Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 8, 2012

Homeland security as a national monomyth

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012


I have proposed that homeland security is, itself, the consequence of a catastrophe.  Further, I have suggested homeland security is a consequence that — among other things — reinforces and extends the catastrophic nature of the original event. For good and bad homeland security contributes to marking a catastrophic before and after.

The uncanny, even surreal success of the al-Qaeda plot was the crux of this catastrophe.   If the Pentagon alone had been hit, would our (a populist “our”) response have been as it was?  With both towers hit and casualties as high, if the structures had remained standing would our sense-of-devastation have been the same?

It was the televised — “you are there” — impact of not one but both towers collapsing before our collective eyes that ensured an awful day was widely experienced as little less than apocalyptic.  Pennsylvania and the Pentagon were dreadful subplots to the ghastly spectacle in New York.

I don’t know how to test it, but even the shared shock of Pearl Harbor may not have been as profound as that of 9/11.   Many were aware of the Japanese threat.  The conflict in China was big news, the European war well-known context. But eleven years ago most were unaware of AQ, even after the attacks on the USS Cole and the East African embassies.  For the vast majority of Americans, this terrorist threat might as well have emerged from Mars.

This was the genesis of homeland security.  Such a beginning matters.

Most of us expected — certainly I did — follow-on attacks.  Given the creative audacity of the “first” attacks anything seemed possible.   The following is from Ashton B. Carter, currently Deputy Secretary of Defense, writing in Countering Terrorism (2003):

The varieties of extremism that can spawn catastrophic terrorism  seem limitless… What is clear is that war-scale destructive power is becoming increasingly available as technology advances. The same advances heighten the complexity and interconnectedness of civilization, making society more vulnerable at the same time as technology deliver to small groups destructive powers that were formerly the monopoly of states. (Page 18)

According to a 2010 survey, 53 percent of Americans expect a terrorist attack using a nuclear device.  The President is evidently among this majority.  Having experienced the nearly unimaginable on 9/11, we can easily imagine much worse.

Since 9/11 there has been no new use or known attempted use of war-scale destructive power.  Yet many — probably most — Americans perceive that a small number of evil men present a clear, present, and existential threat to the United States.  This is the sustaining justification for homeland security.  This is the continuing cascade of catastrophe.

We talk and write about risk-informed decision making.  But our core homeland security narrative is not so subtle.

Nine weeks after 9/11 the first Harry Potter movie was released.  It was the highest grossing film of the year. The 2001 Christmas season saw the first Lord of the Rings movie open to crowds only a bit smaller than those for Harry.  The righteous anger of September was already predisposed to stark distinctions of good and evil.  Popular culture readily reinforced these tendencies.

But… as with the fictional Harry and Frodo, the most significant struggle has been internal.  Do not misunderstand, the external threat is real.  The existential challenge, though, is much more a matter of our national sense-of-self.  Are we brave, generous and loving or are we fearful, greedy, and vengeful?  The gravest question is not if we will defeat the enemy, but what this fight will make of us?

Homeland security has become our Hogwarts, our Middle-earth: a set of problems with which we are crafting our national character.  (“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets via the character Albus Dumbledore)

In 1998 Ashton Carter served as co-chair of the “Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group.”  He and his co-authors prophesied:

A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. (Foreign Affairs,  November/December 1998)

They failed to predict weaponized passenger jets, but the rest sounds accurate to me.  Please notice the most catastrophic consequences are self-inflicted.

The Lord of the Rings transpires over two years, the Harry Potter series in seven.  We are well into our second decade since 9/11.  By now our fictional heroes had  engaged their demons, returned home, and had earned the freedom to live fully.  We are not there.  The catastrophe is still unfolding.  Crucial choices still confront us.  We are unfinished.  We are unresolved.  We have not yet abandoned the “self-generated double-monster” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell).

Homeland security is double-minded, as Harry could so often be; as Frodo was even in his final struggle with Gollum at the Crack of Doom.

Homeland security problems are often as intimate as they are important.  Who do we trust? Why? What are our trials?  What are our temptations? Where are we most vulnerable?  To whom are we loyal?  What and whom are we prepared to betray? What is the call that would prompt betrayal?  Precisely because these are problems of self-identity and relationship they can be especially treacherous.

Our double-mindedness will be resolved.  When and how are pending.  I wish I was more certain of a happy ending.

Next week: Homeland security on the road of trials


This is the second in a series of posts on the relationship of homeland security to catastrophe (here’s a link to the first).  About ten posts on catastrophe are expected to be followed by another ten on resilience and another ten on civil liberties.  But this series is open, exploratory, and susceptible to tangents.  There were great comments on last week’s post that I am still thinking through.  This post is not especially responsive to particular comments, but I promise future posts will try to seriously engage the important issues you raised.  Please join in with your questions, concerns, and comments.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 8, 2012 @ 12:24 am

Much insightful on this post! And modern mankind [really technological mankind] has seen his inventions turn out to be double edged depending on the mind of the user!
What worries me is not the nature of the threat but the illusion of control that pervades those who deal with threats. With estimates [unclassified] that up to 1/3 or 1/2 of strategic nuclear weapons would have delivery failures of one kind or another that still left and leaves a lot of KTs on target. But the shear randomness of terrorist attacks seems to have stirred up atavistic notions that lay bare our civilized humanity.
And now of course whatever the spin, the US also wages war on innocents and acts oblivious to the impacts real and imagined on the “others” that we attack.
Still a post worthy of a more dignified and reflective comment than this one but only with the passage of some time can that take place.

