– Executive Summary –

Each of us is all the sums he has not counted…the seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock

—Thomas Wolfe[1]

The staircases in medieval castles often spiraled upward clockwise around a central newel. The reasoning for this design tendency, so the theory goes, was to give the advantage to the (right-handed) defender, who had more room to swing his sword from above.[2] There is elegance to this idea. Fortifications may be complicated, but the principle of fortification is simple. Thinking about castles this way conjures up images of attackers and defenders, the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, civilization versus barbarism and the outer dark. It is a simplicity that homeland security agencies might envy.

The crash of Germanwings 9525 in March of 2015 illustrates a more uneasy insecurity. When the captain left the cockpit during that flight, the co-pilot locked the cabin door and intentionally crashed the aircraft into a mountainside in the French Alps, killing the 144 passengers and 6 crewmembers.[3] The subsequent review of safety protocols in hindsight belies a darker concern: procedures must consider more fully how to protect against the pilot. The professional most directly responsible for the safety of the plane must be thought of as a liability. “The irony of risk here,” says Ulrich Beck, “is that rationality, that is, the experience of the past, encourages anticipation of the wrong kind of risk, the one we believe we can calculate and control, whereas the disaster arises from what we do not know and cannot calculate.”[4] This is what it means for risk to be unbound. In the concentrated, unaccountable example of Germanwings, the pilot was able to create astonishing tragedy, not despite complicated fortification, but because of it.

In order to understand the probability and consequence of a risk, the analysis of that risk must establish an area of study and an area of impact. Catastrophe, like the Germanwings crash, has a knack for acquainting security organizations with previously unforeseen dimensions. As Beck points out, what we do not know becomes the central figure in risk decision-making, not what we know. In 2013, through a series of startling and unseen connections, crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota exploded during a train derailment, resulting in 47 fatalities in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The Lac-Mégantic accident demonstrates the way that complex risks can span political boundaries and professional disciplines, challenging the available tools of risk calculation.[5]

Homeland security risk, it seems, is often not fully risk at all. It remains as uncertainty and danger. And this is at the heart of a modern challenge to risk-based security practices. If homeland security is predominantly in the business of the unlikely, then it is problematic to think of ordering its capabilities against likely outcomes—even a suite of likely outcomes. So, homeland security professionals must consider and decide whether their work is fundamentally about the management of outliers, and what corresponding shifts this recognition requires in doctrine, theory, and practice.

Politics is well said to be the art of the possible.[6] Increasingly, homeland security may be the art of the impossible. Unable to be selective about the risks they are asked to manage, homeland security agencies must organize against threats and catastrophes that progressively outstrip efforts at control. The predominant security response has been to either meet the uncertainties of threat and catastrophe with tools designed and better suited for certainty, or address unbounded risks with unbounded precaution. Such arrangements promise a greater degree of security than is possible. Thus far this has meant that the purpose of homeland security is progressively redefined by perceived failures—as security organizations fail to deliver the promised level of security. However, the wilderness of catastrophic possibility suggests an alternate answer to the question of what the purpose of homeland security could be.

In the insurance industry “adverse selection” occurs when the only purchasers of an insurance product are at an elevated risk of needing it. That is, they are particularly exposed to the threat or hazard being insured against. Adverse selection concentrates risk, and makes it extremely difficult to spread risks or distribute losses, illustrating the plight of homeland security agencies. The only individuals under the protection of the United States Secret Service, for instance, are at an elevated risk of needing such protection. Nor can the Secret Service absorb potential losses. It is difficult to apply traditional risk management concepts to such risks.

Largely, the security response to unbounded risk has been the creation of “unconscionable maps”—tools and concepts that presume a greater degree of knowledge, uniformity, and control than is available. Such maps display two problematic tendencies: the pretense of applying risk management when the information necessary to support such calculation is not available, and boundless precaution. In the first case homeland security lives with a false assumption that it has exerted control over a risk, in the second, homeland security has little assurance or measure of success and surrenders decisions to threat politics.

