Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 16, 2012

A Paradox, a Quantum Mechanics Principle, and a Greek Myth walked into a bar

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 16, 2012

From the middle of April through last Saturday, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with close to 300 “homeland security professionals.”  I put that phrase in quotes because the title is as ambiguous as the discipline.

I’ve taken to asserting that homeland security is a potential discipline.  It’s a way to stimulate a conversation. I use the phrase “homeland security professional” in the same way.

Almost everyone I spoke with about this agreed they are homeland security professionals, but they are other things also, and often foremost — like police officers, emergency managers, fire fighters, immigration officials, scientists, transportation security officers, public health professionals and so on.

This is a familiar argument: for many people in the business, homeland security is an ancillary activity.

My conversations with homeland security professionals over the past months reminded me — as those conversations have done once or twice before — of the lines from a William Butler Yeats poem

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

As a generalization, that’s approximately what I saw over the past 7 months: the best in homeland security lack conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity.

There are exceptions, of course, particularly for those who remain intensely committed to the collaboration and communication promise of homeland security.  But the exceptions were few, and frequently parochial.


Less than a month away from the 2012 presidential election, and I can’t recall very much talk about homeland security.  If one is in a gracious mood, one can tie political yelling about events in the middle east, and Afghanistan, and drones, and Guantanamo, and bin Laden to homeland security. But from a disciplinary perspective, it’s a stretch. Even immigration and border security seem to have lost their homeland security luster: regionally intense, but nationally diffuse.

You’d think cyber security would get some play.

Is that even a homeland security issue?  Yes, say a few voices. It’s national security, say others. No more regulation, hum the private sector mouths.

But I think modestly polite indifference remains the national response.  At least until the oft-foreshadowed cyber pearl harbor arrives and outrage returns.


I have a friend working on a book about homeland security education.  This friend never met a number he did not devour. He read his children to sleep by reciting the times tables. So I was surprised to receive the following homeland security parable from him.

A Paradox, a Quantum Mechanics Principle, and a Greek Myth walked into a bar.  The Bartender, seeking precision in a sometimes querulous manner, asked each of the trio to articulate their positions.

The Paradox, Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, suggested that progression toward a target is an infinite series of half-steps, meaning the object never reaches its target, only the half-steps along the way.

The Uncertainty Principle applauded Zeno but proclaimed it is not possible to measure position and trajectory simultaneously so Zeno should be content with each half-step and not concern himself with the objective.

The Greek Myth – Sisyphus –  wiped his brow and said he tired of endless toiling and repeated actions to push the boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back.

The Bartender served them, then noted in his journal that taken together, the positions of the three represented a metaphor for the pre-paradigmatic homeland security “discipline” struggling to move forward, able to measure only position, uncertain of its trajectory, impossible to reach its obscure objective and frequently seeing advances disappear.

The last entry in his journal that night was a paragraph (with a citation, of course) from Albert Camus:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. …. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Camus, Albert. (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus (Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1955). London: Hamish Hamilton Publishers. Chapter 4.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 16, 2012 @ 5:34 am

Zeno is also quoted as saying (can’t quickly find a citation), “Well-being is achieved little by little.” Probably appropriate to homeland security. The boulder does not always return to the very bottom. Incremental progress is made toward a goal that is, in any case, not wholly achievable.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 16, 2012 @ 7:56 am

A brilliant post which I will use as a counterpoint to my position on HS! Because of confusion at the beginning of the endeavour on 9/11/12!

In fact if we are going to have a civil society in all the spectrum of that term (including on a personal basis one on one) then the struggle for that civil security and civility will never end and we can go back to Hobbes and Locke for the inherent tensions balanced by civil government.

Instead we, the USA, largely adopted a military paradigm even domestically with a WE against THEM architecture.

Instead all of the various listed disciplines in Chris’ post must study and learn how to promote civil security and civil society in the ccntext of each discipline and current events and technologies and demographics and politics. This is hard work to draw appropriate lines between violence and civility and most will not be able to do it without capable leadership by both academics, politicians, and other points of light.

This is not the place to do it but each profession and discipline must constantly engage themselves in the line drawing and redrawing so that freedom and civil liberties and civil rights are constantly protected and thus the line drawing is continuous.

