Through the lens of time we remember the America before 9/11 – the sense of invincibility, of America the Fortress. Looking back over the last century, we see a rising curve of successes – the decisive role in the last Great War, landing a man on the moon, historic win over Cold War at the Berlin Wall, the innovative spirit that launched the personal computer revolution, a government that birthed the Internet. Twentieth century America fulfilled the promise that Tocqueville (“Democracy in America”) saw in the nineteenth century. Other nations stood in shock and awe.
9/11 shook our sense of invincibility. 9/11’s asymmetric terror attack struck our Nation deeply – beyond our anticipation. It surprised us.
Since then, there have been other surprises, other events we did not anticipate – the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 global financial crisis, the 2011 Arab Spring. If we are surprised, we did not understand forces leading to these events. We must be able to fathom and forecast such shocking events – in order to intervene and prevent, to build defenses against them, to adequately respond to them. We should not be caught surprised. We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11, to those that are still fighting our battle, and to those that are still suffering from the financial crisis to be ready for the next challenge.
Let’s acknowledge the difficulties involved in predicting such sudden, pivotal events. Nassim Nicholas-Taleb (author of The Black Swan) and Mark Blyth state in Foreign Affairs discuss how humans inhabit two different systems: the linear and the complex. We are good at predicting linear events, we can model them, they are well-behaved. Complex systems have sudden, dramatic events, sometimes triggered by seemingly innocuous proximal stimuli. This is the domain of terrorism, of the financial crisis, the Arab Spring. Because underlying these events are the most complex elements found on earth – the human element. Ironically, we call the study of social phenomenon the “soft science” – implying that understanding people is simpler than understanding the laws of physics. Human behavior is hard to predict but yet within our grasp to comprehend. Human needs evolve slowly, whereas knowledge evolves faster, and technology evolves blindingly fast. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was true of human needs in 1776 as it is in Spring of 2011.
Understanding and preventing terrorism demands that we understand terrorists and the forces that lead to terrorism. It is not as simple as “connecting the dots”. There are trillions of dots generated hourly – through intelligence, law enforcement, citizen actions. The dots can be connected only through the rear-facing mirror. Before we as governments and people can actively intervene in these complex systems, we need to understand the powerful forces that seek their own equilibrium – unmindful of the aims and desires of Governments. Government interventions to prevent, protect, respond, and recover can only succeed if cognizant of these forces.
In 2000-summer 2001, we faced this problem in the Defense Science Board study on intelligence-gathering against terrorism. We saw the millions of possible terrorist scenarios against which a single, designed system needed to function. To me, it was clear that this single system needed to be built on an understanding of the powerful social, economic, and political forces leading to terrorism. We needed a system with a simple architecture that could respond to a million contingencies, but with the flexibility to perform many functions. An architecture of bones to give reliable results and with joints to be flexible – to be able to grasp, crawl, jog, sprint, squeeze. At the DSB, I called such an architecture an action-focused framework. Such a framework is built on the understanding of the raw human forces that are pushing toward their own outcomes, and is designed with a bias toward intervention, toward action. A powerful, strategic framework is beyond simple information-sharing, beyond all-source databases.
We need such frameworks now more than ever. We need it against a dangerous, adaptive enemy, whether the enemy is an organization or an idea. We need it to define a new leadership role for America in a new flat world. We need it to repair our economic strength. And, we especially need it to fulfill all our Nation’s objectives in a more resource-constrained environment.
We are up to this challenge. America has always been up to this challenge. Of all nations, America is uniquely capable of making this leap to a science-informed, framework-based governance in the 21st century. America’s greatness was built on a profound understanding of human needs, and an actionable framework – a careful balancing act between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial powers. No nation, no people are ordained for greatness – they build greatness piece by piece. The writers of the Constitution embedded the seeds of greatness into this Nation’s DNA at its conception. A framework based on a pragmatic understanding of human nature, while articulating a profound idealism on the human purposes of the Union.
As we remember the lives lost on 9/11, let us hold high our idealism as a nation; and, employ our pragmatism to build a more secure nation.
Author: Madhu Beriwal, CEO & President of IEM