Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 31, 2015

Germanwings as mediated terrorism

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on March 31, 2015

I listened – if that’s the right word – to a social media conversation last week about the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash.

The discussants were four colleagues who have been around homeland security for over a decade. The discussion took place at various times on March 26th and 27th, as news and speculations about what happened and why trickled through the Internet.

Here’s some of that discursive conversation, lightly edited


Person A. So, the French procureur just said that crashing a plane to the ground and killing more than 100+ innocent people is not an act of terrorism….thoughts? ( I know, I know… I am opening the can of worms of “define terrorism” but this seems to be a good reason to open it.)

Person B. This is easy! If he’s Muslim it’s terrorism. If he’s Christian it’s mental illness.

Person C. Can an act be deemed terrorism if the affected population isn’t terrorized? Any reports of Europeans en masse opting not to fly for fear on inadequate pilot screening procedures?

B. The first 19 Aum Shinrikyo attacks failed to terrorize the population too.

C. Yet, that incident is widely referred to as an act of terrorism…at least by the host government officials.

A. This just happened: ggreenwald It’s the definition. RT @AliAbunimah BBC just said Germanwings pilots “was German. Not a known terrorist.” They really do go by ethnicity.

A. Parents are still sending kids to school after sandy hook…..  But it is scary as hell!

C. Two things strike me as odd about this latest plane crash. 1) if the lone pilot was pursuing a murder-suicide plot, why fly the plane on into a mountain? Major urban areas were nearby and he had a near full load of fuel to get him to these areas. 2) why hasn’t AQ or ISIS claimed credit for the incident. Even if they had nothing to do with the pilot it could cause short-term terror in some.

A. I guess the question that troubles me here is, why do we need a big political motif as motivation? The imbecile in Santa Barbara killed 6 people because he could not get a date. That does not make his bullets less real. 100+ people are dead in an aviation suicide attack. Why are their deaths less “terrorist related” than those of the victims of 9/11?

B. Because the political motivation impacts the funding steam.  Did you know that the Santa Barbara shooter shot one of our colleague’s daughters through the hoody? He also shot her boyfriend.

A. Did both survive? (say yes).

B. Yes

B. Are you saying violence = terrorism?

A. Violence with an audience to send a message (even if the message is trivial) = terrorism.

B. Those impacted are just as traumatized.

A. Ritualized killings to provoke a reaction in an audience = terrorism. It does not have to be about Palestine. It may be about getting laid, or telling the department of veteran affairs “fuck you” or, whatever sick excuse.

C. What is the motivation of the perpetrator? Killers of people to scare other people that others are pursuing a like agenda = terrorism. Kill lots of people because you are having a difficult time adjusting to societal norms = mass murder.

B. But you aren’t saying it’s an excuse. You are saying it is the motivation. Some violence is good right? When we do the violence to send a message. Right?

A. It is its public nature.

B. When the state says fuck you and uses violence that is legit.

A. Carpet bombing Dresden or the Blitz killed a lot of people, but it was not a ritualized act.

B. My ass it wasn’t.

A. Instead, it had a strategic objective.

C. Violence may not be good but it is necessary.

B. It may have been less personal but it sent the message intended

A. (it was also a ritualized act) but not only. The objective was to limit the military capacities of the other to kick my butt.

B. And Hiroshima and Nagasaki did exactly what it was to do re: Russia? Really?

A. I had written something about Big Boy, and I deleted it, because the bomb was a ritualized act!

B. That may have been an additional benefit but our violence is often intended to send a message, take for instance the conventional fire bombings in Japan. Or Doolittle’s raid.

A. So, if I am pissed off with the IRS (I am not) and go and kill 40 accountants, in an IRS building, that is not terrorism?

B. Yep I’d say it definitely is terrorism.

A. So, if I am pissed off with girls because I cannot get a date, and I go and kill 10 girls is that terorism?

B. Refer to my initial statement about Muslim v Christian: If he’s Muslim it’s terrorism. If he’s Christian it’s mental illness.

C. Why is it terrorism?

A. That is my question, why is it not? Students in Santa Barbara are scared to go back to college.

A. And clearly there was an audience, and he even has a crappy manifesto.

C. Finals exams are due to start soon.

B. This is nature’s terrorism…now I’m afraid of the sky
nature's terrorism

A. Suicide: I jump from the golden gate. Got it. Terrorism: I kill 3000 to send a political message .

C. Was he trying to change the policies of the country or simply exacting revenge for a perceived wrong?

A.Who says that terrorism is about changing policies? That is, I think, the core of the divergence. Not all political acts are about changing policies.

C. Agreed.

B. Political or social change influence …

A. Fear.

B. Not necessarily policies.

A. To produce fear among those I despise.

B. Or just a broader audience beyond those directly impacted by the violence.

C. Correct. Just as not all mass killings are terrorism.

A. Fear, audience, death. I can agree with those.

B. But I believe there is state terror too. Not just sponsorship terror

C. So there must be death for it to be deemed an act of terrorism?

B. David Claridge made a great argument for this (even though I’m not a fan, he was right about this).

C. What about maiming or the threat of death?

B. No, threat is ok too.

A. Pain and suffering work too. Torture.

A. Ok. if we cannot agree on a definition, I’ll take the “keywords” we did agree on as a common denominator.


C. Okay, let me get this straight. We are fighting alongside Iran in Iraq, fighting against Iran (proxy) in Yemen, and negotiating with them regarding acceptable nuclear capabilities?

A. I don’t know anymore against who we are fighting in the middle east. :)

C. Everyone is the correct answer

A. I think this answers your question about who are we fighting in the middle east :) http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/1xg427/wait–whose-side-are-we-on-again-?xrs=synd_facebook_032715_tds_2

[The link connects to a Daily Show episode whose conclusion is the US has finally found a way to fight a proxy war against itself.  But back to the other topic.] 

Person D. [joining the conversation] Terrorism = violence or the threat of violence that is perceived as undermining state sovereignty or the ability of the economy and/or society to function. I.e., Germanwings was not terrorism but rather an act of mass murder and a terrible tragedy.

