Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 10, 2014

Dismiss, distort, destroy: Adventures in self-delusion

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 10, 2014

The 9/11 Commission famously found a “failure of imagination” among the principal vulnerabilities that facilitated the terrorist threat.

We had accurately observed the predicates — USS Cole breaching, East African embassy bombings, vicious sermons, declarations of war, and more — that put a few on high alert.

After the attack other clues were nearly as obvious, tantalizing offers of operational warning and even tactical preemption. But we were mostly distracted and failed to imagine the possibilities that were percolating.

So on September 11, 2001 most of us were surprised and, it has seemed to me, many over-reacted. Both at home and overseas — especially in regard to Iraq — we unintentionally delivered strategic advantages to our adversaries.

In our response to 9/11 we hurt ourselves much worse than the initial horrific blow.  We also planted seeds of further vulnerability and, even perhaps, self-destruction.

These are claims that over the years I have referenced here.  I will understand if you insist I defend them again today, but my present purpose is prospective rather than retrospective.

I am concerned we’re doing it again:  Being distracted and self-indulgent and dismissive of others and distorting unwelcome truths.

Some of this is innate to our human condition.  As both a species and as individuals we are limited.  We are especially constrained by the story-engine in our brains. Too often trapped in the same old story, indignant if any one seeks to shift our recurring narrative.

But reality is seldom satisfied with mere repetition, despite how much we prefer a familiar rhythm.

If there remains any “we” worth the term, we have mostly dismissed the suffering of tens-of-thousands in Syria.  Public opinion surveys, political non-action, media reporting, and more all supply evidence that we have usually averted our eyes when confronted with the reality on the ground.  It has been an especially messy and brutal reality.  Confusion, hesitation, mistakes are entirely justifiable.  But neglect and denial are not.  We ought not have been so surprised by what has spilled-over from Syria into Iraq.

Our surprise is evidence of a failure to accurately observe and reasonably imagine.

I have been complicit in this dismissal of reality; more accurately, distorting of reality. After a few attempts to call-attention to the Syrian implications for homeland security, I retreated into the boundaries of a primarily domestic discipline.  Yet this week we are attempting to address a Syrian-based strategic threat with TSA tactics and urging Norwegians to spy more on each other. Looking for symptoms, ignoring their source?

The same tactical myopia afflicts our surprised response to the Children’s Crusade marching toward and across our southern border.  Both the anti-illegal right and the anti-xenophobic left are mostly preoccupied with what they perceive as urgent.  Meanwhile the source of our problem is a cauldron of cartels and coyotaje combined with chronic poverty and violence that requires a long-term strategy creatively and cogently applied.

Whatever else, we face a reality where thousands of children are taking an extraordinary risk to come to us. I understand we ought not encourage such risk-taking.  But dare we ignore the compelling threats that have driven these children into taking this risk?  Do we seek to “secure the border” so that we can pretend these other threats do not exist?  What are we prepared to do to address source as well as symptom?

Then Tuesday Chris Bellavita reported on the dismissive comments of some regarding the QHSR. This is a much smaller matter.  But it is another example of the same intellectual reflexes: dismiss, distort, destroy.  It is as if the — sometimes heated — discussions begun in late 18th Century Philadelphia have devolved into something much more similar to a junior varsity debating club.  We self-validate by running up the score with reckless accusations, banal set-phrases, and an abject refusal to listen.

Ignore and ignorance share the same source.  Imagination is spurred by authentic encounter with the unknown.

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 10, 2014 @ 1:19 am

An interesting, if large, argument. I would like to only quibble with the Syria portion.

You preface that part with the point that perhaps intervention in Iraq following 9/11 was a mistake. So why isn’t non-intervention in Syria the application of lessons learned from failed Middle East meddling?

Bad things have and are happening on the ground there. Undoubtedly. The question is, for both the people who live there and for our own security at home, would any potential intervention on the part of the U.S. have improved the situation? Iraq and Libya do not provide reassuring answers to that question.

And on the suffering point, we (as a country and national/homeland security community) have long dismissed the suffering of tens of thousands in Africa (if it didn’t involve aggression by Muslim groups…). What makes Syria different? Islam? The potential threat of security issues for the homeland? The need to intervene in areas that border our allies rather than those that seem far away?

