National Security: An Accident Waiting to Happen

Article excerpt

At a news conference, Mr. Chertoff called the hurricane and subsequent
flooding, an 'ultra-catastrophe' that exceeded the foresight of
planners. Asked what the government's response signified about the
nation's preparedness for a potential terrorist attack, Mr. Chertoff
said, 'If an ultra-catastrophe occurs, there's going to be some harmful
fallout.'
New York Times
September 4, 2005

It often takes a catastrophe to reveal the illusory beliefs we continue to harbor in national and homeland security. To keep us safe, we place our faith in national borders and guards, bureaucracies and experts, technologies and armies. These and other instruments of national security are empowered and legitimated by the assumption that it falls upon the sovereign country to protect us from the turbulent state of nature and anarchy that permanently lies in wait offshore and over the horizon for the unprepared and inadequately defended. But this parochial fear, posing as a realistic worldview, has recently taken some very hard knocks.

Prior to September 11, 2001, national borders were thought to be necessary and sufficient to keep our enemies at bay; upon entry to Baghdad, a virtuous triumphalism and a revolution in military affairs were touted as the best means to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East; and before Hurricane Katrina, emergency preparedness and an intricate system of levees were supposed to keep New Orleans safe and dry.

The intractability of disaster, especially its unexpected, unplanned, unprecedented nature, erodes not only the very distinction of the local, national, and global, but, assisted and amplified by an unblinking global media, reveals the contingent and highly interconnected character of life in general. Yet when it comes to dealing with natural and unnatural disasters, we continue to expect (and, in the absence of a credible alternative, understandably so) if not certainty and total safety at least a high level of probability and competence from our national and homeland security experts

However, between the mixed metaphors and behind the metaphysical concepts given voice by US Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff early into the Katrina crisis, there lurks an uneasy recognition that this administration--and perhaps no national government--is up to the task of managing incidents that so rapidly cascade into global events. Indeed, they suggest that our national plans and preparations for the "big one"--a force-five hurricane, terrorist attack, pandemic disease--have become part of the problem, not the solution. His use of hyberbolic terms like "ultra-catastrophe" and "fall-out" is telling: such events exceed not only local and national capabilities, but the capacity of conventional language itself.

An easy deflection would be to lay the blame on the neoconservative faithful of the first term of US President George W. Bush, who, viewing through an inverted Wilsonian prism the world as they would wish it to be, have now been forced by natural and unnatural disasters to face the world as it really is--and not even the most sophisticated public affairs machine of dissimulations, distortions, and lies can close this gap.

However, the discourse of the second Bush term has increasingly returned to the dominant worldview of national security, realism. And if language is, as Nietzsche claimed, a prisonhouse, realism is its supermax penitentiary.

Based on linear notions of causality, a correspondence theory of truth, and the materiality of power, how can realism possibly account--let alone prepare or provide remedies--for complex catastrophes, like the toppling of the World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon by a handful of jihadists armed with box-cutters and a few months of flight-training? A force-five hurricane that might well have begun with the flapping of a butterfly's wings? …