For example, does it make sense that some politicians are trying to discourage certain voters and trying to minimize the voting power of certain societal segments?

This is just a step towards what can become demonization of the “other” and of course as we know we are all in some sense the “other”!

So stop complaining and help to draw the lines and promote skills in doing so. SCOTUS will be drawing some lines this term and will be of interest to see how well they do that critical function.

I would argue of course that SCOTUS should have been much more actively engaged in HS than they have been since 9/11/01 but of course in part the strategy of the Executive Branch was to avoid trials and the courts. This also is how totalitarianism starts. The courts fail because of lack of courage and will not because they do not understand the stakes.

And of course the stakes could not be higher!

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 16, 2012 @ 8:55 am

If you include the US Coast Guard and second career types, DHS will soon be over 40% former military and retired military. Draw you own conclusions as to this largely gun and badge culture department as to its culture!

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 16, 2012 @ 9:02 am

If homeland security remains poorly defined or defined as everything, then is it really doomed to be nothing? As our focus and priorities shift with realities, does the nebulous become more irrelevant or atrophy? Or at least until the next wake-up call that many may have seen coming but chose to ignore due to conflicting priorities, diverted resources or the focus on the last war? How much do definitions really matter in this environment?

Comment by Al Camus II

October 16, 2012 @ 10:23 am

Homeland security reminds me of a trip to Djemila. There was heat and wind and shrill cries of birds. I was buffeted about by it all. Every road was a path along ruined houses and the powerful emotion was one of desolation. Most of these paths led to nothing. Not unlike the “discipline” I sought for a few years to impose on this field of study we call “homeland security.” I am an academic, after all, and must impose discipline so the huddled masses can take intellectual refuge in those boundaries (and faculty can seek tenure and promotion within them). In this “discipline” (as in Djemila):

“Men and societies have followed each other here; conquerors have marked this countryside with their civilization of subalterns. They had a mean and foolish conception of grandeur and measured that of their empire by the surface it covered. The miracle is that these ruins of their civilization are the very negation of their ideal. For this skeleton city, seen from so high, in the descending evening with the white flight of pigeons around the arch of triumph, did not write on the sky the signs of conquest and ambition. The world always ends by vanquishing history.”

Maybe I would be better served to vanquish my conception of the history of discipline, pursue this “field of study” that is broader than the professions inhabiting it, read literature at least half a bubble off plumb, gaining more knowledge than I expected, and watch the pigeons fly above the ruins. If “the best lack conviction” might we have a great opportunity to surprise them with new knowledge and insight on things they did not expect? Not if we are so bounded by our empire. So, I think my answer to Don’s last question is “Not much” but I also see the path of definitons leading to more ruins than revelations.

Must go now to the Djemila Outlet Mall, mingle with the other subalterns and lumpenproletariat, and buy a goat!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 16, 2012 @ 11:34 am

In Arabic Djemila means “beautiful”. It’s a good trip to make.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 16, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

Does this world without common definitions, common goals or a common understanding of the “homeland security” environment\discipline\enterprise lead to revelations that do not later likely result in ruins anyway? Is it a question of how quickly we transition to the ruins? The current adoption or acceptance of absurdism and chaos has not necessarily served this new rather undefined discipline in the most effective and efficient manner. It may be better to view it only as a field of study, for it shall not require true coordination, direction, education, training, professionalism or a general focus. And everyone gets a trophy!

It may be much more enjoyable to debate the conflicts, challenges and failures, than to think that we can or should truly attempt to address them. I do believe that is why Scotch was first distilled by a great nation of thinkers and fighters.

Muddling through may be the path of least resistance until the music stops, but then again many will be upset when they cannot find their chairs (funding, careers, safety, influence, security, et al.).

I am buying a sheep. I need the wool and have a supply of mint jelly just in case.

Comment by HSAC

October 16, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

Chris, reference #4 in attached Homeland Security Advisory Council document.


Comment by Donald Quixote

October 16, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

HSAC – thank you for the reference. Unfortunately, not much has really changed since 2008.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 17, 2012 @ 5:07 am

Thanks HSAC for the link! Perhaps a post on this blog for each of the top ten challenges and how the effort of the past 4 years has succeeded or failed?