A. Another definition throws its hat to the ring! :) Only a credible challenge to the state sovereignty?

D. Why can’t these guys who want to off themselves just do it without murdering innocents in the process?

A. Given the fact that my mother in law is terrorized to fly right now, I will still call Germanwings a case of terror.

D. It doesn’t have to actually be credible, just perceived as such. Terrorism produces exaggerated fear.

A. So, is Aurora or Sandy Hook not terror?

D. Not perceived as a threat to sovereignty, society, and the economy. Now a wave of mass shootings at movie theaters or schools could then be perceived as such. But it would also need to be seen as non-random.

A. I see in our future a post where [everyone who works here] answers the question: what is terrorism? I know we will get as many answers as we have [people who think about this], and that will add to the concert of others who have also answered the question. Still…..

D. Ok by me as long as you all agree in the end that I am right!

A. We are not aiming for consensus, but to look for the edges of the debate. That said, once we have X definitions, we may want to see if they can be “merged” in a lower common denominator, ala wikipedia, or if they can’t, to see where the deal breakers are. Could be a nice exercise. And it does not need to be permanent. We could update every time our thoughts on the topic evolve. I know that what I think terror and terrorism is today is different to what I used to think about the topic a few years ago.

A. I’m also having a similar conversation with [other people on a different social network platform]. We came to a conclusion…. :) instead of ruling out terrorism, as this seems to be a point of debate, we could agree (if that is the case): “at this point, the attack does not seem to have a political or religious motif.”

C. Agreed. All signs point to the co-pilot having diagnosed emotional issues. So how many other post 9/11 security fixes can or could lead to unintended consequences? http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/andreas-lubitz-kneejerk-reaction-to-911-enabled-mass-murder-10137173.html

[This link leads to a story that starts with: “A leading aviation security expert has condemned the rules on cockpit access as a “knee-jerk reaction to the events of 9/11” – which, he says, enabled the Germanwings co-pilot to commit the mass murder of the 149 other people on Flight 4U 9525.]

A. It is terrorism, right? :-) http://speisa.com/modules/articles/index.php/item.1086/the-co-pilot-of-the-germanwings-airbus-was-a-convert-to-islam.html

You can’t make this stuff up.

[This link — from one of the wondrous universes that inhabit the Internet – says (in an English translation of German), “All evidence indicates that the copilot of Airbus machine in his six-months break during his training as a pilot in Germanwings, converted to Islam and subsequently either by the order of “radical”, ie. devout Muslims , or received the order from the book of terror, the Quran, on his own accord decided to carry out this mass murder. As a radical mosque in Bremen is in the center of the investigation, in which the convert was staying often, it can be assumed that he – as Mohammed Atta, in the attack against New York – received his instructions directly from the immediate vicinity of the mosque.”]

C. He was converted posthumously.

A. So, is it terrorism now? http://www.liberation.fr/monde/2015/03/27/crash-a320-le-copilote-voulait-que-tout-le-monde-connaisse-son-nom_1230090
“One day everybody will know my name, I am going to change the system and everybody will remember me?” the pilot said to his girlfriend.
Is he trying to build a caliphate? No. But as we discussed before, killing 150 is hardly a suicide. He knew he was broadcasting to an audience, and he wants to make his mark in history books.
This is a powerful motivator…. A huge one actually among hackers, for example. A 17 year old who can hack a nuclear reactor will do it to prove he can….and kill somebody in the process.

March 27, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 27, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

March 26, 2015

Yemen: Some fundamentals

Filed under: International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on March 26, 2015

This week the disintegration of Yemen appears nearly complete.

Long-time home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen has been an important area of operations for US, Saudi, and other counter-terrorist services.  Earlier this week both US and British military advisers were withdrawn in the face of escalating violence.

Many in the CT community consider AQAP the most direct threat to the US homeland. Since 9/11 AQAP has been implicated in several successful and unsuccessful attacks against the United States.

The collapse of the Yemeni central government, which has cooperated in operations against AQAP, will — at least in the near-term — likely enhance the terror group’s freedom of operation.  But AQAP may also be distracted by adversaries closer-at-home.

The current situation is fast-moving.  Following is some background information that may be helpful to your consideration of how the emerging outcomes could impact US homeland security.



The maps above were developed by The Fanack Foundation of the Netherlands.  Other information on Yemen is available from the Fanack Chronicle.

Dispensing with reason

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 26, 2015

Critique of Reason Poster

This week our recent discussion of reason (and its relevance, or not, to homeland security) is on hiatus.  We will see what next week may bring.  In the meantime, if you are traveling to New Haven or want to visit online, you may find this current exhibit of interest.

March 24, 2015

Body Cam Ripples Will Become Waves

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Max Geron on March 24, 2015

We’ve only begun to see the reality of police work thanks to body cameras.

In March of 1989 the world was given an inside view of the profession that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of for the last 23 years when the television show COPS premiered on the FOX network. That was as close to the reality that thousands of others and I experienced in the ensuing decades than anyone has come to sharing.

Body cameras will do even more.

police lapel-camera-web

Just as body cameras are a disruptive technology, the ripples of the reality that officers face will be disruptive to American society.  We’ve already seen a glimpse of those ripples in the revelation of the Jason Harrison shooting that occurred on June 14, 2014 – the body camera video being released only a few weeks ago.

Many citizens are highly critical and raise doubt about the dangers of a man with a screwdriver. Many officers however, view the video convinced of the dangers that a screwdriver can pose.  Mere days after the Harrison shooting a teenager was attacked and stabbed (nearly to death) in Dallas with a screwdriver.

The point of this post is not to justify the actions of the officers. The purpose is to illustrate the divide in perceptions of threats and reasonableness of actions that appears to exist between many police and the general public, and how body cameras will continue to reveal that divide.

Body cameras will show the ugly realities that officers face. The cameras will fail to answer all of the questions or provide all of the information necessary to form a complete, educated opinion of any situation.  Additionally they will provide an opportunity to replay incidents like the Harrison shooting in frame-by-frame detail, giving opportunities to you and me that were never afforded the officers in the field.  The ability to do so is neither fair nor unfair to the officers, it just is the reality of the technology and world in which we live.  What we do with that ability is critical.