Thanks Phil for thinking! And writing!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 8, 2012 @ 5:58 am

Tuesday Chris Bellavita gave us a good overview of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Both Kahneman and Chris tell us about the power and peril of anecdotes. We collect (mostly short) stories that distill and justify our preferred realities. We argue over (and with) anecdotes… set phrases… broad accusations… bad analogies. (Vietnam or Munich anyone?)

Instead of thinking together, we trade stories… and mostly I decide to keep my story and reject your story.

I hope I understand what Kahneman is arguing regarding the limitations of our narrative reflexes. I agree it can be a problem.

(For a short version of Kahneman’s argument see his 2002 Nobel Prize lecture.)

At first I was not entirely conscious of it, but now suspect my references to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are a counter-argument to Kahneman’s indictment of the intuitive and impressionistic aspects of this so-called System 1.

I don’t actually remember Kahneman’s argument well-enough right now to be sure of his intent, but his argument can be characterized as suggesting we depend too much on System 1 and too little on the much more deliberate System 2. I argue there is a need to strengthen the mutual influences of Systems 1 and 2.

There is a particular need to deepen our ability to engage meaningfully and collaboratively in narrative thought. The associative characteristics of System 1 are a problem for Kahneman. They can be a problem. But with just a bit of the “discipline” Kahneman mostly assigns to System 2, this associative capability can become a rich resource for exercising judgment.

In Madison’s journals of the Constitutional Convention we see an example of what I am advocating. These men were trading stories, but the stories being traded had been widely shared, were understood as complicated, and almost everyone accepted the stories were open to multiple interpretations and deserved careful consideration. (Care can be either slow or fast, I perceive.) You can find the same thing going on in many of Lincoln’s and some of FDR’s speeches. Outside the political domain, T.S. Eliot is probably the master of the form. These are dialogues, conversations… requiring significant effort on the part of the reader or listener.

Neither Tolkien (author of the Ring series) nor Rowling (creator of Harry Potter) is a Shakespeare. But no 12 year old (or 60 year old) who has experienced Harry’s adventures will be inclined to view the difference between good and evil as something simple or obvious.

The happy catastrophe at the close of the Lord of the Rings is not the outcome of the hero’s courage and righteousness. Redemption comes, instead, through the deadly persistence of banal and ugly attachment.

These are narratives full of paradox, and profoundly realistic as a result.

Our 9/11 narrative is still being written. There are simple and stupid rough drafts being circulated. These should be discarded. Arguments over past failures are worth about one chapter. To bring this epic to some sort of resolution what is needed is the critical self-awareness found in the closing scenes of both Tolkien and Rowling and the Iliad and the Odyssey and most of Aeschylus and Shakespeare and…

Comment by Alan Wolfe

June 8, 2012 @ 7:01 am

And of course, we can all amaze on how LOtR predicted the current attitude about counter-terrorism focus within the United States…

“Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us.

And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be kept secret to keep them so.”

The Lord of the Rings
Aragorn, Chapter ‘The Council of Elrond’.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 8, 2012 @ 10:20 am

Alan, It would be good to meet you some day. I am more Legolas (or even Samwise) than Aragorn. Very different characters, different roles. But complementary, I think.

Comment by Django

June 9, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

Philip –

Excellent post!

Continuing the hero metaphor, 9/11 “called” the hero that is the United States into action. This journey has taken us on an adventure few could have predicted (although Ashton Carter et al. were fairly spot-on).

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” – Campbell

We have been in the abyss for over 11 years now and I am not sure that we have learned that where we fail lies our lessons. I am not sure it is part of the US myth. We may be too proud.

“Atonement [at-one-ment] consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster.” Campbell

The “double-monster” seems to have manifested in the ever growing divide between our political parties. We were somewhat “at one” after 9/11 (although US Muslims might disagree). However, we are farther apart than ever and our leaders certainly have no interest in healing the divide.

We must realize that we are both the hero and the monster. Unfortunately, any suggestion of US culpability leads to accusations of being unpatriotic.

“He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable.”
? Joseph Campbell

As a diminishing super power does the US have the internal fortitude to bow or submit to her internal and external monsters?

Not sure who first said it it…however, as it occurs to me, “what we resist, persists.”

Until we are truly able to acknowledge and own our part (where we stumbled) in the complex equation that was 9/11 we will never find our treasure (exiting the feedback loop you describe in your first paragraph). Instead, we will spend all the monetary treasure we have left avoiding the rest of our journey…

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 9, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

Django, I think you just preempted most of my next post. There are, I suggest, at least two reasons to give some sustained, serious, even strategic and policy oriented attention to the aspects of the homeland security problem-set you have identified here.