Comment by Al Camus II

October 20, 2012 @ 11:19 am

Don makes a good point. Rather than look at the conflicts (of which there are many), we could look at the possiblities.

Becher considers the development of “disciplinary cultures” and concludes that a discipline is an “intellectual cluster.” Hard to argue against that. Ruscio makes an interesting distinction when describing “disciplines” and the intellectual clusters in which they reside. He uses the analogy of genotypes and phenotypes. Every discipline has to be somewhere so in which genotype would this phenotype we would call “homeland security” reside? Social and Behavioral Sciences? Arts and Sciences? Professional Studies? Business? Engineering? Medicine?

Andrew Abbot maintains new disciplines emerge at the margins of stable disciplines and either a merger occurs or a new disciplinary blob separates, like amoebas dividing (both “blob” and “amoeba” are his terms) when there are sufficient differences between the stable and new disciplines. (He calls this “bubbling division of labor.”) Is homeland security intellectually (in both theory and methodology) most like Political Science? Public Administration? Public Policy? Philosophy? Religion? Criminology? Criminal Justice? Public Health? Engineering? Psychology? Sociology? Economics?

So, who hands out the trophy?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 21, 2012 @ 7:18 am

Al, of the Abbot-like choices you list, I perceive homeland security is typically treated in a manner similar to public administration (itself a relatively young discipline), less often public policy. There are several so-called homeland security programs tied closely to Criminal Justice, which seems to me to complicate and confuse as much as clarify. In my own “homeland security” practice, I draw on economics perhaps most of all. In my own mind — perhaps it is already sufficiently clear — I treat homeland security as a modern expression for the trivium.

Comment by Al Camus II

October 21, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

Had coffee with a couple of friends this morning, Jean-Paul and Emile (although Emile was late). We were discussing this exchange. Jean-Paul is of the opinion that we ought to just insinuate the homeland security “discipline” somewhere, anywhere, and see what happens. His favorite phrase is “existence precedes essence” and, while I do not disagree, seems like there should be some logic in how and where.

Emile is nothing if not logical. He thinks every educational institution should have clear divisions. So, hypothetically, the faculty in a new discipline would have known one another, probably in their former areas of expertise, and would come together in a tribal, collective fashion with no dependence on the other disciplines. As it matured, others would become interdependent on the new discipline. JP found it painful to agree with Emile but he did. That seems to be the method most propose for the development of homeland security education – Just let it happen.

I wish Philip could have been there. Proposing “economics” as the kinship place for homeland security to develop caused both JP and Emile to flip out. They thought it would be suicidal (Don’t get me started on that!) but then I mentioned Philip’s Zeno quote – well-being achieved little by little – and both liked him more. They did bring up the Nobel Laureate’s comment that “Economics has never been a science and is less one now than a few years ago,” not unlike the confused mish-mash we call the discipline of homeland security.

So Philip, what is it about economics that causes you to intellectually move the security and welfare of the homeland into that realm? I ask because I know of no homeland security curriculum that includes, in any serious way, economics. Would those existing disciplines embrace your version and make it essential? (That same economist said “One fool can ask more questions than a dozen wise men can answer” so here I am asking the wise ones!)

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 21, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

Al, The role of economics in my personal practice of homeland security is probably less interesting than you may be imagining. Before I go there, a tangent on another discipline you did not include in the original list: Architecture is one of the most ancient of professional disciplines. Architecture also involves some core capabilities that have interesting analogies to homeland security.

The architect works to understand a problem-to-be-solved, designs a solution to the problem-definition, the design depends on contributions from a wide variety of other professional disciplines, the architect uses his design and, often, her role in the process to facilitate effective collaboration to execute the problem-solution. You might find interesting Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice by Ernest L Boyer and Lee D. Mitgang (1996).

I think it’s interesting that while there are superstar architects and it is possible at its highest end architecture has never been so honored, as an academic discipline and as a career choice architecture is in crisis. I could go farther with the analogy but perhaps this is far enough.

Regarding my use of economics: I am not suggesting this is an appropriate academic home for homeland security. It is an academic discipline that I draw on heavily in my work related to homeland security mostly through economic theories and models of choice. Homeland security is often about choosing between two goods (e.g. liberty v. security is the most common example, but there are many more).