Furthermore, body cameras will continue to provide access to the confusion that comes in the midst of the most stressful situations an officer will likely ever be involved in. There will be seemingly irrational questions by officers about whether or not they should handcuff a dying man, or the yelling for the man to drop a screwdriver after he’s been shot.  To police officers, those commands are natural and make sense because officers are trained to give those orders.  They are not sitting at a screen watching the video, they are living with the adrenaline coursing through their system and working to control their very natural fight or flight responses.

We will see more videos where officers initial statements do not match exactly what the video shows.  In these highly stressful situations we can expect that because of the way the brain processes information – in part, we don’t know exactly on what the individual officers were focusing their attention when the incident occurred.  We already know that witnesses recall things differently and police are humans as well.  That will not stop attorneys from capitalizing when there are differences in officers’ recollections.  That will also not stop some critics from accusing officers of lying when it occurs.  That too is the reality and part of the disruption.

Get ready, because we will see videos of horrific accident scenes where officers arrive and swear a person was just talking to them when the video will reveal they were clearly not and were likely already close to death.   We will see the limits of individuals’ cognitive abilities when exposed to extreme stress.  The hope of the officers lies in the psychologists and medical experts to explain discrepancies in what officers had the availability of seeing and what they actually recall seeing.  So far most of the discussion has been by attorneys, unions, journalists and activists.

Transparency and open objective discussion along side research and clinical study on cognition under stress will be imperative to our understanding what happens during these critical incidents.  We will be witness to other scenes that, in fairness to all, will require more explanation and critical thought.  The videos will speak for themselves but be assured that what they say will in all likelihood not be the final word.


Major Max Geron works for the Dallas Police Department. He is a security studies scholar who received his master’s degree in Homeland Security from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dallas Police Department or the City of Dallas.


March 23, 2015

Leaning Towards Stafford 2.0: The FEMA Disaster Assistance Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 1471)

Filed under: Disaster,General Homeland Security — by Quin Lucie on March 23, 2015

On March 19th, the Committee leaders for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management introduced a bill that might set the stage for significant changes to the Stafford Act, the primary source of legislation to provide federal disaster assistance.

The proposed law seeks to make important changes to specific federal disaster programs. These include providing protections and benefits to members of the Urban Search and Rescue System, making places of worship that provide essential services to the general public eligible for disaster assistance, providing eligibility for hazard mitigation funds to States receiving fire management assistance, and changing the threshold for utilizing simplified procedures for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.

HR 1471 would also provide relief to individuals and States that were incorrectly awarded disaster assistance funds by FEMA, through no fault of their own, and prevent FEMA from seeking to recoup those funds after a period of time had elapsed, forcing the agency to “step up its game” even further to get awarding disaster assistance right the first time.

However, it is the reports and studies required by this proposed legislation that might result in the most significant impact. The reports seek to explore not just the way federal disaster assistance is delivered, but who is in fact responsible to deliver such assistance in the first place.

The first set of reports aims to improve the delivery of federal disaster assistance. FEMA would be required to report how it seeks to improve the transition of case files between rotating reservists, a longstanding issue for the agency. Another provision would require FEMA to report on the assistance available to commercial and governmental housing COOPS and condominiums. A third report would explore the different standards for electric utility facilities between FEMA and the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture.

A fourth report  might set the stage for fundamental changes to the Stafford Act.

Within 120 days of the passage of HR1471, FEMA, through its National Advisory Council (NAC), would be required to identify trends in disaster costs and contributing factors to these changes such as “shifting demographics and aging infrastructure.” It would also focus on those factors specifically contributing to federal disaster declarations. The NAC would  be tasked to identify all available forms of federal disaster assistance, how quickly these funds were used, and how they were coordinated, while also identifying what disaster costs are borne by the private sector and individuals. The NAC would also be required to look more generally at “mechanisms and incentives to promote disaster cost reduction and mitigation” and to “identify fundamental legal, societal, geographic and technological challenges to implementation.”

The data to be collected sets the stage for what would be the most important part of the NAC’s work: reporting on the “fundamental principles that should drive national disaster assistance decision making, including the appropriate roles for each level of government, the private sector and individuals.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since Congress last looked at these roles. This would be no easy task given the entrenched interests across the spectrum of disaster assistance. Moreover, any serious report would have to confront the difficult issue of whether certain forms of disaster assistance, such as flood insurance, over time, provide adverse incentives to reducing disaster costs.

But just because these questions might be hard to ask, and their answers difficult to hear, it could launch a long overdue, but sorely needed, debate about who is responsible for disaster assistance, who should bear and regulate the risks, and ultimately, who should pay.


Quin Lucie is an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received his masters degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Government.

March 20, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

March 19, 2015

Uncertainty is our friend

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 19, 2015

Homeland security is a phrase widely used as a linguistic signal for a wide array of perceptions and problems… and programs emerging from those perceptions and problems.

Most of these problems pre-date September 11, 2001. Our perception of the problems, however, tends to be heavily influenced by experiences since 9/11… and since Katrina… and since our most recent significant personal experience that we label as related to homeland security.  Perhaps Sandy for you.  Haiyan for me.  Et cetera.

Human linguistics is, among other things, an expression of our cognitive tendency to categorize.  Using notional buckets we draw water from the roaring stream of experience, set aside various buckets, and give them labels.  This can often be helpful. A similar problem previously encountered becomes a possible short-cut to understanding and potentially solving a new problem.  Or a heuristic trap.

Some of us are inclined to closely observe and interact with selected buckets. We may even be motivated to separate each bucket into individual vials for more detailed consideration. We specialize. Well, I don’t. Not really. But maybe you do.

While the full stream of experience — including its rapids and cataracts — is very difficult to comprehend, it is often possible to observe interesting patterns within individual vials or buckets.  Patterns exposed outside the stream, may be more easily recognized within the stream.  In some cases we can explain and predict the emergence of such patterns. This can be very helpful.

There are, however, also instances where findings for one bucket or vial seem to be quite different from those for other buckets or vials.  Choosing which evidence to apply from one to another bucket or some aspect of the stream can require considerable time-and-effort, even trial-and-error.

It can be difficult to find the time to explore these possible patterns.  It can be challenging to invest the energy, especially when some of the findings — no matter how strong the evidence — seem speculative or even counter-intuitive. Patterns that threaten a preexisting understanding of ourselves are particularly troublesome.

