4.16.2009

We the People


I popped into a symposium on national security risks on the Penn campus yesterday, and was glad for the primer on this important yet lately not as discussed topic. Gathered together were government officials, businesspeople, and consultants who spend their professional lives (and probably not a little of their personal lives) worrying about the really big and bad problems that could happen in this world. Many of their insights reflected the unique characteristics of this issue:

1. President Obama has necessarily had to put homeland security on the relative back burner, on account of having so many other pressing issues to deal with; and yet, if we were to have another 9/11 incident on his watch, we would all wonder aloud why he wasn’t on top of this. Alas, this is a significant asymmetry: catastrophic impact times tiny probability equals no one wants to worry about it until it’s too late.

2. Business has squeezed so much efficiency out of its supply chain that it is essentially betting on completely unfettered access to that supply chain; and yet, every once in a while, you have a catastrophe that knocks out all your options. Again, no one sees the need for redundancy in the system until after it’s too late to do anything about it.

3. Coordination is everything, but a lot of the key pieces in the puzzle are either proprietary or classified. On a related note, all the interesting and important issues are cross-disciplinary, cross-jurisdictional, and cross-industry, and yet universities, governments, and businesses all operate in different siloes, and sub-divide themselves further into their own siloes.

I couldn’t stay very long, but the most lasting comment I heard was one of the first I heard. The moderator noted that our most important weapon against national security threats is not government or technology but “we the people.” After all, it was a courageous yet otherwise ordinary band of citizens who, at the risk of their own lives, made sure United Flight 93 did not make it to its intended target, the seat of government which contained the very same elected officials whose solemn responsibilities include the security of citizens like the ones on Flight 93.

Let us remember, as we deal with enemies known and unknown, that our greatest comfort is not the sophistication of our weaponry or our system of government, but rather the spirit and pride of our people. The Department of Homeland Security is, in some aspects, the world's most complicated bureaucracy; the US Defense Department, the most advanced fighting machine mankind has ever known. And we need strategic investments and sound tactics and shrewd leaders there. But give me "we the people" any day.
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