Especially in homeland security we are compelled to ask again and again, “What is real?”
The etymology of “threat” involves pressing or crowding or pushing. If I perceive my space for maneuver is reduced, I feel increasingly at risk. Is my perception accurate? Are there opportunities for maneuver not yet perceived? Is the pressing, crowding, and pushing intentional? Is my preferred comfort-zone excessive? Is the threat I perceive instead an invitation to relationship? Intentional or not is the threat pattern increasing or decreasing or is it fundamentally unpredictable? Is the very climate conspiring against me? Are railway tracks, nuclear power plants, chemical repositories and cyber-criminals too close? Have evil men a continent away targeted me for murder?
How vulnerable — able to be wounded — am I? In much of Western culture autonomy is perceived as strength. Others suggest the more separate the self, the more easily harmed. There is, some perceive, strength in numbers and relationships. I am dependent: on distant food producers, the electrical grid, truckers, fuel handlers, and a whole host of interdependent networks that I barely know, much less control. I am not autonomous. Am I therefore especially vulnerable? Or the opposite? Or is it more complicated than a dichotomy? Poorly suited to dialectic? Am I especially constrained by my cultural predispositions? In other words, threatened mostly by myself?
Who am I? Just me? Or does this self extend to family, friends, to those who grow my food and make my electricity? When am I wounded? What is the consequence — what follows — of a threat-fulfilled at some degree of separation? At six degrees am I invulnerable? Is the enemy of my enemy always my friend? Is the death of a child in Damascus of no consequence to me? In Detroit? It was famously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor.” Yes, I am to love myself and my neighbor. But the question remains, who is my neighbor? Are you?
Threat, vulnerability, consequence: What do these words mean and, then, how are they related? Even if you and I could mostly agree on meaning, could we then agree on measurement? And if we cannot measure, can we confidently shape, and if beyond shaping (much less controlling) what ought we do? Even: what can we do?
Have you seen the video rant by Abubakar Shekau, a chief of the Boko Haram? Seldom has evil been so clearly and coarsely expressed. I hope we could agree that he is a “threat”, but might disagree regarding our vulnerability (and therefore its potential consequence). Have you read Tuesday’s National Climate Assessment? On this topic it is possible that we could agree on emerging consequences but disagree on cause and argue ad absurdum about how to manage vulnerability. In Charleston, West Virginia there is considerable agreement regarding the near-term threat and consequences of water contamination. There is much less consensus on long-term vulnerabilities related to the January chemical spill. From Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Phoenix lack of water is a problem that seems to conflate threat-and-vulnerability-and-consequence.
What is real?
It is often beyond my ability to know. Those who claim to be certain — like Abubaker Shekau — and those willing to defer to such certainty are near the top of my list of serious threats.
So… what most of us do on most days of the week is divide infinite reality into separate bits that seem more susceptible to our embrace. We do not presume to understand the whole, but here, with our bit, we aspire to some sense of control.
In a complex universe a certain amount of reductionism is not unreasonable. It can be a healthy and productive expediency. Especially if we remain self-aware of what we have chosen and regularly remind ourselves of the wider reality.
Purposeful — eyes-wide-open — reductionism is the practical wisdom behind the counter-terrorism focus to which Tom Ridge (and others) would prefer DHS “return“. Meanwhile Secretary Johnson has convened his leadership team to improve “traceability between strategic objectives, budgeting, acquisition decisions, operational planning and mission execution.” Rather than reductionism, Mr. Johnson seems inclined to strategic synergies.
In each case there is a preoccupation with finding the right functional fix for DHS and, perhaps, the whole homeland security enterprise. Somehow the cobbled-together-components will all “do” counter-terrorism with just an appetizer or side-dish or dessert of their other statute-established tasks. Or somehow by being sure we can trace-and-connect strategic choices with budgeting with acquiring and with planning, when we actually execute (a three-syllable-synonym for “do”) the outcome will be more satisfactory (or at least coherent?).
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer warns, “Man can do what he wants but he cannot will what he wants.” Our contemporary philosopher Sheryl Crow gives us the same with a more positive American spin, “We do what we can.”
A proposal: “homeland security” (no caps) is (should be, could be, maybe some day will be) a discipline by which we are thoughtfully, meaningfully, and practically reminded of how our corner of creation is connected to the rest. Because it is the connections that constitute reality, this discipline will help us keep our corner calibrated with context. This calibration should enhance our so-called span-of-control.
This discipline will also be immensely helpful when reality reminds us that control is a delusion. Regularly engaging our extended connections prepare us for those confusing days when the flimsy false walls of expertise and expectation are swept away. On those rare yet inevitable days, I will be glad to have had the opportunity to meet you, learn from you, and share with you… on almost any topic. Because this will allow us to better learn and share and do together on the awful day and days after.
I will be away from HLSWATCH the next three weeks (at least). Those bits of reality that I claim as my corner have become especially demanding. I recognize the demands are almost certainly delusional. But… I feel compelled to do what I can.