement is expressed in dialogue and debate we should seek it out rather than strive for a comforting but false unanimity.

While we struggle to discern the best way forward I will put my faith in leaders who are learned enough to quote the classics.

Be of stout heart and good cheer.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 6, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

I would argue that airport security rather than passenger security would have been a better choice and the set of airport security automatically includes passenger security. Few airports have adequate security and in fact the TSA lines make for tempting targets IMO.

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