Jeremy Bentham has interesting things to say about making such choices. So does David Hume. (Each more dependable than your Francophone coffee-klatch colleagues). More recently — and with greater empirical rigor — Kanneman, Tversky and Elinor Ostrom have advanced our understanding of how choices are made. The most recent Nobel laureates for economics (Roth and Shapely) also have some intriguing implications for the work that homeland security does or aspires to do.

So… economics gives me frameworks and models that I have found helpful. Some of this help is, I hope, substantive. Some of it is also rhetorical, giving a patina of rigor to my flailing efforts to make sense of a very unwieldy reality.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 22, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

Should homeland security be considered as an art or a science? Neither? Both? Does it really matter? Can or should it be universally defined?

As I was shooting beer cans off of the fence posts with Bubba and Billy-Bob this weekend, we discussed this very issue. Bubba wanted to know how he was to be a homeland security professional if no one can define what it is. Billy Bob stated that he does not care if it is a discipline, field of study or enterprise as long as the grants and other funding sources continue for his agency and area of interest. Billy Bob thinks we should leave the discourse to those in the ivory towers while the knuckle-draggers execute the mission, as defined by each person or group. But, what is the mission? Will it evolve and improve on its own?

We did discuss the economics of ammunition, beer and homeland security, for they all seem to require more funding these days…….

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 23, 2012 @ 4:35 am

Don, I wish I had the wit that you and Al can so quickly write. There is value — need? — in knowing why something is being done. Understanding why will usually influence how. Over the years my management model has emphasized vision, mission, purpose. But I have learned many, even most, don’t really care… at least they didn’t care much about the vision, mission, purpose I tried to cultivate and articulate with them.

The current Harvard Business Review reports on a global study that “proves” a different trinity: targets, incentives, monitoring. I have seen this work in small matters, but on the big stuff many unconsciously bring their own targets and are more motivated by what they learned from their mother as anything a manager does. Management seems most effective in doing things right. Doing the right thing is a matter of leadership, or insight, or wisdom, or something much more elusive. So… I think HS is more art than science.

Over the weekend I found a painting my twenty-something son did in second grade. I like it. I would like it even if it was by someone else. Last night I framed it. Today I will hang it. It is a bright innocent expression. The seven year-old combined color and form with meaningful effect. But it was an accident. He had no idea what distinguished this work from his next or prior mish-mash. An artist knows what s/he is attempting to achieve and why. The measures may be subjective, but the vision and targets can be articulated and reasonably defended.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 25, 2012 @ 10:19 am

It appears that homeland security, like beauty (and fine artwork), is in the eye of the beholder. It sounds wonderful, but can we afford to leave it at that? Is it worth the effort not to?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 25, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

Don, Well… except that I am old-fashioned in my definitions and understandings of beauty — as in so many other things. I don’t think beauty can be defined as precisely as many more mathematically inclined might prefer (though symmetry plays its part). There is more to aesthetics than the eye of the beholder. Part of this is cultivating a broad understanding of the field, a critical sensibility regarding praxis, and language that can be used even when, especially when, ambiguity abounds. Another part is the willingness of various parties to engage mindfully with each other about the ambiguities. I am writing of art, but I think something very similar applies to homeland security.

I rather like these continued conversations waaay deep in the archives. It’s sort of like finding a quiet corner in noisy bar.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 25, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

I too enjoy these conversations and debates regarding homeland security. It deeply concerns me that more do not join the discourse for I do not believe that we shall meaningfully advance without these frank interactions. I am unsure what it says about us. We truly care about the subject matter or are just plain strange and can be readily located in the DSM. I guess I earned my name.

I also concur with Mr. Cumming that an assessment of challenges in the 2008 HSAC document would be very interesting, or disheartening, for the homeland security wonks. However, unfortunately, it could also wait for I am very confident that we could have the same discussions four or eight years from now.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 30, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

Or there is the other side of the coin:


Comment by Donald Quixote

March 22, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

DHS Oversight Panel Hears Consequences of Not Having Definition of Homeland Security

By: Anthony Kimery


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