I am sympathetic to the humanitarian argument. But I’d be more supportive if it wasn’t so selectively applied.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 10, 2014 @ 5:25 am


Aspects of scope, scale, fewer degrees of separation, and the connections that we cannot always anticipate more and more give the humanitarian argument a compelling realist angle. We have begun to reap the consequences of our long-time neglect — well, really abuse — of Africa, and we will suffer further in the future. The world is becoming smaller and smaller. Problems on the “next” block have an increasing tendency to spill-over.

Given that our resources and capabilities are limited, there has to be some selectivity. But our selection criteria should be much more network-oriented than currently. The ghosts of Admiral Mahan or Paul Nitze too often seem to still be writing policy/strategy. An analogy from your world more than mine: Currently national security is organized around familiar forces (analogous to electromagnetic and gravitational). I am suggesting we need to give equal attention to the unfamiliar forces (strong and weak).

You highlight what I consider my weakest argument: after paying more attention, what should we actually do? Even retrospectively in Syria, what would I have done differently over the last two years that would have had a persuasively better outcome than we see today? I do not have a persuasive answer (partly, I think, because I have not been paying consistent attention). But it is my experience that consistent attention unveils opportunities that do not otherwise emerge.

Comment by Stephen Swain

July 10, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

Re: “Whatever else, we face a reality where thousands of children are taking an extraordinary risk to come to us. I understand we ought not encourage such risk-taking. But dare we ignore the compelling threats that have driven these children into taking this risk? Do we seek to “secure the border” so that we can pretend these other threats do not exist? What are we prepared to do to address source as well as symptom?”

It is well known that many, if not all, of these children are coming from areas that are extremely poor or facing some sort of violent conflict. Many articles that talk about the issue speak about how these minors either run away from home to seek a better life in the US, or their parents had sent them away to start a better life. Many of the countries that these minors are from have strong “family based” culture. So for a parent to send away their child, circumstances must be terrible.

Advocating for border security, there are a lot of minor illegal aliens crossing the border that we do not have the resources to deal with and support. Deportation would be the easiest solution to maintain adequate staffing and resources for their needs.

Advocating against deportation, the United States is always talking about humanitarian crisis situations and how the best interest of the person should be preserved. Deporting children who across the border to defend themselves is not the right answer.

So what is the right answer? Essentially this is a tough situation all around and unfortunately there will be no easy solution any time in the near future. DHS must partner with agencies that deal with these issues outside of the country to troubleshoot solutions until they come up with a plan that seems viable.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 11, 2014 @ 5:10 am

Stephen (and continuing in response to Arnold):

Agreed there will be no easy solution. There may be no solution, no matter how much attention or creativity or resources we apply.

My principal point is that until we give sustained attention to a problem we cannot even know our options, much less our odds.

Years ago Murray Gell-Mann facetiously proposed the “Feynman Algorithm” which would allow all of us to be as brilliant as Richard Feynman:

Write down the problem.
Think real hard.
Write down the solution.

Gell-Mann’s off-the-cuff comment has since generated serious attention. I like this further exposition of the “procedure”:

Write the problem down, in an unambiguous way.
Often this is just as hard as the next step. Indeed, really, really understanding the problem is sometimes the only hard bit: once you really, really understand the problem, the answer may be obvious. Of course, you don’t have to wait until understanding the problem before moving on to the next step, that way lies AnalysisParalysis, just stick a StakeInTheQuicksand and go for it!

Become convinced it’s important, really important. Think about odd ways to solve it, things you wouldn’t tell other people for fear of being laughed into the next century. Look at simple things, look at really complicated intricate solutions. Then talk to others. Talking to others will allow you to crystallize some of the ideas you have, and produce more ideas for you to think about. Repeat until you have an answer you can write down. If you do this right, immediately before you come up with the answer people will think your almost obsessed with the problem, and the answer to it. Some problems don’t have answers, only compromises, or proofs of impossibility. These are also valid answers if you can show that a real answer doesn’t exist.

Write the answer.

The first two steps in Feynman Algorithm, as explained above, are what I mean by attention. I have found that in many cases the toughest issues do not have a solution, but the attention, mindful presence, and social engagement around the unsolved problem can produce significant mitigation effects.

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