“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land….”
T.S. Eliot wrote at the start of his Waste Land poem.
I’ve tried, but I never did understand that poem. Part of it, maybe. But not most of it.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the waste of last week either, of lives, and hopes and promises.
I’m not sure the majestic horror of West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts is to be understood. Like the sudden explosion of the West Fertilizer Plant captured forever on an iPhone, some events transcend meaning. They simply are.
In years, the professional hive mind may come to a general but unspoken agreement about what those events mean, as it has done with September 11, 2001, and Katrina. But today — the next week in time — is too soon. At least for me.
Still, candidates of meaning emerge faintly through the numbness. I will write them as outlines, pretending there is more solidity to them than I know.
1. There is much more to homeland security than the Department of Homeland Security.
During last week’s cruelty and nobility, I did not hear much about the Department of Homeland Security. I do recall something about the Department of Homeland Security standing by, ready to provide whatever support was needed in Boston. But state and local responders proved themselves more than adequate to the job. That’s as it should be, at least according to homeland security doctrine.
Homeland security is not exclusively about what the federal government does.
They also serve who only stand and wait, said another poet.
2. Homeland security works.
Measuring preparedness before the fact is in the “too hard to do” box. Whatever homeland security is or is not, it involves collaborating and sharing information. Last week, public safety agencies demonstrated through a metric no one wants replicated they know how to do homeland security.
Atul Gawande wrote an essay in the New Yorker, Why Boston’s Hospitals Were Ready. The essay nominally is about medical care workers. I think it is also about most everyone within the homeland security community.
The bombs at the Boston Marathon were designed to maim and kill, and they did. Three people died within the first moments of the blast. More than a hundred and seventy people were injured. They had their limbs blown off, vital arteries severed, bones fractured, flesh torn open by shrapnel or scorched by the blasts’ heat. Yet it now appears that every one of the wounded alive when rescuers reached them will survive….
How did this happen? Something more significant occurred than professionals merely adhering to smart policies and procedures. What we saw unfold was the cultural legacy of the September 11th attacks and all that has followed in the decade-plus since. We are not innocents anymore….
Talking to people about that day, I was struck by how ready and almost rehearsed they were for this event. A decade earlier, nothing approaching their level of collaboration and efficiency would have occurred. We have, as one colleague put it to me, replaced our pre-9/11 naïveté with post-9/11 sobriety. Where before we’d have been struck dumb with shock about such events, now we are almost calculating about them. When ball bearings and nails were found in the wounds of the victims, everyone understood the bombs had been packed with them as projectiles. At every hospital, clinicians considered the possibility of chemical or radiation contamination, a second wave of attacks, or a direct attack on a hospital. Even nonmedical friends e-mailed and texted me to warn people about secondary and tertiary explosive devices aimed at responders. Everyone’s imaginations have come to encompass these once unimaginable events….
We’ve learned, and we’ve absorbed. This is not cause for either celebration or satisfaction. That we have come to this state of existence is a great sadness. But it is our great fortune.
3. Homeland security doesn’t work, not all the time.
At least 50 terrorists plots against the US have been stopped since September 11, 2001. But not the Boston Marathon plot.
Suspect Number 1 was inside the FBI radar for awhile. Some political carrion eaters still hawk the perfection of dot connectivity. But I think the public too has lost its pre-9/11/01 naïveté. A lot of people are sufficiently sophisticated to know you can’t stop them all. Maybe this is a manifestation of the resilience we’ve been aiming for. Even within a planned security event, you can’t prevent all bad from happening.
It’s not alright that homeland security does not work all the time. But it will not nor cannot ever be perfect. Last week I did not hear many people from Boston dispute that claim.
On the other hand, if it is true that “the last time regulators performed a full safety inspection of the [West Fertilizer Plant] facility was nearly 28 years ago,” or (according to Representative Bernie Thompson) “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act, yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”, then what else inside homeland security is this wrong? And why?
