Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 23, 2013

Lilacs out of the dead land: 9 lessons to be learned from last week

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 23, 2013

“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

(thanks, JFM)

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

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by Max G.

April 23, 2013 @ 5:13 am

Thank you for this post and especially #9. I’d offer a suggestion to alter the “act first” and then talk about it. That law enforcement has never conceived of such a scenario is amazing to me. That, given what we know about bombing plots, it never occurred to us that we could have the ability to search an entire neighborhood of homes without probable cause. I say never occurred to us because where was the discourse? Where were the discussions about it? Where were the advisories to the public that this was part of our terror mitigation plan? We do that with much of our anti-terror planning, “Don’t bring more than 4oz of liquid to the airport, don’t bring your concealed weapon to the state fair, don’t leave your briefcase lying around in a public place”, or we’ll confiscate it, we’ll arrest you, and we’ll detonate your briefcase. When did we articulate to the public that we would suspend, on such a grand scale, the Fourth Amendment? I submit that we didn’t. But Mayor Bloomberg is certainly trying to do so now by suggesting that we are not interpreting the constitution commensurate with the age in which we find ourselves (http://politicker.com/2013/04/bloomberg-says-post-boston-interpretation-of-the-constitution-will-have-to-change/). I understand the obligation, the duty to protect and the need to act, sometimes contrary to normal and standard operating procedures. I also believe that we need more critical thinking and dialog in the realm of our response to events such as this. Where will the Boston/New York/Dallas/Oakland police draw the line at “dangerous” or “capable of continued violence”? Is it just with a bomber? Could it also mean an armed robber or kidnapper? Better we turn off the 24hr news services and engage in some self organized criticality of a different nature, that of organized critical discussion on what we as Americans are acceptable with in “freedom relinquishing” in the face of the next fugitive on the run.

Comment by Rubin, Claire

April 23, 2013 @ 5:49 am

Nice job, Chris.


Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 23, 2013 @ 5:52 am

I do not — yet — see widespread suspension of the Fourth Amendment. In Boston what I saw was a very significant and widespread application of consent searches. The scope and scale was unprecedented. The practice is common. There are controversial edges to the practice (see NYPD stop and frisk). But under Schneckloth v. Bustamonte and many other findings, the Supreme Court has upheld the ability of law enforcement to do a great deal indeed as long as the citizen(s) voluntarily complies. One of the reasons the constitution is not a suicide pact — and has often been a source of renewal — is that the constitution is itself a complex adaptive creature.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 23, 2013 @ 6:31 am

One of Chris’ embedded links explains better than my last comment the Constitution’s readiness to probe and engage complexity. Please see:

Comment by HGRATTAN

April 23, 2013 @ 7:27 am


You recently told me of what you thought might have been your best work. No argument. This post, however, may be your best post ever.

See: whole pre-Boston Game opening ceremony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBGlQhYGfXk

Neil Diamond said it best: he brought love from the whole country. The video brought be back to the first Met game after 9/11.

Semper Paratus.

Comment by Donald Quixote

April 23, 2013 @ 10:10 am

1. Ad nauseam: This is homeland security; this not homeland security; everything is homeland security; nothing is solely homeland security; or does it really matter how it is defined? The response to the attacks/incidents in Boston can be classified as good old fashion law enforcement and emergency management or did that go away after 9-11 or when certain religions/beliefs are involved? Is a mass shooting a homeland security issue if it is committed by an emotionally disturbed person, who is a citizen by birth?

2. Were hospitals incapable of handling significant events prior to the coining of the term of homeland security? Did large scale exercises exist prior to 2001 or are they just better now? Hospitals and emergency medical services seemed to evolve pretty well over the years to meet the needs and previous lessons learned as most organizations and organisms do.

6. I am unsure if it just got harder to cut the spending, for the plentiful funds still do not exist without the extended kindness of China, QE-3 and other bond purchasers. I expect that the Boston attack and related incidents will be funded under the Emergency Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Program since that may be more appropriate than the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

7. Everyone needs some level of training or knowledge to include emergency management, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire, rescue, hazardous materials and other relevant areas associated with their threats and risk. Oh, I forgot, that is homeland security (or national security). It is time again to purchase an armored vehicle and a third mobile command vehicle for every town in the country.

