Sunday, August 13, 2006

Memo to Homeland Security: Stop fighting the last war

By Nancy Jane Moore

Martial arts training provides us with a valuable guideline in setting up security programs: Deal with the attack that happens, not the one you think is going to happen.

You can see this very obviously in sparring matches. You think your opponent is going to hit you in the head, so you raise your arms and she kicks you in the stomach. By anticipating the attack, you left yourself open for something else.

The principle is simple. You respond when your opponent has committed himself, but before the attack can harm you. This requires patience, timing, awareness, being relaxed and calm, and being able to quickly read a situation. All these skills can be acquired through training and are, frankly, more important than any particular technique you might master.

The same principle applies to developing security programs. There is no possible way to set up a physical defense or screening system against every possible attack -- even if such a blockade is successful, it will imprison the defender even as it protects against the attacker. More likely, the attackers will find a way inside the blocks, and unless you left that hole open on purpose, to draw them -- a valuable strategy in and of itself -- people will die.

Another important point: You can't defend against the last attack, anymore than you can re-fight the last war. One thing about human beings -- all human beings, including terrorists -- they are problem solvers with active imaginations. Whatever you protect against, they'll come up with something new. Bruce Schneier makes this point well in his op-ed in Sunday's Minneapolis Star Tribune:
It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets -- stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security -- and too many ways to kill people.

Security measures that require us to guess correctly don't work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It's not security, it's security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.

From reading articles such as one in Saturday's New York Times, I've gathered that the US security agencies have erred in several crucial ways:
  • They haven't focused enough resources on risk analysis and creative thinking about all the possibilities.
  • There has been too much turnover of experts -- unfortunately, the government, like most major corporations, seems to think individual employees are interchangeable, and discounts the knowledge gained from years of experience.
  • They don't know enough about the enemies out there -- our intelligence is still inadequate.
  • There is too little cooperation among security agencies -- in the martial arts we call that "ego."
  • And all too often, as Ron Suskind makes clear in his book The One Percent Doctrine, the people at the top are only interested in analysis and intelligence that supports their ideas, not in a true picture of what is happening.
The Times article quotes Michael Jackson, deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, as saying:
I am impatient. I don't think we have gotten as far as we need to go. We can do more, and we can do better. And we must.
Certainly he's right that they haven't done what they need to do, but let's focus on that first sentence, "I am impatient." That's part of the problem here. Patience is not a US virtue. We always want everything done yesterday.

Doing things quickly is fine, if you know what you're doing. But we don't. We need more intelligence, more analysis, more creative thinking. Those things take time, and we need to approach them with patience.

Something else we need: Greater involvement of the people. Informed involvement, not just the announcements we hear regularly on the subway loudspeakers to "report suspicious bags."

We need training programs for volunteer first responders of all kinds. You can draw on martial artists -- for example -- to become the eyes and ears of the community. Martial artists already have a grounding in how to pay attention and evaluate situations. Long time residents are ideal candidates to serve as neighborhood block captains -- people who can organize their neighbors in the event of an emergency. Expanded first aid training and other skills common to volunteer fire departments could be quite useful.

This sort of program has the advantage of being useful in the event of natural disasters and dealing with crime as well. And in the US -- and probably in other countries -- we have a history that shows that people will rally to such programs. Most people like to be useful and to be involved in their communities. Look at all the people who train in search and rescue or who join volunteer fire departments even in areas where local governments hire professionals.

The people want to help keep our country safe. Let them. Let us.

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