I am more likely to make the investment in such exploration if, in addition to the evidence presented, there is a complementary social context.  Perhaps there is a preexisting friendship. Perhaps others involved are interesting to me for reasons that have little to do with the issue or evidence.  It makes sense to me that several studies have found peer-approval is often more important to what is learned than the teacher’s approval. (Also see Vygotsky.)

My personal readiness to be open to a novel finding is clearly related to the nature of my pre-existing relationship with the source of the report.  If my pre-existing relationship is fraught, I will be more skeptical.  If my relationship is positive, my attitude toward the novelty will also be more positive. This is not reasonable.  It is an impediment to reasoning together.  But it may be rational: prior direct experience has demonstrated the comparative utility of various sources of indirect experience. It is important to be careful regarding indirect experience.

Reason has a complicated ancestry. It has emerged in many forms.  If I have accurately understood Chris Bellavita and Jonathan Haidt they have, for much of their lives,  understood reason to be a matter of disciplined objectivity and careful weighing of evidence.

With sufficient objectivity and evidence there is (once was?) considerable confidence in finding the correct answer, correct as in how a mathematical formula might be correct (or incorrect). As Chris recently sighed… mumbled… prayed, perhaps “Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear…”

I am all in favor of objectivity and evidence.  More of each is usually helpful.  There is nothing inescapably delusional in either of these inputs.  But the supposed outcome?  That’s where the delusion begins to emerge… it seems to me.

Better and worse I will accept. More or less likely, okay.  Correct and incorrect are, however, beyond my expectation, especially for most aspects of homeland security.

If — instead of evidence — reason begins with the relational (human and conceptual) and then becomes conversational, I have found there is much more receptivity to whatever evidence is presented and less defensive posturing regarding any questions aimed at the evidence.

But if a stranger arrives on a mission to persuade me, I am predisposed to ignore, dismiss, or worse.  On a good day, I may self-correct this predisposition.  But most days I am not nearly that good.


A step back or shuffle aside: I have spent my life as an entrepreneur.  Initially by accident and then increasingly from habit, I have lived on the edge of what is known and operated mostly in the opacity of the not-yet-known.

My expectations of reason emerge from this context.

Entrepreneurship is usually collaborative.  Clients, colleagues, investors, suppliers and others are needed if the unknown is to be explored, even more if the unknown is to be made known.

There is absolutely a need to reason together about risks and opportunities, options and prospects, past experience and personal insights.   And at the heart of this process is the probability of failure.

I have failed much more than succeeded.  So has every innovator I know.  Most of us are eccentric, some are certifiably crazy, but I have never met an unreasonable entrepreneur who has been outfitted for more than one ride down the rapids.

Entrepreneurs depend on others — typically much more dependable sorts — to go along, even better: to share our enthusiasm.

Evidence is important to involving the less adventuresome.  Credible data — encouraging or not — is golden.  Self-deluding behavior is deadly.

In my experience the most dangerous participants in exploring the unknown are those who insist on living inside a bubble of their own unexamined beliefs.  The leader or flank support I crave combines courage, self-criticism, communication of where we are trying to go and reminding me why… without any temptation to certainty.

Certainty is not a friend of reason.

March 18, 2015

Fear the Sun, not an EMP attack

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 18, 2015

Over St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness and Jameson did not pose the only threats to our planet. The enemy?  The Sun:

A severe solar storm created a stunning display of light in the night sky over parts of the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand early Wednesday morning, spotted by those lucky enough to be awake in the wee hours.

Called aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere, the lights were the product of large geomagnetic blasts from the sun that arrived Tuesday about 10 a.m. ET (1 a.m. Wednesday in Sydney).

Scientists knew the storm was coming, but it’s timing and strength was a bit of a surprise:

Forecasters had thought it would come late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning; instead it arrived just before 10am EDT and “it’s significantly stronger than expected,” Berger said.

There are some that warn that North Korea, or one day Iran, will detonate a nuclear bomb over the United States to shut down our electrical system by means of an EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) attack. These individuals and groups, ranging from the formerly esteemed to the crackpot, have forgotten that the U.S. has a LOT of nuclear weapons, many of which are riding around underneath the oceans on submarines.  So any nation that attempts this type of attack would almost immediately be the recipient of actual nuclear bombs exploding on their soil. Despite claims to the contrary, there does not yet exist a regime in our time that would willingly commit national suicide.

However, the risk from solar storms such as the one that struck the Earth this week is real.  Hopefully, eventually, (maybe even fancifully?), we as a nation will make the necessary investments to mitigate against even more damaging events.

Video of the gorgeous outcome of this assault below.  More pictures here, here, and here.

March 17, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 2

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 17, 2015

I was in a room with two dozen people who think for a living. The meeting was called to discuss potential changes in a largely successful homeland security program. The person leading the meeting made it clear that we were just looking for ideas. No decisions had been made, or would be made. It was just about ideas.

No one in the room believed any of that.

I didn’t speak to everyone who attended, but I did talk to a lot of them. Every one of them thought about what impact any program change would have on their job.

But you could not tell that from the conversation. Everyone was polite, creative, and very cautious.

“If it’s brainstorming you want, then it’s brainstorming you’ll get. But we’ll put some reins on the brain part, and we’ll make sure no one gets wiped away by the storm part.”

I would like to pretend I was immune from the rationalist delusion. But – even though I knew the words and the theory – I got sucked into it as much as anyone else in the room.

As best as I could tell we were all being eminently reasonable. Making claims, providing supporting evidence, listening to counterclaims and evidence – behaving the way people who think for a living are supposed to behave.

I even had a 3 x 5 card to remind me about Haidt’s conjecture:

Our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasions, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people…. Skilled arguers… are not after the truth, but after arguments supporting their views.”

The 3 x 5 card did not help me much.

On this blog last week, Christian Beckner countered Michael Tanner’s proposal to break up the Department of Homeland Security. Both Tanner and Beckner offered enough material to test the hypothesis that “First comes the conclusion, then the reason for reaching the conclusion.”

“Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something. “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe it.

