The Resilient Society, and How Not To Build It

Today I found a link to an article by my least-favorite current presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani. I was expecting a cavalcade of fear-mongering — his usual stock in trade — but discovered to my surprise an article entitled “The Resilient Society.” This gave me pause, as resilience is precisely what I believe must be the necessary societal response to the distributed threat of terrorism. Security must be divided into prevention, detection, response, and recovery — resilience is the ability to quickly recover from attack at as low a cost as possible. Resilience is the difference between a society changing its entire way of life in response to a terrorist attack vs. society being able to return quickly to normalcy, thus making itself impossible to terrorize. I was not expecting to hear about resilience from Rudy Giuliani — after all, this is the one aspect of national security that cannot be centralized around an all-powerful government (Giuliani’s obvious goal), but rather relies on the distributed strength of every citizen. Was I about to actually agree with an article by Giuliani?

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about. Despite its title, there are only four paragraphs about resilience in the 41-paragraph article, and even those are wrong.

So what does Giuliani think must be done to defend a society from terrorism? Primarily a command-and-control response process combined with offensive attacks on the sources of terrorism.

With regard to prevention, Giuliani favors deployment of massive detection nets to fight against the attacks we’ve already faced — radiation and biohazard detectors at every port and point of entry. The cost-benefit ratio of this would be astronomically poor; as a free society with mostly open borders, there are a phenomenal number of entry points to the United States, and only very rarely (possibly never, so far, though the government would not be likely to tell us if it did happen) does anyone try to smuggle weapons-grade nuclear material or biological weapons through it. This isn’t to say that these measures would do no good, but they protect only against specific attacks and are obvious. They signal to terrorists “you can’t bring a nuclear or biological weapon through a shipping container in a port,” thus letting them know they should instead a.) use conventional weapons, b.) acquire nuclear/biological materials already inside the United States, or c.) enter via uncontrolled border space. If I, in three minutes, can think of three easy ways around a measure that will take billions of dollars to implement, it’s not very cost-effective.

He discusses the difficulties in information sharing between law enforcement and military agencies, clearly seeing these as an unalloyed negative. He’s right that there have been clear communications breakdowns, where these organizations had information that they were legally free to share, but chose not to out of myopia or the desire to preserve the institutional sovereignty of their silo. Despite the Central Intelligence Agency being founded to ensure all military and civilian intelligence agencies share information, it has in many cases become the most isolated hoarder of information of them all, and this is a problem. However, in other cases the obstacles to information-sharing are the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Giuliani has no issue with sweeping these away — this is, after all, the person who claims “Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do. You have free speech so I can be heard.” (That quote is not taken out of context in any way. He did not, however, go on to add “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”)

Judicial oversight is not inimical to detecting and stopping international terrorism. Judges do not want terrorist attacks to happen, either; these protections exist to ensure that normal people are able to live their lives without constant monitoring. Surveillance is not unintrusive. Comamnd-and-control executives like Giuliani think that it does not matter if people are being watched, as only the “bad guys” will be prosecuted, but this simply isn’t true. First of all, people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched. It has a chilling effect not just on actually criminal behavior, but also on any behavior that people consider “socially unacceptable.” Surveillance drives everyone toward the mainstream center of society, homogenizing them; it creates the very opposite of a free society. (For a chilling illustration of this, I highly recommend Charles Stross’s sci-fi novel Glasshouse, one of the best and most terrifying books I’ve ever read, though it requires a high tolerance for transhumanist concepts.) Second, who watches the watchers? Even if Giuliani’s motives are pure (they’re not), and he wants to use these tools of warrantless surveillance, imprisonment without trial, etc. only against international terrorists, no one can possibly believe the entire law enforcement apparatus of a 300-million-person nation is entirely free of corruption and petty tyranny. Security has a cost — Giuliani looks only at how these measures benefit security, ignoring their unintended consequences. Security is of limited value — a terrorist attack is tragic but it does not end the world. We must not embrace “security at any cost” — instead we must consider security at a cost that we can bear, and most importantly, not allow the cost of security to exceed the cost of terrorism.

