Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Resilient Society

"Stop it before it happens."

Many people set that as the top priority for any government agency charged with defending us against attack. Whether we think of "homeland security," or the older term "national security," we place most of our hopes on attempts to identify potential attackers and stop them before they can carry out their plans.

There is no doubt this is a good idea, when it works. But can it always work? At what cost? If we rely on prevention as our only security measure against terrorist attack, we expose ourselves to two major hazards, one economic, the other political.

The economic danger lies in what economists call the law of diminishing returns. To put it simply, if we try to close every imaginable gap in our lines of defense, it's likely we will never run out of gaps. Blocking every possible line of attack will get more and more expensive. The expense could easily turn out to be infinite. In practical terms, of course, this means we would exhaust all our resources before we got anywhere near achieving perfect security.

The political danger lies in the temptation to give up too much liberty for false promises of security. In healthy communities, we trade small liberties for large security benefits. Most of us give up the freedom to drive at high speeds through red lights, because we gain real security from serious harm. It's worth the expense to enforce laws that make everyone stop at red lights. In times of public fear, however, people often give up important liberties, yet gain little or no real security in return.

We submit to vehicle searches at roadside checkpoints, even though we know determined terrorists could easily avoid them. We stay silent while innocent people are imprisoned, fooling ourselves into feeling safer even though we know the real criminals and terrorists are still at large.

To avoid such dangers, we can change the way we think about security. As part of this, we can move away from the futile effort to block every possible avenue of attack. This does not rule out moderate, prudent measures to improve our security. It simply means we need to identify and avoid those extreme measures with costs that far outweigh any of their benefits.

More importantly, we can focus more attention on preparation, to help us better respond if and when anyone ever succeeds in attacking us. A society focusing too much on preventive security can become so brittle and ossified, it helps to bring about its own downfall. A supple and flexible society can bounce back quickly not only from terror attacks, but also from natural disaster or any other setback as well. We can call this the virtue of resilience.

The main elements of resilience in this context are fairly simple to identify. Listed below is one example description of what resilience can mean. This is not a strict definition, but a basic outline of the concept, to be refined through discussion and application.

First - Expect attack.

Deny any attack the added power of being "unthinkable." Expect attempted attacks. Expect some attacks to succeed. Be confident in the civilized world's ability to prevail against terror, not by preventing all attacks, but by its response after any attack.

Second - Be prepared.

Prepare mentally with determination to always respond with intelligence and confidence, never with blind fear or panic. Prepare physically in moderate ways such as assembling a disaster preparedness kit. Spread this knowledge of calm preparation to any family members, friends, and acquaintances able to handle it.

Third - Go on with life.

This sounds simplistic, but is not. Conventional armies seek to wrest control of hills, river crossings, towns, and fortresses from their enemies. Terrorists seek to control the minds of their enemies. If we all refuse to be terrorized, terrorism will ultimately fail.

Resilience can enhance security by enhancing freedom, instead of by restriction. Where brittle societies are kept in the dark by governments obsessed with secrecy, the populace of a resilient society is fully informed by a government that transparently shares as much of its information as possible. Where brittle societies foster growing distrust and suspicion of government, a resilient society can grow closer to the ideal of fully participatory government.

By making itself better prepared to recover from an attack, a resilient society can also become the kind of place fewer people would want to attack. However, it need never blindly place its security on the hope of achieving such popularity.

Today, our security strategies focus on a dark future, but there is no reason for such a darkened outlook to become permanent. Modern civilization and culture already contains the seeds of a resilient society. By nurturing these seeds to fruition, we can build a world where our children can focus on the great advances human ingenuity might achieve in future decades and centuries.