Arnold Bogis reasoned about Iranian nuclear negotiations. Can I believe his argument that what we’re really talking about is “straightforward risk management?” Must I believe him when he writes the political “climate has shifted to a never never land where… the inability to control events on the other side of the world… is a sign of weakness?”

Phil Palin is such an amazing writer, a poet, that I can’t completely trust his arguments. And I can’t really tell if he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me.

He started his March 12 post  with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“Men have lost their reason!” Mark Antony cries out.

I have read enough of Phil’s writing to know he is a fan of reason, a diehard optimist about reason, a “creature of reason” – as he writes.

I knew from the title of his post (Reason resurrected from reductionism) he would use the flower of his language to defend reason – even if that meant coming up with his own definition.

“Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.” 

Maybe we’re not there yet, he argues. But don’t give up on it.

Must I believe him? Can I believe him?

Palin ends Mark Anthony’s quote with an explanation mark. But the citation Palin provided shows Antony’s words ending with a period.

A small, overly pedantic observation on my part. But I’m suspicious.  Is Palin using the explanation point to try to supplant reason with emotion?

When you don’t have evidence, raise your voice?

And why use Shakespeare, Plato, Aquinas and the Old Testament to support your assertions? Why not show how reason works in homeland security?

When you don’t have evidence, cite something from the Western canon?

Last week in homeland security I heard debates about StingRay cellphone tracking, read Martha Crenshaw’s argument that there is no global jihadist movement, heard the 14 to 1 results of a secret Senate intelligence committee vote on the cybersecurity information sharing act, learned about a lawsuit to get NSA to stop spying on Wikipedia users, read an essay about the almost complete absence of empirical studies on the effectiveness of antiterrorism strategies, learned that the great ice sheet of West Antarctic may have become irreversibly destabilized, and saw a study that concluded parental attitudes about vaccines are impervious to evidence.

I read, saw or heard nothing in those issues to reignite a faith that Reason is a winning strategy to advance the security of the homeland. What I did hear echoes what Brutus said, before he turned the stage over to the silver tongued Mark Antony:

Public reasons shall be rendered.

What Brutus did not say out loud is:

“We can’t revel our private reasons; as people will argue for the next 500 years, we don’t even know ourselves why we do this stuff.”

(A belated Happy Ides of March, by the way.)

My central observation last week remains the same this week: when it comes to homeland security policy, politics, or strategy, reason at best is a delusion, at worse it is a siren call to keep staring into the sun.

The social intuitionist perspective – the circle and arrows chart Palin featured in his March 12th post – is (in my opinion) an accurate depiction of homeland security’s dominant mode of inquiry: First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason.

Must I believe that?  Can I believe that? Or do I hold on to a delusion that any day now Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear?

Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about how to thrive amid the cacophony of delusion and intuition. I think we can do better.

And I think Palin may be on to something with this relationship business.

But this post has gone on much too long, so I’ll postpone the optimism for next week.

March 14, 2015

Watch carefully, explain frequently

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 14, 2015

According to the World Health Organization, deaths from the year-plus outbreak of Ebola now exceed 10,000.  But as of Friday, March 13 it has been three weeks since a new transmission was confirmed in Liberia.

A team of Reuters reporters — or their headline editor — summarize Liberia’s key lessons-learned as watch carefully and explain frequently.  Both depending on (and potentially contributing to) trust-building community engagement.

Liberia was hit hard and, the nation’s President admits, slow to react.  But what seems to now differentiate Liberia’s — tentative — eradication from continuing (if much slowed) transmission in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea has been the accuracy of “contact-tracing” — essentially a mapping of personal relationships and movement related to any confirmed transmission.

This is classic public health practice. But to actually do it depends on a shared sense of solidarity… community… common cause… and community-oriented organization that cannot be taken for granted.

The recent measles outbreak in the United States demonstrates the epidemiological challenges that can emerge from a break-down of trust in communities.  I am intrigued (tempted?) with analogies to public safety and counter-terrorism challenges. Many historians of community policing trace its origins to public health models.  But I will not go there today.

It is worth noting that in this week’s Nature, respected scientists warn that the H7N9 flu virus is rapidly mutating.  The Los Angeles Times reports,

Overall, this second wave of H7N9 influenza viruses represents “a major increase in genetic diversity” compared with the viruses in the first wave, the study authors wrote. Unless live poultry markets are permanently closed, merchants stop transporting chickens from region to region, and other control measures are put in place, the virus will “persist and cause a substantial number of severe human infections.” So far, most people were sickened by handling infected chickens; cases of the virus spreading directly from person to person have been limited. That might change if the virus mutates, as happened with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic that began 2009. 

In any case, Ebola is not the only potential epidemic (upon, on, among the people) to present a risk.

This may only be a projection of preconceived bias, but in trying to discern what is different in the experience of Liberia and Sierra Leone, I perceive a bottom-up strategy in Liberia and a top-down strategy in Sierra Leone.  Trust-building has been a challenge in both countries.  But the bottom-up strategy (or emergence?) in Liberia has been much more effective.  As a hypothesis to be tested, I would suggest the top-down strategy in Sierra Leone has potentially been as “effective” in suppressing a more sustainable bottom-up approach.

And I surmise this could have implications far-beyond Ebola.

March 13, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 13, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

March 12, 2015

Reason resurrected from reductionism

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 12, 2015

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,–not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?–
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason!

Mark Antony’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2

Jonathan Haidt, an honorable man, has caused Chris Bellavita, they are all honorable men, to doubt his long-held affection for — even worship of — Reason.  According to some readings of Haidt, the scripture, liturgy and authority of Reason is unveiled as deadly delusion.

I disagree. Rather, in the apparent death of their god they can find Reason resurrected, clarified, and even more capable.

I am not sure how Chris has viewed Reason.  But Jonathan has been prolific on the topic.  Haidt was apparently raised to understand reason as highly individualized and, if its liturgy was accurately observed, producing demonstrably dogmatic outcomes.