4. Don’t bother trying to plot dead and injured against attention
a. 4 dead, 176 wounded
b. 26 killed, 2 wounded
c. 12 killed, 58 wounded
d. 13 killed, 30 wounded
e. 33 killed, 23 wounded
f. 15 killed, 24 wounded
g. 14 killed (including 11 first responders), 200 injured
h. 30 dead, 162 wounded
i. 75 dead; 350 injured
j. 190 dead, 11,000 injured
a. April 15, 2013, Bombings at the Boston Marathon
b. December 2012, shooting at a school in Newton, Connecticut
c. July 2012, shooting at movie theater in Aurora, Colorado
d. November 2009, shooting at Ft. Hood, Texas
e. April 2007, shooting at Virginia Tech
f. April 1999, shooting at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado
g. April 2013, West, Texas plant explosion
h. Average daily homicides and wounded due to gun violence (successful and attempted suicides excluded)
i. April 15, 2013 bombings in Iraq
j. April 2013 Sichuan province earthquake
5. Technology and amateurs on social networks don’t automatically trump the grinding work of trained professionals.
Facial recognition systems were unable to identify Boston suspects Number 1 and 2, “even though both [suspects’] images exist in official databases: [Suspect Number 2] had a Massachusetts driver’s license; the brothers had legally immigrated; and [Suspect Number 1] had been the subject of some FBI investigation….”
Video did help, but “The work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times,” …. “The goal was to construct a timeline of images, following possible suspects as they moved along the sidewalks, building a narrative out of a random jumble of pictures from thousands of different phones and cameras. It took a couple of days, but analysts began to focus on two men in baseball caps who had brought heavy black bags into the crowd near the marathon’s finish line but left without those bags.”
Twitter, Reddit, homeland security experts who should have known better, the main stream and tributary media were largely outclassed by public safety professionals. Social media in particular stumbled badly on its heretofore unchallenged climb to information superiority:
“In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials,” the Post reported. “Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.”
6. It just got more difficult to cut homeland security spending.
I can hear the testimony being written now: “If you cut our request for [fill in the blank], you’re going to make it really difficult for us to [fill in the blank with something about sustainment, resilience, terrorism, or some other hazard]. We’ve come so far since [insert September 11, 2001 , or Katrina, or other locally appropriate reference], you can’t abandon us now, just when the threat of [insert relevant threat] is growing. [Insert subtle metaphor about blood on someone's hands.]“
In completely unrelated news, TSA Administrator John Pistole announced on Monday that TSA was postponing plans to allow passengers to carry small knives on planes.
7. Small towns need homeland security training just as much as the big cities.
Watertown, Massachusetts — where Suspect Number 2 was captured — has a population of around 32,000 people.
The population of West, Texas — site of the West Fertilizer Plant — is about 2,600 people.
Terrorists and disasters do not restrict themselves to UASI regions.
8. During chaos, public emotion is more powerful than public rationality, and the consequences of emotion persist.
Accounting logics seek to shape homeland security conversations around norms of economic rationality. But when the dramatically ugly happens, homeland security has very little to do with efficiency, cost benefit analysis, risk management, or any of the other magic words used by those who count things.
Listen to 17,000 Bruins fans sing the National Anthem.
Look at the signs all around Yankee Stadium about the love Yankee fans have for Boston.
Listen to Big Papi tell a packed Fenway Park and a national TV audience that “This is our fucking city. And nobody gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
And lest you think those kinds of emotions pass quickly, recall George Bush’s September 14, 2001 bullhorn speech to the Ground Zero workers: “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
And recall the consequences of that spontaneous prediction.
9. During chaos, the Constitution can be placed off to the side, without too many objections.
First comes action, then objections.
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” argues those who believe sometimes the perceived urgent supersedes pedantic attention to the rule of law.
Action first. Then talk.
A major American city was “locked down.” Whatever than means.
Let’s talk about what that means, and by what authority the action was taken.
Police searching for Suspect Number 2 entered homes, searched the residents, ordered them to leave the house with their hands clasped behind their heads.
Can the cops do that? What about the Bill of Rights?
Act first. Then talk about those kinds of concerns.
During chaos, not too many people seem to mind being told what to do by uniformed men and women with guns.
“I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.”
warned T.S. Eliot