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« When America threatens war with Iran | Main | Iran: This emperor has no clothes »
Saturday
Jan202007

Facing disasters anywhere

In the future dystopian film "Children of Men," Britain soldiers on with a Ministry of Homeland Security whose forces scour the island for illegal immigrants. Evoking a siege mentality in a world suffering from an infertility crisis, security equates to sealed borders that hold a chaotic world at bay.

General David Petraeus, new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, tells of encountering the man-on-the-moon syndrome among Iraqis following Saddam's fall: "If America can put a man on the moon," they surmised, "then surely it can rebuild Iraq quickly!" Following Hurricane Katrina, that naive assumption seemed wholly disproved back home. We couldn't manage New Orleans, so what made us think we'd fix Baghdad?

Those twin images define most Americans' rather dismal appreciation of our Department of Homeland Security, a fear-threat reaction to 9/11 that reveals more vulnerability and incompetence than it solves. Our initial efforts in this long war against radical extremism resemble our early bumbling attempts to conquer fear at the start of the Cold War; yesterday's "duck and cover" becomes today's "duct tape and plastic cover."

But America will eventually mature on this subject, and DHS will grow up with it. We'll stop defining ourselves by our weaknesses and start defining ourselves by our strengths, meaning not how we prevent disasters but how we recover from them so resiliently.

That's how we'll master this allegedly chaotic world: recalling that we're history's first and most wildly successful multinational economic and political union. Our greatest source of stability is our vast web of horizontally connecting networks. Unlike the rest of the world, America is not defined by top-down hierarchies of power.

Simply put, there's no head worth decapitating here. Imagine this seemingly worst-case scenario: During the president's State of the Union address, terrorists strike the capital, wiping out our entire federal leadership in the process. We'd be lost, right?

Pick a country - anywhere in the world - where you'd rather live through a terrorist strike or natural disaster. Frankly, when calamity strikes, you're better off being a family pet in America than a citizen in the vast majority of the world. As for still-sore spot New Orleans, compare life there 18 months post-disaster to Indonesia's Aceh province two years after the tsunamis or Pakistan's Kashmir two-plus years after the quake.

Because of our free press and amazingly accessible judicial system, America's private and public sectors are constantly driven to improve.

Our screw-ups do not go unexamined for long. Blaming America first is fine, so long as improving America comes next.

Resilience is not a short cut but a learned skill. It is the purest expression of American patriotism: We stand tallest when we lean on each other.

Long before the United Nations formed or the European Union coalesced, these uniting states yielded the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security needs to rekindle America's awareness of its own resilience.

A good start is seen in a new research and development program dubbed the Southeast Region Research Initiative (SERRI), which taps decades of mutual-aid experience found in our southeastern states' annual responses to hurricanes.

Katrina notwithstanding, cooperation among these states on hurricane relief is this country's least-appreciated example of resiliency, a knowledge base that's informed national responses to challenges as diverse as Y2K and avian flu.

SERRI's core mission is to incubate regionally interoperable systems that will form the backbone of our nation's next-generation emergency response network.

That internal evolution is crucial to America's external conduct of this long war: The more we understand our innate capacity for resilience, the better we'll conduct post-conflict and post-disaster military operations overseas.

In the end, our failures in New Orleans and Baghdad are one in the same, meaning America must once again learn how to put that man on the moon.

As with so many challenges posed by globalization, the way ahead is found by looking within.

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