Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 8, 2012

Hanukkah: Lighting one candle at a time

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 8, 2012

Last week a young woman approached me after a fairly typical policy-strategy session.  I had an hour until my next meeting across the street, so we sat talking over stale coffee as the room emptied.  Her first name was Laura, same as my daughter’s and close to the same age.  Stupidly, I did not get her card and don’t remember her last name.

But I know she reads this blog.  That’s how the conversation began.  She recognized my name.

Laura is a contractor assigned to DHS.  She originally wanted to become a civil servant, but especially because she is not a veteran she thinks this is unlikely anytime soon.  I won’t say much more about her background since I cannot ask her permission.  But I will say she was articulate, seemed competent, and for her age had a strong set of experiences to complement a BA/MA from good schools.

She had read the Coburn report and seen an ABC News piece on the same.  She was discouraged. “As depressed as I’ve been since the GSA Las Vegas conferences.”

Laura does not question the veracity of Senator Coburn’s findings.  She is at least as appalled and embarrassed too, wondering which family member will bring it up over the holidays.  Laura is also mystified.   I will have to paraphrase, I do not have audiographic memory.

“I’ve been assigned to DHS for almost three years.  I’ve seen money wasted, but only from good ideas that failed.   Stupid, silly ideas get shot down pretty quickly.  Even potentially good ideas get kaboshed because someone’s worried to try something new or there’s just not enough money for every good idea.”

“We were working on a pretty cold private-public possibility and it seemed there was departmental buy-in, but once Toy Story (her name for the Coburn report) was released the client shut-it-down totally.”

Most of the projects to which Laura has been assigned require significant private-public engagement to make substantive progress.  She said, “To even hope to be effective we should be going to the private sector, attending their conferences, asking for meetings, bringing resources — even funding — to co-invest in solutions.  I shouldn’t be in DC much. But the best way to avoid  criticism is to sit at your desk and write reports or go down the hallway and meet with other feds and contractors.”

She mentioned I was the only non-Fed at the meeting just completed.   My identity is fungible.  To private sector people I am clearly public sector, while to public sector I am obviously private.  To academics I am a practitioner, while most practitioners think I’m as academic as the day is long.

“The real waste, the profound and appalling waste is of human talent squeezed into cubicles and windowless conference rooms and basically told to stop asking interesting questions, much less encouraged to find interesting answers.”

Laura asked me if she should go into the private sector.  I asked a few questions:  long-term goals, what she really likes doing, amount of student loans… typical stuff.  I gave a non-answer about the sort of problems encountered in the private sector.  She had to leave before I could come up with anything more meaningful.  I’ve thought about the conversation ever since.

Tonight is the beginning of Hanukkah.  As I write the sun is just about down.

I am tempted to an extended analogy on the tension between Judaism and Hellenism and the contemporary private-public divide.  But I will save that for what I hope is another conversation with Laura.  For the purposes of this blog I will, instead, turn to the most traditional story of the festival.

On reclaiming and cleansing the Temple from the defiling and tyrannical Greeks, the Maccabees discovered they only had enough sacred oil to keep the menorah alight for one day and it would take at least eight days to produce new oil.  Miraculously the small amount of oil was sufficient.  It lasted until new oil was made.

Laura, we often underestimate our own capabilities.  This is a particular vulnerability of those who are self-aware, self-critical, and self-correcting.  We don’t think we have enough, when we actually have much more than is needed.  One of many meanings of Hanukkah is to not hesitate to use what we have, even as we very practically work to make more.

I don’t know the specific impediments that are being thrown at you.  But I encourage you to continue asking interesting questions and exploring interesting answers.  Do what you can  as you can.  When one angle is blocked, try another — always remaining self-aware, self-critical, and self-correcting.  Listen carefully even to the fearful and angry, they are not always wrong.  Continue to make your way, as best you can see the way… especially when self-giving is, as best you can tell, what’s fueling you.

Each day and night use what you have.  You may be amazed at how much you have.


Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness – to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness – to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.

Allen Ginsberg, “Psalm III”

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Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 8, 2012 @ 8:51 pm


Thanks for sharing.


Comment by Happy Hanukkah! Year 5773

December 9, 2012 @ 1:33 am

Happy Hanukkah to all those Jewish friends who are so Blessed to have such special covenant to the Lord in this Year 5773!

As the Middle East scenario worsens and Germany begins to intervene w/its fast deployment army and shiny new naval vessels sailing off the coast….given all the political and economic incertainty….a good time to celebrate and clasp hands as the world is again cast into calamity and unfortunately, a weakened WH and America will only further this widespread conflagration….