8. How long does it really persist?

9. True. The constitution is always more important when it protects or benefits me! Statutes and case law do provide exceptions and public safety concerns may result in exigent actions, but cooler heads may view it differently years later and hinder or condemn the best of intentions. It is a cost of doing business and basis for new statutes and case law.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 23, 2013 @ 10:57 am

Another excellent and thoughtful post by Chris. Some of the premises and conclusions need both time and effort to more fully analyze with explanations perhaps of why success or failure.

As to conclusions as to medical preparedness I would hope that the Boston area which is world center for health care could and did perform well. If that area cannot handle an emergency load perhaps none can. But if it did cudos go in part to HHS and its leadership for fighting the good fight since 9/11/01 to improve health care preparedness.

As always the devil can be in details but this event will probably draw heavy research in Boston and the Chemical Hazards Safety Board will be investigating West, Tx event.

Thanks again Chris for all the effort and thoughtfulness in this wonderful post!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 23, 2013 @ 11:35 am

Perhaps a biography of TS Eliot would help understand the poem or perhaps a Nevil Chute novel such as “On The BEACH” with the banner waiving in a lifeless land with “There is still time Brother” written on it!

As I have written elsewhere the silence of no man’s land in WWI and its historical marker as the suicide of Western Civilization gives context to Eliot as does hazards in that war from chemicals and even now in Boston repercussions in Checyna and Dagestan and the S. Caucues from the line drawing on maps of artificial boundries post Paris Peace Conference and in large the defeat [due in part to complexity of geography and demography and religioln] that marks the human condition on this planet]of the notion of Woodrow Wilson that peoples of the earth should be entitled to self determination.

That the Wesphalian Treaties of 1648 helping to create the modern nation-state and ending religious violence are now failing world wide should be cause for analysis and IMO alarm.

We have seen organized violence wielded by nation states to subdue minorities and now those minorities wield vioence to harm various nation-states.


Comment by Max G.

April 23, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

Philip why must it be the extremes of the Constitution either protecting liberty or being a suicide pact?

I think that perhaps what you’re not considering or understanding from my post is that consent never comes at the end of muzzles of rifles wielded by decked out SWAT operators yelling for you to get your hands up and come out. The courts recognize that’s not consent. There’s a middle ground that MAY involve searching one or more houses based on the exigent threat (a few houses on a single block where we could articulate the suspect likely to be secreted) but common sense dictates that it doesn’t give us carte blanche to go searching willy nilly (a technical term of course).

Like Melissa McArdle, I too am most concerned with the “smaller more pervasive erosions of our civil liberties…” and to that I would add warrantless unconsentual searches of homes albeit not a small consideration (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/04/22/the-cost-of-boston.html). Again I ask where does law enforcement draw that line?

And my original point was that we should be having those kinda of conversations with the public. A majority of the public may not care that their homes were forcibly searched when the high fiving is going on and the suspect is in custody, but some will and they need to be heard if for no other reason than they have a voice. This blog, as I understand it is to encourage discourse and I say we have to push that discourse to the citizens by leading the conversation. Surrender freedom – security – have neither.

It may seem that I’m dissatisfied that Boston PD caught the suspect. Far from it. Bravery and good police work have always excited me and are the reason I chose this profession. However, we are the ones that need to be thoughtful and critical thinkers to this degree…of course, in my humble opinion.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 24, 2013 @ 12:26 am

Max and Phil! The Constitution does not finally resolve understandings of our democracy [Republic] in ways some might wish. “the skin of a living thought never just a chrystal clear and shining” Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes may be more apt. Thus, reinterpretation will always be the norm. I just wish that SCOTUS would stop pretending that they follow precedent or yeild STARE DECISIS by explaining why earlier interpretations are unsound currently. As Plessy v. Ferguson [1896] overturned by Brown v. Bd of Education [1954] they SCOTUS forge a union for future generations by explaining their changes.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 24, 2013 @ 12:30 am

Also might be wrong but I did note that the debate and actions of the US Senate over firearms control did pass by untouched on HLSWatch.com!

I think the enterprise of HS might well benefit from discourse on this issue even as swatted up police in the Boston area swarm neighborhoods.

Comment by Max G.

April 24, 2013 @ 1:56 am

You make good points William! And I know that I certainly learn from engaging in the discourse. Infinite (great) topics, finite hours in the day.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 24, 2013 @ 5:37 am

Max and Bill:

In terms of finite hours, you each claim more hours — especially late in the day — than I do. Perhaps now too late, but an attempt at calibration:

Max, if there was a pattern of demonstrable — especially purposeful — police intimidation during the Boston search operation, I will become much more active in critique. From what I have heard so far, civilians found law enforcement polite, encouraging, and accessible. The situation was intimidating, but the peace officers were doing their very best to keep-the-peace.