Unconscionable maps have a tendency to pave over uncertainty—to render organizations insensitive to it. Much of homeland security theory and practice is organized around presumed control, rather than presumed surprise. However, the research of this thesis supports the notion that homeland security theory must develop better tools for living with enduring uncertainty, danger, and possibility.

The operating environment for domestic security is the complex of authorities and jurisdictions inherent to American federalism. Security agencies have tended to treat this networked landscape as a security liability, exploring means to create uniformity in security practices, and even alignment of command and control structures in the wake of disasters. The network of federalism may be a security asset, not a liability. American government functions to decentralize strengths and distribute vulnerabilities, and, while it often stymies attempts at national security architectures, is uniquely positioned to develop adaptive systems for managing uncertain security risks. Federalism provides the architecture for decentralized preparedness, and yet homeland security agencies are pursuing an end state of centralization and uniformity in practice, in the process stifling adaptability and innovation. Centralization—even the centralization of strengths—creates certain vulnerabilities.

As security agencies inherit complex and uncertain risks, they require a corresponding change in approach. Such a shift will require incremental adjustments to unbounded risks, increasing the capacity of security organizations to explore uncertainties and work with uncommon partners. It will also require more dramatic shifts away from heavily scripted plans and the pursuit of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). In place of unilateral security doctrines, homeland security requires a multivalent security doctrine that stresses adaptability over control and uniformity.

The word “end,” says Neil Postman, has at least two important meanings: “purpose” and “finish.”[7] If the purpose of homeland security is to manage the unmanageable, abandoning a grand design for homeland security may improve our ability to live with danger, and achieve greater security.

LIST OF REFERENCES

Beck, Ulrich. “Living in the World Risk Society.” Economy and Society 35, no. 3 (August 1, 2006): 329–45.

Bismarck, Otto Von. Fürst Bismarck: Neue Tischgespräche und Interviews. Stuttgart and Leipzig, DE: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1895.

Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA). Rapport préliminaire Accident survenu le 24 mars 2015 à Prads-Haute-Bléone (04) à l’Airbus A320-211 immatriculé D-AIPX exploité par Germanwings. Paris, FR: BEA, May 2015.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York, NY: Vintage, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1996.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Railways Investigation Report R13D0054: Runaway and Main-Track Derailment of Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railways Freight Train MMA-002 MILE 0.23, Sherbrooke Subdivision Lac-Mégantic, Quebec 06 July 2013. Gatineau, QC: August 2014.

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XI. au XVI. siècle. Paris, FR: A. Morel, 1869.

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006. First published in 1929 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[1] Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929; New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 5. Citations refer to the Simon and Schuster edition.

[2] Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XI au XVI siècle [dictionary of French architecture from the 11th–16th century] (Paris, FR: A. Morel, 1869), 296.

[3] Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA), Rapport préliminaire Accident survenu le 24 mars 2015 à Prads-Haute-Bléone (04) à l’Airbus A320-211 immatriculé D-AIPX exploité par Germanwings [Preliminary Report on the Germanwings Flight 9525 Crash] (Paris, FR: BEA, May, 2015), 11.

[4] Beck, Ulrich, “Living in the World Risk Society,” Economy and Society 35, no. 3 (August 1, 2006): 329–45.

[5] Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Railways Investigation Report R13D0054 Runaway and Main-Track Derailment of Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railways Freight Train MMA-002 MILE 0.23, Sherbrooke Subdivision Lac-Mégantic, Quebec 06 July 2013 (Gatineau, QC: August, 2014), 1.

[6] Otto Von Bismarck, Fürst Bismarck: Neue Tischgespräche und Interviews [prince Bismarck: new table discussions and interviews] (Stuttgart and Leipzig, DE: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1895), 248.

[7] Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (New York, NY: Vintage, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1996), x.

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