OR: SECURITY IS PRECIOUS, IT IS ALSO MADDENINGLY ELUSIVE
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.