Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 20, 2014

A Catastrophic Failure

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2014

Last Friday I finished about four years of work.  I won’t identify the specific work, but it is homeland security-related.

Mostly I failed.

Yes, progress was made:

  • We have a much better understanding of the problem; among other things we recognize a problem that previously was not widely recognized.
  • We have identified most of the key players who are needed to effectively engage the problem.
  • We have established some meaningful relationships among several of the key players.

But the actual problem is as threatening and complicated as it was four years ago.  Maybe more threatening.

After four years of serious, ongoing, and mostly well-received work, I failed to practically advance our security.

I advocate for a distinction between national security and homeland security. But as a wannabe classicist, I embrace “security” derived from the Latin se-curus, se: free from, cura: care.  If anything, today we are less-carefree than four years ago.

Greater knowledge has, if anything, increased our concern:

  • We now recognize there are substantive differences between catastrophic and non-catastrophic.  Enhanced effectiveness dealing with the non-catastrophic has in some cases increased our catastrophic risk.
  • We now recognize the larger an impact area the more likely a catastrophe, even if the “first impact” is less than catastrophic.
  • We now recognize the more interdependencies (power, transport, fuel, supplies, etc.) the more likely a catastrophe
  • We now recognize that self-made vulnerabilities are at least as important — often more important — than external threats.

These aspects of the strategic landscape may seem obvious to you, but four years ago they were anything but.  Even today these findings are taken by some as fightin’ words.

While we now have a much better view of reality, we have not substantively reduced vulnerabilities. An analogy: The thick flat jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan is periodically punctuated by a rise.  Most of these exclamation marks are the overgrown ruins of ancient Mayan structures.  As the vines and trees are cleared from the stonework the threat of erosion — and trampling by tourists — actually increase the likelihood of collapse.

In clearing our problem’s landscape we have also experienced the cultural differences that complicate potential collaboration between the private and public sectors.

In this particular problem-set the private sector tended to recognize the risk earlier than the public sector.   So unlike some homeland security problems, the private and public sectors are in rough strategic alignment.

But to actually do anything together to mitigate risk has been problematic.  A forensic analysis of the multiple problems is not appropriate for a blog.  But at the highest level I think it is fair to say there has been a persistent disconnect between private and public regarding the fundamentals of time and space.

The dimensions of space important to the private sector are usually determined by markets that extend for hundreds, even thousands of miles in every direction.  One private sector participant said, “For our daily operations states are legal fictions.”  Yet on very bad days those fictional creatures become very real… with both good and bad consequences.

Dimensions of time can be even more complicated.  Everyone is busy. Everyone is mostly focused on meeting the calendar for some specific deliverable or set of deliverables.   Private sector success or failure is measured at least once a day and the measures arrive from multiple  players (dozens to tens-of-thousands) across diverse markets.  The public sector calendar tends to be more extended even while the measures-that-matter emerge from a much smaller set of observers/consumers/commanders.

As the private sector experience of time encounters the public sector experience of time reality can be contorted in weird ways.

Over the last four years I failed to practically accommodate these differences of space and time. I am sure private and public share the same reality.  I am sure they depend on one another.   But as I finish this work they remain trapped at different points on a very Newtonian plane.


A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein, Letter to Robert S. Marcus, February 12, 1950

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 20, 2014 @ 12:37 am

Btw, Einstein’s work was simply an extension of Newtonian physics.

If you want to think about a real break, consider quantum mechanics.

And as much as I usually dislike these physics-type comparisons, you may still end up being the Max Planck-like character in this field’s development.

You laid the groundwork. You charted new courses. You built the bridges for others to cross over and share their work. It may not have reached the goal(s) set out in whatever funding mechanism you were beholden to, but so few big public policy quandaries do.

The most important fact being a group of homeland security professionals, from all types of backgrounds (what’s the correct term for such a grouping? Probably not a kill…) are now aware of how each other worlds’ works, thinks, interacts, and approaches shared problems.

Relax. Open a good bottle of wine. Start writing down what went right and wrong. Keep drinking. Keep writing. Edit when you’re sober. Then post and share with the rest of us.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

March 20, 2014 @ 4:00 am

Failure doesn’t mean – “You are a failure,”
It means – You have not succeeded.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You accomplished nothing,”
It means – You have learned something.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You have been a fool,”
It means – You had a lot of faith.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You don’t have it,”
It means – You were willing to try.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You are inferior,”
It means – You are not perfect.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You’ve wasted your life,”
It means – You have a reason to start afresh.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You should give up,”
It means – “You must try harder.
Failure doesn’t mean – “You’ll never make it,”
It means – It will take a little longer.
Failure doesn’t mean – “God has abandoned you,”
It means – God has a better way for you.



‘the way to success’

failure may outnumber success
failure is there
to make you strong
failure may cause pain
but nothing goes in vain
failure keeps you in touch
with reality
failure gives wisdom
failure gives experience
cowards don’t fail
It’s for the brave
who leave the shore
to sail into unknown
failure is a stop
in the journey of life
don’t stop at the bend
today’s failure would be
tomorrow’s bigger success
failure is the cradle
in which success rocks.
failure is not a sin
failure is the first step for success
failure teaches you how to succeed
failure always helps in your success
failure helps you from failing
if you fail, it’s not the end of the world
success will definitely be on your way
so will run away your failure
never forget your failure in life which helped you in your

Liioona Mohie

Comment by john comiskey

March 20, 2014 @ 6:44 am

RE: “If anything, today we are less-carefree than four years ago.”

Some people and perhaps many people want to be carefree.

Security-minded people upset (de-rail) the care-free mindset.

The opposite might also be true.

What a wondrous dialectic

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 21, 2014 @ 7:57 am

Arnold and Mr. Tingus (and others):

Thanks for the encouragement. To others who contacted me by private email: Thanks for your concern. I am not in despair.

Given how my other Thursday post was misunderstood, clearly my composition-setting is currently not well-calibrated with most readers.

There may actually be a relationship between our failure in Syria and my failure closer to home. Let me try again:

I come mostly from the private sector. More than that, I am — at least have been — an entrepreneur. For entrepreneurs failure is as common as pig shit on a hog lot. And at least when I was growing up, the pig shit was used to fertilize the corn that was fed to the hogs (a pre-Disney circle-of-life). So… Mr. Tingus’ comments begin to suggest my attitude to failure.

But… failure must be seriously acknowledged and assessed. There is a profound temptation — especially when engaged in something you want to consider noble — to self-justify failure. Even worse, there is a tendency to blame others.

More helpful, in my experience, is to note actual outcomes and persistent gaps. Analysis of what-happened-and-did-not-happen should not be avoided, but neither should it be given too much credence. Retrospective analysis is treacherous and can mislead as much as inform.

Better is to recognize where the cornfield is anemic and spread the pig-shit there. To be less agrarian, given the implications of the failure, where should continuing or new investments be made (or not)? What should be invested and how?

I was not a farmer. My Dad was a grocer. But I grew up surrounded by hog operations and cornfields. Just about this time of year the farmers got out their “spreaders”. These were basically manure wagons pulled behind the tractor at an incline with rotating wheels at the back. On a spring morning tractors could go full-speed across a field with a cloud of animal excrement (often pig, cow, and chicken combined) flying behind them in a cloud.

Time to hook up the tractor.

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