Giuliani also wants a “good Samaritan” law for people who report suspicious activity, protecting them from lawsuits. This is a terrible idea. Lawsuits are there to provide a cost for making a false of frivolous report — people will still report the man walking down the street with a pile of dynamite, but they think twice about reporting possibly-suspicious but almost certainly innocuous activity, like speaking Arabic in an airport, or loitering in a parking lot. Making reporting costless means you’ll get an inevitable excess of it, resulting in both the chilling effect of universal surveillance and a waste of law enforcement’s time. When people are encouraged to report everything unusual, you drown in reports and make people paranoid. This teaches people to react to the unknown with fear — that is, it accomplishes precisely what terrorists aim to accomplish. People reporting suspected terrorist activities should not be immune from lawsuits; rather, courts should decide whether the report was reasonable and take appropriate action. Often the reporters should be held blameless, having had a reasonable reaction that turned out to be incorrect, but doing so automatically makes filing false reports a simple way for private citizens to use the nation’s law enforcement apparatus as a means for private revenge.

Giuliani also calls for “tamper-proof biometric ID cards” for all non-citizens. As a security professional I can’t help but chuckle when anyone uses the word “tamper-proof.” But there’s nothing terribly wrong with this… except that it doesn’t do any good. We already know when people enter the country legally, and we identify them then; if they sneak in, they’re not going to have a “tamper-proof biometric ID card” any more than they have a regular ID card now. In addition, identity alone does not provide security. The fact that you know who someone is does you little to no good if he does not have a background in committing terrorist acts. And if he has a background in committing terrorist acts, why would you hand him a “tamper-proof biometric ID card?” Just deport him!

Giuliani supports fences around borders and stepping up guards, but claims to want to avoid turning the nation into a “fortress” in order to “deepen the connections between America and the Islamic world that will prove essential in prevailing over radical Islamic extremism.” On one hand, he’s on to something there — the only way to truly prevent terrorism is to eliminate the motivation for terrorism. Otherwise, 100% prevention is impossible — total prevention requires that you succeed every time, while the villains only have to succeed once. On the other hand, he simultaneously advocates precisely the foreign policy that creates that motivation — worldwide interventionism and American control and support of often-corrupt foreign governments. Now, the fact that a given policy makes people want to kill you doesn’t necessarily mean that that policy is wrong — but it is a cost of that policy that must be taken into account, and to claim that it will not have this effect is disingenuous.

Stepping up epidemiological surveillance and data gathering is the one good idea Giuliani has. Not only would it be helpful to detect bioterror attacks, but more importantly, it can help detect and contain natural pandemics. The emergence of a serious disease threat at some point in the future is a certainty, and unlike surveillance of people’s activities, this sort of surveillance has very little civil liberties cost.

Giuliani is obvious very proud of New York’s CompStat method of crime detection and prevention, given his desire to apply the same methodology to everything. For terrorism and border control, it makes some sense, as these are essentially law enforcement problems with a lot of parallels. However, for emergency preparedness it does not. Dividing up funding based on “need” determined by a statistical formula is absolutely certain to result in “gaming the system.” Emergency preparedness must be decentralized; there is no way for the Federal government to take care of it on a nationwide basis, or even to effectively coordinate and monitor it. Fundamentally, preparedness requires having appropriate materials on site and appropriate plans made, and no one can make those plans from afar.

Finally, Giuliani gets to the putative subject of the essay, resilience. He says, rightly, “Government should harness the inherent strength of the American people and the private sector in order to build a society that may bend—but not break—if catastrophe does strike.” It is somewhat ironic to hear this from Giuliani, who has just spent the preceding 30 paragraphs calling for increased central control of everything. His entire resilience proposal is as follows:

Ah, for every problem a government solution. This is precisely what resilience isn’t. A resilient society is one that responds to and recovers from disaster on its own — one that is not broken by disaster but continues to function mostly unchanged. The model of a resilient society is England during the IRA period: terrorist attacks happened, and life went on largely unchanged.

Western society is still phenomenally resilient, but not as much as it once was. You cannot build a resilient society using only government. A resilient society comes from a variety of factors, and these can do more to protect against the impact of terrorism than any technological or centralized security measure. They include:

All of these are cultural shifts; we can’t impose them, and as Giuliani is running for head of government, it makes sense for him to talk about government actions. However, the statements he’s making are precisely what damages resilience. When all we hear from government is how they are expecting impending doom, and how government will save us when it happens, it does not teach us to have hope, trust ourselves, and help others! It teaches us to always anticipate disaster, do nothing and wait for help when it happens, and expect the government to do all the helping. Regardless of what the government does, this rhetoric from our politicians itself reduces the resilience of our society.

legal, risk, society, terrorism

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