Notes from the Editor (Vol. II, Iss. 2)

Download the full issue. The July 2006 issue of Homeland Security Affairs offers articles about risk perception, domestic right wing extremist groups, social network analysis, and the impact of foreign policy on homeland security. It also features two articles that question conventional perspectives about the meaning of “lessons learned” and about the appropriate role of communities before, during, and after a disaster.

In “Changing Homeland Security: What Should Homeland Security Leaders Be Talking About?” Christopher Bellavita contends there currently is little political will to alter the organizational and programmatic system that characterizes U.S. homeland security. The system we have is the one we have to work with, at least until something significant happens. As was the case after Katrina, the next serious national incident will create an environment that demands substantial homeland security changes. What should or could those changes be? The article invites readers to participate in an experiment to answer the question: What should future-thinking homeland security leaders be talking about now, and why? As a part of that experiment, the article offers a basic homeland security literacy test, and outlines three big-picture perspectives that can frame conversations about future changes in homeland security.

Much of the analysis that followed the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has focused on how his death will affect the outcome of the war in Iraq. Don Reed, in “On Killing Al-Zarqawi – Does United States Policy Know its Tools in the War on Terror?” writes that the emphasis on outcome is not the right approach.  Al-Zarqawi’s death serves a greater strategic purpose in the larger war on terror when viewed as process rather than outcome.  The questions for the United States become: Does his death advance United States policy in the war in Iraq, and the overall war on terror? How successful is the United States in disrupting the processes of the Iraqi Insurgency and of al Qaeda? As a corollary, what are the domestic implications? This article argues that the answers perhaps can be found in the tools of policy that are available to the United States – diplomatic, information, military/law enforcement, economic and social. Of these tools, the military and law enforcement option offers the lowest probability of long-term success, particularly if wielded in isolation from the other tools. Reed concludes that until the United States effectively uses all its policy tools both in Iraq and on the domestic front, and focuses on processes rather than tactical outcomes, there will be an endless line of al-Zarqawi, or even Bin Laden, successors. The terrorist threat will remain unabated and the lessons learned, or not learned, will carry over to the larger war on terror.

Timothy G. Baysinger notes that in the post 9-11 world, terrorism has been primarily associated with the external threat from radical Islamic extremists. The internal threat posed by the radical right may seem dormant, but the ideas that promote violence against the government and other perceived enemies remain a constant danger. Baysinger asks whether individuals and groups that encompass the radical right should be viewed as having a reduced capacity to perform terrorist acts. What trends will shape the radical right? How could these trends lead to an escalation of the threat posed by right-wing extremists? What can be done to reduce the threat of terrorism perpetrated by right-wing adherents? Baysinger uses his article, “Right-wing Group Characteristics and Ideology,” to survey the ideology, history, and individuals who influenced the growth and development of the radical right. He writes about Christian Identity; militias; Sovereign Citizens, Freemen and Common Law Courts; the Ku Klux Klan; neo-Nazis; and Skinheads, and closes his article with a summary of future trends affecting radical-right extremist groups.

Have you ever attended an after action briefing or conference and knew what the speaker would say before she opened her mouth? Have you ever read an after action report and knew the conclusions before you turned the first page? Well, you are not alone. In “Lessons We Don’t Learn: A Study of the Lessons of Disasters, Why We Repeat Them, and How We Can Learn Them,” Amy K. Donahue and Robert V. Tuohy point out that responders can easily predict the problems that will arise in a major incident: communications systems fail, command and control structures are fractured, and resources are slow to be deployed. The authors’ ask six questions: Is it true that lessons recur? What lessons are persistently identified? Why do these lessons continue to be identified as important? Why do agencies have difficulty devising and implementing corrective actions once lessons are identified? How do lessons-learned processes work? How can they be improved? Working with a focus group of experienced response commanders, Donahue and Tuohy find the term “lessons learned” is often a misnomer.  The purported lessons are not really learned; true learning is much more difficult than simply identifying lessons. The authors conclude by suggesting how to improve our ability to learn the lessons of the past.

If you are looking to read something completely different about homeland security, turn to Russell Dynes’ “Social Capital: Dealing with Community Emergencies.” This article is not a particularly easy piece to read. However, each time I read it I got something more out of it. It is radical in the sense that “radical” means going to the roots. It is a fundamental critique of the way mainstream homeland security approaches disaster-related thinking – from prevention through response and recovery.

Government is at the center of the conventional view of homeland security. It has certain roles and responsibilities, as outlined in the National Strategy for Homeland Security and related documents. Government does things to and for its citizens. The necessity for homeland security, as practiced, seems to be predicated on the anticipated weakness of individual citizens during catastrophe and the fragility of our social structure, requiring the government to enhance its ability to “command and control.”

Dynes argues this perspective ignores substantial empirical evidence of what actually happens during terrorist attacks and other catastrophes. People jump in to help, they watch out for family and neighbors, they turn to existing authority structures, and rely on already established (and trusted) means of communication. According to Dynes, community – not government – ought to be the locus of homeland security strategy, not for airy philosophical or social reasons, but because pragmatically it is a more effective strategy. Communities – not government – possess the social capital needed to prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorism and other disasters.