Enjoy your family and tradition as Weshall enjoy Christmas shortly, however w/our Judeo-Christian values and Constitution besieged from within and a full “Benghazi Massacre Congressional Hearing” yet to be convened some three months later, the question remains, was Ms. Hillary and Barry Obama in the WH situation room?

Let us hope that America can find the American spirit among the “beltway thieves” who self-agenda placed before ‘ol Glory is so obvious…that during this glorious month of respective holiday festivities….We shall begin to see justice prevail and real questions asked of those who sat and watched our brave Americans killed and a wonderful Ambassador dragged through the streets as hours before he was shouting for help!

“Treason I Shout and Shame on You I Say” –

God Bless the People of Egypt and the Middle East as a worsening political unrest will lead to far more challenges and God Bless America for while nrealy 50% of the voters chose to oust Barry Obama from his perch seeking to carry out his pledge in commitment to Bill Ayers, Hussein Obama, Ungor, Said, Frank Marshall and so many others….it is a festive time of year and certainly Washington, liek Cairo and Tehran will bring in the New Year w/a bang!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 9, 2012 @ 9:57 am

Happy Holidays to all and however they worship. To US Gaians the fractals that are the trees in winter are certainly godlike or perhaps that is my Celtic and Druid ancestery speaking.

And Phil you certainly are a Polymath in both interests and accomplishments so keep going.

And Laura I had to learn both the culture and levers of power as to each place and system in which I worked.

In 1988 I gave my wife a book asking that it be returned and it never was returned. Entitled “Why Jenny Can’t Lead” it was written by two female management gurus.
The books conclusion is that in their various workplaces, including the home, women believe that by their motivation, competence, knowledge, and skills that those who lead them or are in leadership positions will recognize them for these assets. While men going back to Neolithic times and before recognized that on the hunt and far from the cave only their colleagues would get them home if they were injured or whatever. Thus, men reward loyalty primarily and thus is the nature of mankind. I think the book’s analsysis reads true to me over a life time.
What really is important is that all understand the complexities of “loyalty”! Does the messenger who loses his head because of the message prove his loyalty by doing so? And as Washington fills with factotems that primary drive sprocket is a living wage perhaps that fact should explain things as we head into new wars led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Few in Washington enough of the peacemakers.

And of course the Washington Lemmings are now headed to the cliff and will fall off on January 2nd if I am correct.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

December 9, 2012 @ 11:50 am

As someone who celebrates Hanukah and has been a contractor to DHS, I cannot resist joining in.

I think people interested in emergency management as a career will have to think beyond FEMA and DHS. There are many other federal agencies, state agencies, local agencies and organizations. Not to mention non-profits, such as the Red Cross. And of course the private sector.

Let’s start thinking more broadly and lessen the dependence on DHS for work and for innovations and new ideas. Find other trees to climb.

Comment by Fiscal Hawk

December 9, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

Other trees … or other cheese: See “Who moved my cheese,” video on YouTube:


Comment by HGRATTAN

December 10, 2012 @ 8:09 am

Echoing Claire, Homeland Security is not all things DHS. Most EM work is on State and local level. Supporting areas include NGOs , Public Administration, and private sector. Some military (civilian component thereof too.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 10, 2012 @ 8:47 am

Bill: I have not read the book you reference, but the potential dichotomy between competence and loyalty (and potential gender issues involved) also rings true to me. Many of the same issues could be framed as a tension between individuality and community. The prophets spoke of the need for both personal righteousness and communal justice. When each is achieved in balance the result is peace, better translated as wholeness.

Your highlighting of loyalty is important, and given my conversation with Laura, I think it is a relevant issue for her to consider.

I have chosen a more individual — rather than communal — path. But I am male(?) enough to value loyalty, both in giving and receiving. In my experience being in committed relationships has more than returned the sometimes steep investment.

So… back to Laura… I certainly agree with Claire that the opportunity to serve extends beyond any one place. My own experience is that loyalty to certain principles must take primacy and creates tensions. But I would urge Laura — regardless of her institutional identity — to find and nurture a set of professionally supportive relationships: mentors, peers, and more to whom she chooses to be loyal. Despite their (my own) occasional stupidity, selfishness, and worse, being in real relationship is perhaps the most effective framework in which the toughest issues can be engaged and resolved (if not fully solved). Mindfully cultivated loyalty between persons can overcome the limits of each person.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 10, 2012 @ 9:10 am


Spot on with your comments.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 10, 2012 @ 9:42 am

Laura, if you’re reading this, please also read today’s NYT editorial vis-a-vis the Coburn report.

Like you the editorial board does not deny what the report finds. But like Chris Bellavita’s earlier analysis, they suggest the “Toy Story” is not the whole story… and note there is a “sound argument that the considerable success of emergency responders during Hurricane Sandy and in its aftermath was the result of programs and equipment paid for by earlier homeland grants.”

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