Consider Plato’s allegory of the cave: detach it from all the rest of the Dialogues and the whole pre-Socratic context. Haidt’s highly reductionist reason is achieved through the individual’s painful  ascent to the light and direct encounter with reality; which among other gifts, brings the enlightened to a state of patronizing disdain:

He would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?… Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? (The Republic, Book VII, Socrates to Glaucon)

Haidt has found this reason, which he long studied, attempted to master and live-out, to be a profound hypocrisy.  He has rejected it.

Haidt_social intuition model

Above is a visualization of Haidt’s alternative to reason, the Social Intuitionist Model, from a 2001 journal article entitled The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  Please envision many other participants in the social process (B, C, D, etc.) and step through all six steps as outlined. Imagine a maze (or, I would argue, labyrinth) of interconnections.

Don’t miss Haidt’s comments in the fine print, “Two additional links are hypothesized to occur less frequently: (5) the reasoned judgment link and (6) the private reflection link.”  Less frequent, perhaps, but in these links reason has been reclaimed from calcified post-Enlightenment reductionism.  This is the crucial opportunity for self-critique, critical thinking, and creativity.

For too long, too many have presumed that our social reality could be functionally framed as some Newtonian system of cause-and-effect.  This has always been a mechanistic fallacy that fails to embrace the fundamentally affective character of human experience and relationships.  It mistakes sense-making as meaning-making.  There are overlaps, but meaning requires much more than “fitting data into a frame (mental model) and fitting a frame around the data.”  Meaning may be data-informed, it is almost never data-driven.

In links 5 and 6 Haidt restores the potential of reason inasmuch as reason is anchored in community, in relationships, and in beliefs, intuitions, heuristics and prejudices. Links 5 and 6 will often be subversive to all these predispositions. Greater objectivity is possible.  But it is absolutely delusional to perceive reason can exclude the subjective. Meaning is — finally — humanistic, not algorithmic. Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.  Reason is to discern a possible path, a working hypothesis for how we can — together — engage our common context.

Reason does not reject the possibility of individual enlightenment or personal expertise.  But neither does reason grant any innate privilege to such possibilities. Aquinas wrote, “Reason in man is rather as God in the world.”  Must I be so explicit as to emphasize both reason and God are encountered in love and relationship?

If you know Shakespeare, who is the more reasonable: Brutus or Mark Antony?  I strongly perceive it is the latter.  Brutus depends too much on his own logic, his own analysis, his own strength. He becomes trapped in isolated self-contradiction.  Mark Antony engages the crowd.  He begins by acknowledging vulnerability.  He argues from feeling.  It is through this feeling that he reasons.  We see — even better, we feel — him thinking aloud with us. (First Plebeian: “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.”)

The famous eulogy is often played as cynical manipulation.  This is not the only, nor best option. Read it again and imagine Mark Antony afraid, uncertain, but finding just enough courage to give voice to his intuition, to his judgment, and as the crowd listens and responds positively to this reasoning with them, to press further than he imagined when first he began.

Worship of fallaciously reductionist reason has seriously complicated homeland security.  The national security priestly class has assumed ecclesiastical authority.  A temple-centric policy and strategy apparatus has sometimes presumed to know and impose dogma.  Acknowledging uncertainty and vulnerability can be branded as weakness or heresy.  Projecting competence and confidence, regardless of inner doubts, has become a too often unexamined habit.  Like Brutus we have trapped ourselves, even betrayed ourselves.

If the prior 844 words have fairly heard Chris Bellavita (and Jonathan Haidt) and if my response, especially where I disagree, honors the dignity of my antagonists and acknowledges the possibility I may be wrong, then I have exercised reason.  If by starting with a Shakespeare quote and continuing with Plato and Aquinas, as well as Haidt, I have effectively dissuaded others from engaging with me, then I have acted unreasonably.  To the extent I invite and involve others, I am a creature of reason.  To the extent my rhetoric or actions reject a relationship with others, I am being unreasonable.

I look forward to Part 2.

March 11, 2015

Some reasonable thoughts on the Iranian nuclear negotiations

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on March 11, 2015

Reason has recently been a topic of discussion here at HLSWatch.  I lack the philosophical chops to get involved, so instead will go in an entirely unrelated direction and point to what I consider some well reasoned thoughts on the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran. This is generally considered a national and not homeland security issue, however the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran or military strikes intended to delay its nuclear program will surely be felt here in the U.S.

First up is Graham Allison, predicting in a Foreign Policy op-ed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would present a “false dichotomy” in his speech to Congress last week (and he was right):

In nuclear negotiations with Iran, he will argue that the United States faces a choice between a “good deal” and a “bad deal.” He will urge Congress to stop President Barack Obama from accepting the latter which, he will say, “endangers the existence of the state of Israel.”

Buyer beware. Every serious analyst of this issue — including the prime minister — knows that this is a false dichotomy. In negotiations, a bad deal is by definition unacceptable. The same is true for one’s opponent: in an either-or world, a good deal for one would have to be a bad deal for the other. Thus, negotiated agreements require compromises, in which neither party achieves all of its demands.

In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu will caricature any compromise as capitulation. To the untutored, his arguments may sound persuasive. No nation, he will say, would tolerate its archenemy acquiring nuclear weapons. Therefore, Israel has to demand that any agreement eliminate every aspect of Iran’s capability to ever produce nuclear weapons. Anything short of this, according to Netanyahu’s construction, is a “bad deal.”

Yet, this argument ignores what has happened on the ground over the past decade as successive U.S. and Israeli administrations have held to this view. By insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.

He goes on to speak uncomfortable truths:

The consequences of this failed strategy are two ugly but irreversible facts. First, Iran has advanced to the point that we now have to consider something called “breakout time,” the number of months it would take to produce a bomb’s-worth of enriched uranium. The second, even uglier, truth is that Iran has developed the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and this capability cannot be erased.

The critical tipping point on this path occurred in 2008 when Iran mastered the technical know-how to build centrifuges and operate them to enrich uranium to levels required for the core of a nuclear bomb. As I wrote at that time, “Iran has crossed a threshold that is painful to acknowledge but impossible to ignore: it has lost its nuclear virginity.”

Going one more level down:

There is no way to erase from the minds of thousands of Iranian scientists and engineers the knowledge and skills to produce weapons-grade uranium. There is no way to eliminate Iran’s indigenous capacity to mine uranium, manufacture centrifuges, or operate them. Thus, there is no conceivable end to this story in which Iran will not retain the capability to build nuclear weapons.