The author – an intellectual leader in disaster studies for over forty years – believes that instead of attempting to centralize authority, it is strategically more appropriate to structure a coordination model with government as a partner, not the controller. The fact that emergencies have implications for many different segments of social life, each with their own pre-existing patterns of authority, plus the necessity for simultaneous action and autonomous decision-making, indicates it is impossible – and probably unnecessary – to create and impose a centralized authority system. The centralization of authority is usually predicated on the image of disintegration of social life. The evidence, however, points to the adaptability of existing social structures to catastrophic situations, suggesting that authority is more of a problem in the minds of planners than an actual problem of life under emergency conditions.

As detailed by Dynes, the concept of social capital has the advantage of seeing social systems as active resources, not passive victims, shifting the focus away from human vulnerability toward an emphasis on human capability. It has the advantage of identifying the creation of social resources in emergency situations, rather than focusing primarily on the destruction of physical capital. In these respects, the concept of social capital shows promise for a different and productive direction in the homeland security research agenda.

Anyone interested in homeland security is aware of the importance of “risk” in planning, politics, and the allocation of grants. Risk assessments are often seen as efforts to create quantitative indicators so that resources can be allocated in an economically rational way. In “Risk Perception and Terrorism:  Applying the Psychometric Paradigm,” Clinton M. Jenkin discusses the psychological dimensions of risk. He argues that risk is socially constructed and psychologically oriented; it is based on qualitative, not quantitative characteristics. Jenkin writes that keeping people safe is not sufficient: they must also feel safe. Without a perception of safety, voters will select new leaders who share their priorities, and advocate a more “acceptable” security policy. Such an action is not just a political threat; it can have a negative impact on legitimate programs that are effectively reducing risk, and divert money to programs that increase the feeling of safety without increasing actual safety. The answer, for Jenkin, is to find a middle ground between measures that reduce objective risk and measures that reduce perceived risk. Risk perception research can inform policy makers about how to balance objective assessments with public opinion regarding security priorities. Jenkin provides an informative review of the risk perception literature and concludes that the psychological study of risk offers insight into how people view various threats, and therefore informs predictions about how people will react to the threat of terrorism. The psychometric paradigm, specifically, is a valuable methodology for exploring which features of a terrorist incident drive psychological perceptions and reactions to that incident.

In a July 11, 2005 speech at the FBI academy, President Bush said “We’re fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so we do not have to face them here at home.” The National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism (NMSP) presents strategic guidance for that fight.  In his article, “The National Military Strategic Plan for the War On Terrorism:  An Assessment,” Nadav Morag writes that the NMSP is fundamentally unrealistic and that its lack of realistic goals will do more to undermine than support the aims of the Global War on Terrorism. The author claims that the NMSP is flawed because its goals are unclear and unrealistic, implementation is primarily dependent on non-DOD entities, and its central goal of countering ideological support for terrorism is largely unfeasible. Morag says homeland defense and homeland security should not be viewed as different strategies, but rather different ends of a continuum that moves from the international arena, to the North American landmass, and to the domestic arena. The military, in trying to stake out a role in homeland security, homeland defense, and overseas counter-terrorism efforts, has created what is likely to be an impossibly broad and multifaceted “operational area.” The espoused strategic approach requires expertise and experience in too many different methods and environments. Consequently, the Pentagon may be placing itself in danger not only of doing a poor job in areas for which it lacks experience and expertise, but also of losing its core competency skills in the process. The author concludes that the NMSP should be a military strategy, not a political, economic or social one. Morag does not suggest that the elements of “Soft Power” referred to in the NMSP (such as economic, cultural, educational, and attitudinal issues) do not need to be addressed. Rather, he believes the problem is the military taking “ownership” of “Soft Power” because it is far more qualified to address the elements of “Hard Power” (in this case, attacking terrorist bases overseas and the regimes that harbor them) than it is in addressing these other issues.

The network perspective is an increasingly prominent analytical framework in homeland security. One of network theory’s best-known aphorisms is John Arquilla and David Ronfelt’s conclusion that “It takes a network to defeat a network.” Terrorist organizations are primarily decentralized structures that consist of a series of loosely connected individuals formed around an ideology. Steve Ressler, in “Social Network Analysis as an Approach to Combat Terrorism,” says the U.S. is unable to combat this opponent with traditional, hierarchical approaches to warfare and needs new strategies. Ressler believes the contribution of social network theory to homeland security is its focus on the value of the network structure rather than the characteristics of the individual. While social network analysis leaves room for individuals to affect their fate, the author argues the structure of the network and relationships and ties with others in the network are more important. Modern social networks build upon the idea of disintermediation (“cutting out the middleman”); individuals directly connect to each through technology. The power of loosely structured networks is that they can move quickly and be adaptive because they do not need to go through the layers of a hierarchical chain. Disintermediation is equally important for terrorist networks because they have cut out layers of bureaucracy; individuals can join a network through weak ties and plan attacks through loose connections. Ressler’s article provides an overview of the contemporary history of social network analysis and its use in terrorism research. He concludes that while the number of research studies using social network analysis to analyze terrorism is limited, the analytical perspective shows great promise for helping us to understand and defeat terrorist networks.

— The Editor

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