Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 15, 2012

Everyday homeland security heroes

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 15, 2012

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?

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5 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 15, 2012 @ 4:16 am

Very interesting post! One major problem is that most of US learn from experience and the period of one human’s life is often much too short a period of record to properly have many calibration points on potential or actual catastrophic events. My first introduction to the potential of dam failure was at age 14 filling sandbags in Port Jervis, N.J. Others may have been witness to other dire circumstances much younger than that. In Hurricane Camille 18 people gathered for safety in a church over 140 years old. They and the church were swept away.

Well time will tell! But in the meantime it is important to understand the scientific and engineering record of human occupancy of the planet EARTH. Understanding the Big Blue Marble is important very important for our survival and life on the planet. The Atomic Doomsday Clock remains just before MIDNIGHT but the period of record for the atomic age is very very short.

So how do we know when a specific incident or event is a outlier calibration point and should be discarded or determined to be valid in computation of risk and consequences?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 15, 2012 @ 4:47 am

One by one they will come! My first fundamental change is the federalization of law enforcement in the USA. This trend will only become more and more evident over the next decades. The fundamental police power of the STATES and their local governments is being substantially eroded by the federal government.

Comment by Django

June 16, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

Let’s get clear, we are arguing monomyth as structural model for the US journey onto the path of Homeland Security? Let’s be even more clear…when we are talking archetypes…we are talking Jung’s collective unconscious? Taking these as my assumptions let me take it a step further and add the Cynefin framework. The US Homeland Security monomyth starts out in the known and knowable. On 9/11 we were hit (called on adventure). As with the mythic journey we were given supernatural aid (the support of the world)…also known. We then ventured off to the other world (Middle East) both literally and figuratively (the unknown).

Here we can use Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or more relevantly Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which Heart is loosely based on) as our descent into complexity and chaos (the unknown). Here the hero is immediately tempted and challenged (Lack of WMD, Abu Gharib, Patriot Act, Guantanamo, etc.) and begins losing his moral compass or high ground. However, where as in the traditional monomyth there is revelation and transformation leading to a powerful return, the US HS journey has been perverted because we are stuck in the unknown. I would argue there has been no transformation on our journey. If anything we have evidence that we are returning less powerful. I believe, the evidence is clear…suicide.

We know that many Vets are coming home and killing themselves. The hero is killing himself. Suicide is replacing revelation and transformation. We need to listen to these suicides…they are telling us we are dealing with a new archetype…I would argue that we are now dealing with the martyr. Here I am referring to a more original definition…that of witness. These soldiers are coming home after witnessing the horrors of war. They are not coming back to the known (ie WWII) in which a resolution was at hand. (Not to suggest that WWII vets did not have their demons). Today’s vets, like the Vietnam Vets, are coming back to the unknown. Their journey has been perverted…nothing makes sense. Although home, they have not completed the journey…they are still in chaos.

However if we are to truly talk about myth we must talk about the Christian/ Judeo/ Muslim myths. However, let’s leave that for another day.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 16, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

Django, Thanks very much. Clarity is not a particular strength of mine and as you suggest in referencing Cynefin, clarity is not always our most productive goal.

You are, I think, being more rigorous than me in your application of the monomyth. I am wondering — even worrying — about whether it can be meaningfully applied beyond the individual. To apply Jung to our socio-political struggles prompts a similar hesitation.

But these are provocative proposals and personally I resonate with the analogies you have set out. I want to sleep on what you have written. As I dream, I will also consider the following commentary by Jung.

From a 1951 letter to a patient who had attempted suicide:

It isn’t possible to kill part of your “self” unless you kill yourself first. If you ruin your conscious personality, the so-called ego-personality, you deprive the self of its real goal, namely to become real itself. The goal of life is the realization of the self.

Then from my personal copy of Psychology and Alchemy (Volume XII), pages 117-118:

In the sea there lies a treasure. To reach it, he has to dive through a narrow opening. This is dangerous, but down below he will find a companion. The dreamer takes the plunge into the dark and discovers a beautiful garden in the depths, symmetrically laid out, with a fountain in the centre. In his commentary on this dream he writes: The treasure hard to attain lies in the ocean of the unconscious and only the brave can reach it. I conjecture that the treasure is also the companion, the one who goes through life at our side — in all probability a close analogy to the lonely ego who find a mate in the self…This is the theme of the magical travelling companion, of whom I will give three famous examples: the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, El Khidr in Sura 18 of the Koran. I conjecture further that the treasure in the sea, the companion, and the garden with the fountain are all one and the same thing: the self… The crash to earth thus leads into the depths of the sea, into the unconscious, and the dreamer reaches the shelter of the temenos as a protection against the splintering of personality caused by his regression…

This is a reasonable taste, but if you have the chance to read (or in your case probably re-read) a fuller version of the text, I hope I have linked it here.

In any case, more later. Great stuff for dream-work. Thanks again.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 17, 2012 @ 4:52 am

I will, despite my concerns, stick with the monomyth.

Are we “stuck in the unknown” or persisting in a struggle with the unknowable?

Struggle is different than stasis and still open to atonement.

If we apply the monomyth to society then in the experience of each of us we can perceive the fractured social self seeking atonement.

This will, I think, especially be the case as we return home from the adventure. Neither Bilbo nor Frodo are at ease on their return. The adventure occurs at a distance. The final resolution — or not — occurs at home. This is the homeland security chapter (volume?) of the story Django has outlined so well.

Fundamental to the monomyth is the death of the splintered self to allow the whole self to arise… if only for a moment. If we do not in some profound way die, we continue to cycle through the unorganized potential of chaos.

Campbell writes, “The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source.” (Hero with a Thousand Faces, page 125)

Reviewing the Corpus Hermeticum, Jung writes,

There was a darkness in the deep and water without form; and there was a subtle breath, intelligent, which permeated the things in Chaos with divine power… In the divine water, whose dyophysite nature is constantly emphasized, two principles balance another, active and passive, masculine and feminine, which constitute the essence of creative power in the eternal cycle of birth and death. This cycle was represented in ancient alchemy by the symbol of the uroboros, the dragon that bites its own tail. Self-devouring is the same as self-destruction, but the union of the dragon’s tail and mouth was also thought of as self-fertilization. Hence the texts say, “The dragon slays itself, weds itself, impregnates itself. (Alchemical Studies, The Visions of Zosimos, pages 78-79)

An angle on reality: During and after the Civil War, the American people experienced death, rebirth, and remarriage. In the dual struggles over Vietnam and Civil Rights the American people died, were reborn, and remarried.

In today’s struggle we are still working hard to resist death.

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