Terrorism Defense: A Failure of Imagination
The 9/11 Commission report talked about a “failure of imagination” before the 9/11 attacks:
The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat. The terrorist danger from Bin Ladin and al Qaeda was not a major topic for policy debate among the public, the media, or in the Congress. Indeed, it barely came up during the 2000 presidential campaign.
More generally, this term has been used to describe the U.S. government’s response to the terrorist threat. We spend a lot of money defending against what they did last time, or against particular threats we imagine, but ignore the general threat or the root causes of terrorism.
With the London bombings, we’re doing it again. I was going to write a long post about this, but Richard Forno already wrote a nice essay.
The London bombs went off over 12 hours ago.
So why is CNN-TV still splashing “breaking news” on the screen?
There’s been zero new developments in the past several hours. Perhaps the “breaking news” is that CNN’s now playing spooky “terror attack” music over commercial bumpers now filled with dramatic camera-phone images from London commuters that appeared on the Web earlier this morning.
Aside from that, the only new development since about noon seems to be the incessant press conferences held by public officials in cities around the country showcasing what they’ve done since 9/11 and what they’re doing here at home to respond to the blasts in London…which pretty much comes down to lots of guys with guns running around America’s mass transit system in an effort to present the appearance of “increased security” to reassure the public. While such activities are a political necessity to show that our leaders are ‘doing something’ during a time of crisis we must remember that talk or activity is no substitute for progress or effectiveness.
Forget the fact that regular uniformed police officers and rail employees can sweep or monitor a train station just as well as a fully-decked-out SWAT team—not to mention, they know it better, too. Forget that even with an added law enforcement presence, it’s quite possible to launch a suicide attack on mass transit. Forget that a smart terrorist now knows that the DHS response to attacks is to “increase” the security of related infrastructures (e.g., train stations) and just might attack another, lesser-protected part of American society potentially with far greater success. In these and other ways today following the London bombings, the majority of security attention has been directed at mass transit. However, while we can’t protect everything against every form of attack, our American responses remain conventional and predictable—just as we did after the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and today’s events in London, we continue to respond in ways designed to “prevent the last attack.”
In other words, we are demonstrating a lack of protective imagination.
Contrary to America’s infatuation with instant gratification, protective imagination is not quickly built, funded, or enacted. It takes years to inculcate such a mindset brought about by outside the box, unconventional, and daring thinking from folks with expertise and years of firsthand knowledge in areas far beyond security or law enforcement and who are encouraged to think freely and have their analyses seriously considered in the halls of Washington. Such a radical way of thinking and planning is necessary to deal with an equally radical adversary, yet we remain entrenched in conventional wisdom and responses.
Here at home, for all the money spent in the name of homeland security, we’re not acting against the terrorists, we’re reacting against them, and doing so in a very conventional, very ineffective manner. Yet nobody seems to be asking why.
While this morning’s events in London is a tragedy and Londoners deserve our full support in the coming days, it’s sad to see that regarding the need for effective domestic preparedness here in the United States, nearly 4 years after 9/11, it’s clear that despite the catchy sound-bytes and flurry of activity in the name of protecting the homeland, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.