This is a truth that many in Congress simply refuse to accept, since like the prime minister they have repeatedly declared this would never be allowed to happen.

Fareed Zakaria, in his most recent weekly Washington Post column, thinks Netanyahu is the boy who never grew up:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was eloquent, moving and intelligent in identifying the problems with the potential nuclear deal with Iran. But when describing the alternative to it, Netanyahu entered never-never land, painting a scenario utterly divorced from reality. Congress joined him on his fantasy ride, rapturously applauding as he spun out one unattainable demand after another.

Netanyahu declared that Washington should reject the current deal, demand that Tehran dismantle almost its entire nuclear program and commit never to restart it. In the world according to Bibi, the Chinese, Russians and Europeans will cheer, tighten sanctions, and increase pressure — which would then lead Iran to capitulate. “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough,” said Peter Pan.

He also points out some inconvenient facts to those in what I guess we can now call the “Club of 47:”

The theory that Iran would buckle under continued pressure ignores certain basic facts. Iran is a proud, nationalistic country. It has survived 36 years of Western sanctions through low oil prices and high oil prices. It endured an eight-year war with Iraq in which it lost an estimated half a million fighters. The nuclear program is popular, even with leaders of the pro-democratic Green Movement.

Michael Cohen echos much of these same concerns in a Boston Globe piece:

SOMETIME IN the next three weeks, the United States and its allies in the international community could sign a nuclear agreement with Iran. If they do, the deal will be unsatisfying. Iran will still likely be able to maintain its nuclear infrastructure; a sunset clause of 10 to 15 years would make it possible for Iran to reignite its nuclear ambitions; the lever of international sanctions would be lifted; and the success of the agreement would depend on adherence to it by a country that has been caught lying about its nuclear aspirations in the past.

Welcome to the fun-filled world of international diplomacy, where the choices facing policy makers are almost never between the best or worst possible deal, but rather a set of least worst options. That’s the choice facing President Obama, and it’s a lesson that critics of his approach to Iran have consistently missed.

He identifies what many expect is the desired endgame by most of the critics of the current talks, and hints at why that might not be such a desirable outcome:

Others argue that military force should be used to destroy Iran’s program, but it’s hard to see how the unforeseen consequences of war (which may or may not be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure) would be better than even an imperfect deal.

To me this all seems like straightforward risk management.  The P5+1 negotiators are presumably during their best to mitigate future risk considering the facts on the ground.  This is a concept often hailed as a foundation for homeland security.  We can’t eliminate all the risk so we should try to prevent what we can, mitigate against the impact of what we can’t, properly prepare and respond to events, and recover as a nation.  Unfortunately I believe we are straying far off that path.

Once upon a time, President Bush and many in his administration could unequivocally say that despite the government’s best efforts the U.S. will be hit by terrorists again.  Obviously he was and remains correct.  And at the time, no political party or other entities made much of that common sense statement (except some fringe elements). Fast forward to this President pointing out the obvious that terrorism does not represent an existential threat to our nation and he is painted as naive.  Both men were right, yet it seems the climate has shifted to a never never land where any terrorist attack is a sign of failure, where the inability to control events on the other side of the world in countries and cultures we don’t fully understand is a sign of weakness, and where all we have to do is point and shout loud enough and the rest of the world will come to see that our national interests and priorities and norms of behavior obviously should be theirs.

Here’s hoping that a little reason, and a lot of risk management principles, returns to our public discourse.

Do we need DHS? Yes.

Filed under: DHS News,General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on March 11, 2015

(Note: this piece is cross-posted from the GW Center for Cyber & Homeland Security’s blog, Security Insights.)

The CATO Institute released a short opinion piece today by one of its senior fellows, Michael Tanner, entitled “Do we need the DHS?” This story follows on a long legacy of similar opinion pieces in the news media, such as this piece from 2013. The new piece from CATO raises the question, following the recent resolution of the DHS funding debate, as to whether the Department of Homeland Security is needed. The piece lists off a number of the Department’s weaknesses and challenges, such as diffuse Congressional oversight, challenges with grants management, and morale issues – all of which are legitimate issues. But the piece then makes a gargantuan logical jump to assert that the Department of Homeland Security should be broken up in light of these problems and challenges. This proposal, if implemented, would be disastrous in terms of DHS’s performance of its key missions and would be contrary to the principles of effective government management.

I don’t think that there is a strong likelihood of proposals such as this being seriously considered by Congress, but I still think that it is important to push back against arguments such as this, and make the case for the ongoing value and necessity of the Department of Homeland Security. There is a long list of arguments that I could make here, but I’ll summarize my case with these four:

First, and most importantly, the Department in many respects has become much more than the sum of its parts in the last decade, with respect to its operational mission performance. CBP, ICE, USCIS and the Coast Guard all work together to carry out the Department’s border security and immigration missions. CBP, TSA and ICE all work together to prevent terrorist and other illicit travel (e.g. human trafficking) to the United States. FEMA and the Coast Guard have become closer since DHS was created in terms of their disaster response roles, and other operational components have been called on to support major disaster response efforts. ICE, the Secret Service, and NPPD all have significant cybersecurity responsibilities, and are working more closely together in support of their respective cyber activities. And all of the operational entities of DHS have some role (although admittedly not the lead federal role) in counterterrorism, and DHS information has played a critical role in disrupting several of the higher-profile terrorist plots targeting the United States over the past 7-8 years.

Second, the Department has played the critical federal role since its inception in integrating state and local law enforcement and first responders into supporting its missions. This is true not only with respect to FEMA and disaster response, but equally importantly with respect to counterterrorism, and increasingly in the last few years with respect to cybersecurity. (Of note on this issue, contrary to the CATO piece, fusion centers are not “operated by the DHS” – they are entities owned and operated by state and local governments, each with a small number of federal employees detailed by DHS and DOJ.)

