Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 5, 2015

The worst of all possible worlds

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 5, 2015

Since June the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee has produced a monthly Terror Threat Snapshot.  The November edition, released on Monday, is ten pages long.

It is a pithy, fact-packed, well-linked overview of “the Islamist Terror Threat”.  Seven key takeaways are highlighted in this week’s product:

  • “ISIS is fueling an unprecedented tempo for law enforcement authorities combating the homegrown Islamist extremist threat.”
  • “ISIS’s global expansion has unleashed a wave of violence around the world – including against Western targets.”
  • “Al Qaeda and its affiliates are regenerating their terror networks and capitalizing on power vacuums.”
  • “Foreign fighters converging on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq pose a continuing threat to the United States and our allies.”
  • “The massive refugee flows out of Syria remain vulnerable to terrorists seeking to exploit the crisis to infiltrate the West.”
  • “Guantanamo Bay detainees transferred overseas continue to pose a threat to U.S. national security interests.”
  • “The world’s leading state sponsor of Islamist terror, Iran, continues to sow instability and is poised to gain additional resources in the coming months as a result of sanctions relief.”

I hope this gives you a fair sense of the document’s scope and tone.  If so, this is a comparatively quiet preface for what becomes a portentous cascade of approaching doom.

Earlier versions of the Snapshot have been sent to me.  I have, however, previously chosen not to reference here.  My reticence has been more aesthetic than anything else.  The information provided is credibly-sourced.  The cumulative effect can be powerful.

But I also feel manipulated.  There is a sense of complexity concealed, complicated networks converted to straight lines, some dots connected by erasing other dots, whole categories expectorated.

Given that this is a report of the “Majority (Republican) Staff” there are certainly partisan points being scored.  But most of us are now adept at filtering such obvious self-interest.

Much more troublesome, at least to me, is a pattern of facts being selected and framed (and excluded?) per a preexisting construct.  Dogmatics instead of discovery.

But so what, isn’t this always true of all of us? Some sort of intellectual scaffolding is needed just to organize otherwise exploding experience. We are required to exclude in order to minimally comprehend.

Perhaps the problem — and this Snapshot is only one minor example — is that we can surreally confuse our tools (frames, concepts, theories) for the ground of being the tools are meant to plow, seed, cultivate, and harvest.  We are as farmers so enamored of powerful high-tech tractors that we  now challenge others to noon-time races, rather than tend our fields dawn to dusk.

Rather than ask, we insist.  Rather than wonder, we disguise doubt. Rather than observe carefully, we argue loudly. I will confess, the sound of these engines roaring — the anger false or real, snide swipes, insistent self-righteous certainty —  is for me less and less tolerable.


From near the close of Candide:

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man…

Out of context these lines are easy to misconstrue.  In  the very full context of Voltaire’s novel, to work together without disputing is to (at least) put aside intellectual preconceptions for honest observation and caring relationships, making our best effort to learn and do good on the basis of what we observe and with whom we are in relationship.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 5, 2015 @ 7:31 am

IMO one of the greatest threats to HS and EM is the inability of key Congressional Committees to conduct real oversight and pass appropriate legislation.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 5, 2015 @ 4:42 pm


Uh, by that I mean having reviewed these Snapshots as well I agree with your assessment of these documents.

Comment by TwShiloh

November 5, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

As you say, what’s excluded is just as important as what’s included. There’s no mention of domestic terrorism (despite it being a pretty active 18 months)and they seem unwilling to try to put threats into any sort of context.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 5, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

I think that context is everything. Read these reports and one gets the sense that terrorism is on the march. However, thinking back to the 90s – the first WTC attack, the bridge and tunnel plot, the African embassy bombings, the Cole, etc. – and it seems that we once faced attacks that (thankfully) have been unrivaled since 9/11.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 6, 2015 @ 3:51 am

A one-time mentor persistently encouraged: “Command the context.” For him this was basically a two-step process. First, understand current context as fully as possible. He was especially concerned to know about non-obvious relationships and indirect influence, particularly “at the sources” (as he would often say). Then he would practically experiment with influencing-the-influencers as far upstream (toward the sources) as possible. My mentor could often be an arrogant man. I did not like him. But when he was working to command the context, then he was all ears, empathetic, and patient. “Humility is very practical,” was also a favorite phrase.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2015 @ 6:01 am

Interesting comments. The current context IMO is destruction of the nation-state system through various kinds of GLOBALIZATION.

Technology now controls US and we don’t control tedchnology.

When will runamuck technological developments destroy the lemmings US?]?

Yes the Luddites were largely correct as was Dr. Malthus.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2015 @ 6:03 am

An important CONTEXT revealed by the President when he ended for now a pipeline controversy.

The CONTEXT? How fast can the world assure that all fossil fuels possible are not extracted from the PLANET EARTH by humans.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

November 7, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

There is that ever more ubiquitous, and certainly masculine “we” again….

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 8, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

Vicki: The possessive plural pronoun as particularly masculine is a construct I don’t know about. Please tell me — us? — more.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 9, 2015 @ 5:47 am

Whatever else the 2015 elections tell US about the 2016 elections actual turnout of voters will win the day for whomever is the winning candidate. PLEASE VOTE!

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