My initial reaction to your comment — and perhaps even moreso to Chris’ post — was more defensive than it needed to be regarding the potential of the Constitution to adapt to complexity. I was, probably, responding less to you, more to Chris, and probably even more to others who seem to have decided the Constitution is an excessively romantic and quaint framework inappropriate to current threats. I find this attitude much more dangerous than any terrorist who has so far appeared on the stage.

Constitutional doctrines of hot pursuit, voluntary consent, not offering bail, etc. etc. offer our constitutional system plenty of options for self-protection and effective adaptation. Chris has written some about constitutional justifications (or variances) being invoked after-the-fact as a cynical or realistic pattern of human story-telling. I’m not sure I want homeland security professionals, in particular, to become that sophisticated. Within the homeland security domain, I would prefer — at least in this very pregnant moment — to keep the conversation within the boundaries of what is recognizably a Fourth-Amendment (or other constitutional) issue.

If anyone can go traipsing off into the ether of ontological speculation, I can and will. I’m not trying to censor this topic for all time. But let’s not go that far until after some detailed discussion of the current constitutional paradigm. And… with finite hours catching up with me again… I absolutely agree with both of you that public discussion of the constitutional implications of what happened in Boston (et al) is to be desired.

I apologize that my original comment seemed to be an attack. We have enough — too many — of those.

Comment by HGRATTAN

April 24, 2013 @ 7:59 am

Doctors, Lawyers, and Indian Chiefs and Man (men) at the Top.

IMHO, HLS has always been and should be about Civic Minded Collaboration (CMC)

HLS providers (federal, state, local, tribal, territorial [international element too], private sector, NGOs, and the citizenry has an overarching civic responsible to be a good citizens (Supra-Golden Rule).

All concerned should, however, be self-reliant. See Emerson’s Self-Reliance http://www.math.dartmouth.edu/~doyle/docs/self/self.pdf

Point being, each should do what they should and can and ask for help only after they have exhausted their own capabilities. Each in their own way should help those that have been reasonably self-reliant and now need outside help. (definition of reasonable TBD)

We are all doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZYYqQInrDg

Bruce Springsteen used the title in Man on The Top. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMNjkL0yhMw
[Thanks Rich G for the second part]

On Patriot Day 2013 Bostonians were proper doctors, lawyers, and Indian chief. None wanted to be nor were the man (or women) on top.

Bellavita’s Waiting For Homeland Security spoked of HLS 1.0 to HLS 5.0
See: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CEQQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hsaj.org%2F%3Fdownload%26mode%3Ddl%26h%26w%26drm%3Dresources%252Fvolume8%252Fissue1%252Fpdfs%252F%26f%3D8.1.15.pdf%26altf%3D8.1.15.pdf&ei=xtZ3UYvLIYyC0QGSsIGYAw&usg=AFQjCNHG0I6KaV-1zWjs78o6zNHp_fLlMA&sig2=xzvv4e1BpvEmWLnZu11JMQ&bvm=bv.45645796,d.dmQ

Patriot Day Boston 2013 might be HLS6.0 and this time the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs got it right.

Semper Paratus

Comment by Max G.

April 24, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful and engaging response Philip. I make certain assumptions, not altogether supported visually, that there was more than one house searched in that manner. I do so based on experience both in that role and having supervised those teams. Not scientific and certainly unsubsubstantiated at least for now. Perhaps what I should have said was that what I saw raised serious concerns in me for that which went “unseen” or as of yet, “unreported”. It’s a topic that’s at the forefront of research I’m doing currently and as such is likely amplified in my head.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 29, 2013 @ 6:42 pm


While you have been re-reading The Waste Land, I have been working slowly through the Four Quartets just today arriving at the second section of East Coker where Eliot gives us the following:

We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
but all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Comment by bellavita

May 2, 2013 @ 12:28 am

Yes, Phil. Endless. Thanks for the reminder.

Comment by James Madia

May 4, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

Hi Chris,

I really enjoyed this post…(the video was amazing). The insightful observations (good, bad and otherwise) plant the seeds for debate on so many aspects of HLS. It’s time to be authentic about what we can expect from our government and accept that any system created by humans cannot be perfect.

No need for gloom and doom. We get better with practice. Danger and uncertainty force us to learn and evolve. I’ll take uncertainty over comfortable stagnation any day.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>