Third, stories such as this promote a distorted perspective on the growth of DHS over the past thirteen years. The story says that “spending has skyrocketed, tripling from $18 billion per year in 2002 to more than $54 billion last year.” This statistic likely refers to the OMB’s government-wide crosscut of homeland security spending, but that annual analysis is not solely about DHS; OMB’s numbers include items such as domestic force protection at the Department of Defense and biosecurity programs at HHS. In reality, the DHS budget has grown since its inception from $36 billion in FY 2002 to $55 billion in FY 2011 – but this growth rate is far from a “tripling” of the budget. (Budget numbers taken from DHS’s response to a Question for the Record by Sen. Ron Johnson from a 2011 Senate hearing. See numbered pages 1029-1031 of this very large PDF.)

It’s also worth noting that most of this growth was not due to sprawling bureaucracy but due to increases to frontline operational capacity, in terms of personnel (notably the doubling of the size of the Border Patrol), technology and infrastructure. The reality is that the parts of DHS that I would consider to be “headquarters” – the Office of the Secretary and Executive Management (OSEM), the Office of the Undersecretary of Management, the Offices of Operations Coordination and Intelligence Analysis, and the Science and Technology Directorate – account for only 1.7% of the DHS workforce, a large share of whom are carrying out government-wide Congressional mandates in areas such as IT management and financial oversight.

Fourth, anyone who proposes dismantling DHS should have the burden of proposing what they would do with its constituent parts, and how such an initiative would improve the performance of the Department’s current missions. The five entities that have responsibility for immigration, border security and travel security (CBP, ICE, USCIS, Coast Guard, TSA), where the rationale for operational integration is strongest, account for 195,000 of the Department’s 225,000 employees – around 87%. Is the author proposing that these five entities should not be within the same Cabinet department? If he is, he’s making a proposal that will have a serious negative impact on the government’s performance of these missions. If he is not, then he’s not really proposing to break up DHS, but instead proposing a more moderate tinkering, perhaps by returning the Secret Service to the Treasury or making FEMA an independent agency again. I wouldn’t recommend either of these; in particular, I think FEMA is now critically interlinked with many other parts of DHS. The reality is that there is no realistic option for a major overhaul of DHS that does not have significant operational impacts.

My bottom line: is the Department of Homeland Security today everything that Congress envisioned it to be when it created it in 2002? No, not yet. (And this is in part due to external factors beyond the Department’s control, such as (a) the decisions in 2002-2003 to hobble its intelligence-related mandate from the start by creating TTIC and the Terrorist Screening Center outside of DHS (b) and the ongoing dysfunctional structure of Congressional oversight). But has it made substantial progress toward realizing this vision? Yes. Would additional major organizational changes improve the performance of DHS’s current missions? No, and they would more likely backfire, and introduce substantial new operational and management-related risks.

For all of these reasons, and others, we still need DHS. And we’re better served as a nation by an ongoing policy discussion focused on how it can be improved and made more efficient, rather than a debate about breaking it up.

March 10, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 1

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 10, 2015

Last Thursday Phil Palin argued optimistically that the resolution of the DHS budget problem was a “triumph of reason.”  As usual, he gave several elegant, and if one did not look too carefully, compelling justifications for his conclusion.

I think Phil was fundamentally wrong.  In my opinion what we saw in the budget dance was the triumph of power. The forces that wanted to reverse Obama’s immigration policy were too weak to overcome the Congressional forces that wanted to move on to something else.

I saw no evidence to suggest Reason (yes, I know it’s capitalized) had anything to do with it.

Unless you want to say that Power creates its own reason, its own truth.

I don’t think that’s where Palin was going.

The problem I have with Reason is its unquestioned normative dominance.

I know I’m being unreasonable when I complain about Palin’s triumph of reason simply by asserting another reason.

I know, however, if I acknowledge I’m being unreasonable, I can be forgiven – because I’m being reasonable again.

That’s the game.

“We are still living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest,” wrote Andre Breton in 1924.  But he was being surrealistically silly, and therefore easy to ignore.

I don’t think reason has much to do with homeland security – at least not the interesting bits of homeland security.

Yes, it plays a role in many aspects of the scientific and administrative parts of security.

But when it comes to policy, politics, or strategy, not so much.

I run the risk here of trying to use reason to construct an argument about the limits of reason in homeland security. That path leads to a Kafkaesque madness that I’ll pretend — for now —is not attractive.

I’ll defer for the time being to the general argument about the “rationalist delusion” developed by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. (The excerpts come from pages 103-108.)

A delusion is “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”

Reason gets to decide what’s a delusion and what isn’t.  How cool is that?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Haidt writes

“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods…, or [for the new atheists] that brings us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods…. [It is] a claim that the rational caste (philosophers and scientists [and people who write on blogs]) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.”

Where did we in the west learn about the pre-eminent value of being reasonable? Look to the philosophers, scientists and educators for that.

Thanks, Socrates.

But Reason gave us the internet and the iWatch and pharmaceuticals and abundant food and airplanes and so on — say the philosophers and scientists and educators. So reason’s got to be a good thing.

These Reason Advocates “believe reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”

So reason not only makes the trains run on time (if that still happens), it’s also the cause of good behavior.

Haidt reports, tangentially, on one experiment designed to test the assumption that moral philosophers – people who spend a lot of time reasoning about doing the right thing – might behave better than other people.

Turned out they do not.

One conclusion from the study Haidt describes: “[Academic] books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.”

The argument is a longer one than I am summarizing here. But Haidt’s conclusion is succinct:

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.”

In at least the social and political domains, we tend not to use reason to search for the truth. Instead, says the evidence Haidt offers, our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… ‘skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views’.”

Reasoning, says Haidt, is “more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason for reaching the conclusion.

“Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.”

Test the claim for yourself.  In the following story by Peter Baker, which comes first your conclusion or your reasoning?

The fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy.

In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”…

The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.

“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “It’s an unusual coalition.”

As someone whose religion was — and may still be — Reason, I was not easily convinced by the arguments summarized by Haidt (and other behavioral economists and psychologists). Eventually, however, his reasons and evidence have become increasingly persuasive to me. (Yes, I see Kafka’s irony again.)   I believe Haidt is correct asserting the worship of Reason blinds as much as it enlightens.

What to do about this, especially in homeland security?

Haidt – and others – have ideas about how to manage the delusion enabled by Reason.

I’ll save that for another post.



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