Catastrophes come and go. A long-time plot line is lost, a predicted trajectory suddenly shifts. We eventually accept the radically new normal as simply normal.
Some characterize catastrophes as high-consequence, low-probability events. For the statistically challenged (like me), I suggest a better description is high-consequence, low-frequency events. In any single place, they don’t happen often. Look at a world-wide context and they seem to happen all the time.
San Francisco will, again, be hit hard by earthquake. The mid-Atlantic will, again, suffer a deadly drought. A stupendous tsunami will, again, devastate the Pacific Northwest coast. It is unlikely any of these things will happen today. We can be almost certain each will happen one day.
We can be especially certain that human engineered systems will fail. Blow-out preventers will break, dams and levees will fall, the outer limits of rigorous safety specifications will be exceeded: some by accident, others with malicious intent, many through obsolescence and/or an atypical externality. In several cases the failure will be blamed — retrospectively — on incompetence and malfeasance, even when — prospectively — the choices seemed practical, prudent, and a fair balancing of competing needs.
Probably not here, not now, but certainly somewhere a bad day will become a catastrophic day. Even today a catastrophe may be unfolding, perhaps in the fire-prone Rockies or flood-ravaged Southern Philippines or bloody Northern Mexico. There are plenty of other candidates for catastrophe. Egypt anyone? What about Nigeria? Want to talk about Tokyo?
I have argued the 9/11 attack was a low-probability, low-frequency event which our response amplified. In our effort to contain the original hurt we have multiplied the hurt. What might have been a highly localized event has assumed global scope and scale. What might have been a collection of personal catastrophes, has unfolded as a radical shift in our national narrative.
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.
At least one commentator doubts 9/11 has marked a true national catastrophe, a fundamental shift in the nation’s narrative. (See Pat Sullivan 357340.) S/he suggests that someday 9/11 will be as much a cultural, political, historical side-bar as the Spanish-American War. The comment reminded me of Lorenz’ point about the potential relationship of Brazilian butterflies to Texas tornadoes. How do we know when, where and why a catastrophe truly begins? One of the key aspects of complexity is impenetrable uncertainty regarding cause-and-effect.
The skeptical commentator may have had something else in mind, but I hope the national commitment to our pre-9/11 American narrative is sufficiently resilient that whatever our over-response has been, we are able to reclaim and extend the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to future generations. Perhaps the past decade will eventually be compared to the Red Scare after World War I. Despite the Palmer Raids and plenty of personal catastrophes, the Red Scare did not fundamentally alter the Great American Narrative. Many would argue it was one of many such eruptions of intolerant paranoia that periodically punctuate our narrative.
In any case, I am working to prove the skeptic correct, precisely because I perceive s/he is wrong. I see 9/11 as the beginning of a persistent shift in the wrong direction. (Bill Cumming has asked us to each list ten fundamental changes since 9/11.) I am, as a childhood hero commended, standing athwart this particular historical moment yelling, “Stop!”
Which may point to a role for intentionality.
Another commentator writes (see Django 157354), “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… We must realize that we are both the hero and the monster.”
Django does a great job adapting homeland security and counter terrorism to the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s framework for self-discovery… self-making… becoming fully human. Fundamental to this process is fully experiencing, recognizing, accepting and potentially transcending our flaws and failures.
Can a nation be heroic? Is heroism a civic virtue? Perhaps it is inappropriate to expect a people to exhibit what is tough enough for any person.
Yet… wasn’t Britain heroic in the months after the Fall of France? Would you say the Hungarians were heroic in 1956? I was inspired by the heroism of Norwegians in the days following Brevik’s massacre of innocents.
In each of these cases there were complications, compromises, contradictions. The Hero’s Journey is not a victory parade. Typically the hero emerges from temptation, difficult ordeals, and profound self-examination. In most classical Greek narratives the hero is characterized by a fatal flaw — often the pride of self-sufficiency — which must be found and undone (or unleashed) in order for the potentially tragic character to transcend the self. As Django writes, recognizing the monstrous self seems to be a prerequisite to becoming the heroic self. (Is this avatar a reference to the spaghetti western and, if so, what more does Django have to tell us about herorism?)
Last Friday I expended a few paragraphs on the dramatic — sometimes melodramatic — plot lines of fictional heroes. This week I open with real-world catastrophes that will eventually call for our heroic engagement.
What about today? Tomorrow? What about when the test of our heroism is less than an earthquake or a suicide terrorist?
The heroic challenge of homeland security often emerges in much more subtle forms. Overcoming temptation is a key threshold for the hero. Classic temptations are power, pleasure, and security. Are we able to intentionally recognize and reject these temptations, especially when they arrive in banal bureaucratic costume?
When I work with others on a risk analysis is it an honest examination of context or a revenue justification?
When I design and deliver an exercise or tabletop, is it a significant system stress or just a chance to review Standard Operating Procedures?
When I develop a catastrophe preparedness plan is it based on a real catastrophe or just a very bad day?
When I fail, do I accept the failure and learn from it, or seek to blame others, or perhaps deny any failure was involved? Maybe worst of all, do I decide I will avoid future failures? (My grandfather’s favorite chair was immediately below a framed needlework reading, “The man who has not failed has not done anything.”)
I have not always made the heroic choice. How about you?
Perhaps the difference between a nation that is heroic or not is a matter of arithmetic: the sum of a billion everyday individual decisions. Is there a tipping point where the heroism or non-heroism of a certain number effectively suppresses the influence of their opposites? Is it that tipping point, either way, that makes the catastrophe?