First, there is an intuitive sense of resonance between our current situation and Campbell’s paradigm. At the very least, this should encourage us to look at our condition and his paradigm with a bit more care. A closer look may nullify some initially compelling connections, but the closer look should be worthwhile in any case.

Second, Campbell argues this is a monomyth, a recurring feature of world literature across cultures and ages, because it reflects a recurring aspect of the human condition. That’s quite a claim. If its a claim that holds up, wouldn’t it be worth being as sophisticated regarding the monomyth as, say, ISO 9000 standards?

Comment by GJX

June 10, 2012 @ 2:24 am

Myths and myth-making are apt descriptions of the intentional formation of a post-9-11-catastrophe mindset, but that intentional approach did not take hold immediately. The initial and spontaneous organic reaction was a flurry – no, a torrent – of thoughtful analysis, heartfelt, sober care for fellow citizens, realistic views of the possible perpetrators and their motives, and an intense crime-solving effort by professionals and amateurs. This is what I would call a non-mythic, organic “free market” reaction.

Because Security is a Good, the American instinct was to produce more of it by openly engaging in market activities of all kinds. But because “National Security” has long been the cover for many forms of power consolidation within the government and defense industry, those actors moved quickly to narrow the understanding of what had happened into one (possibly mythic) narrative of war-like aggression. Within a month, discussions began to be reined-in to a few emotionally compelling stories to supplant the original free-form rationality of the chaotic “market response”.

This was also the era of the first “Patriot Act” and more than a few extraordinary policing measures. Some responses, in hindsight, were serious over-reactions; exaggerations of the mythic themes were commonplace by November and December. I also recall a news report of policymakers lobbying Hollywood execs to encourage TV fictions and reality shows about special forces, terror and torture, spying, military service, and a shift of the popular culture to “war footing”.

The machinery of “private public partnership” was engaged to advance the intentional “homeland security” catastrophe-response.

True Security is still a Good, not a Myth. Producing it in the right amounts for the neediest customers is a problem of forming a new industry within a marketplace of many scarce resources and many unmet needs. Centrally planned intention is a peculiarly constricting strategy. It is strange that myths so easily displaced rational formation of the new market for Security. Perhaps it is the nature of isolated “unique” events that their impact is more psychological than physical or directly economic.
Since no pattern of repeated attack ever formed, the repetitive “propagandistic” mythologies replaced market reality and the persistent intentions of the defense industry overrode the market signal of the actual event and in the end had more impact on us. The attack was dramatic, symbolic, and unsustained;
our response included many elements of theatric defensive display, but was sustained because no economic reins are effective on the public purse once the right patriotic emotional chords have been struck. We overpaid for the “security product” we bought; what we own and now operate mostly protects us from imaginary enemies because we made more of those than we had real ones. Something else will have to startle and scare us to truly alter course.
That might well be bankruptcy.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 10, 2012 @ 4:23 am

GJX, So, if I am reading accurately, you perceive the “theatrical” nature of 9/11 spawned “security theater.” After an initial non-theatrical period, we responded to the dramatic power of al-Qaeda’s New York debut with our own attempt at dramatic effect. Almost as a ground-breaking book or movie spawns all sorts of second-rate knock-offs.

I also hear you suggesting that while there was a real market-signal in the 9/11 attacks, it was over-amplified and produced a market over-reaction. Not unlike Facebook has real value, but that value has (had) been over-hyped?

I wonder if some of this is due to the echo-chamber, almost fun-house, nature of modern media? I was not at the Towers, but via media I can feel as if I was there. Really being there (Ground Zero, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina…) is very different from our mediated experience of being there. But unless we are self-aware of the crucial difference, we can confuse actual experience with a theatrical mimicking of reality.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 13, 2012 @ 7:22 am

Just out of curiousity what would this blogs posters and commentators argue is the top ten list for fundamental changes in USA caused by 9/11/01? Of course if others do so I will happily provide mine! Or perhaps the converse for example continued disinterest in American life in the problems often world wide of other cultures and peoples! Over 30% of all undergrad B.A. degrees now in COMMUNCIATIONS! Wondering who they are communicating with after receiving these degrees?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 13, 2012 @ 11:39 am

Sorry misspelled “Communications” in prior comment.

Prior to 1970 all undergrad B.A.s consisted of 40% English majors, 20% history majors, and the remaining 40% the rest!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Everyday homeland security heroes

June 15, 2012 @ 12:12 am

[…] I have argued the 9/11 attack was a low-probability, low-frequency event for which our response has amplified the consequences.   In our effort to contain the original hurt we have multiplied the hurt. Along the way we have also shredded the operational capacity of core al-Qaeda and preempted several specific threats.   An accurate balance sheet of hurt avoided, hurt self-inflicted, and hurt inflicted on others would be tough to generate.   Has near-term suffering advanced long-term security?  I hope so.  But I’m not sure. […]

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June 21, 2012 @ 12:12 am

[…] on Culture: Well… over the last two weeks, here and here, we have probably written enough about culture.   But this characteristic of catastrophe […]

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