Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Going by the Book

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (November 2006)

War is the statesman's game, the
priest's delight,

The lawyer's jest, the hired assassin's


And, to those royal murderers, whose

mean thrones

Are bought by crimes of treachery and


The bread they eat, the staff on which

they lean.

- Percy B Shelley

On the morning of September 8, in concert with the fifth-anniversary festivities celebrating the 9/11 day of doom, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City staged a four hour program of risk analysis intended to fortify an audience of maybe 100 or 150 of the city's upscale bankers and high-end corporate executives with a renewed faith in the power of government to hold them harmless against tomorrow's terrorist bomb and/or next month's fall of radioactive rain. As prelude to the political charges and countercharges likely to hunt down and overtake the November election campaigns, the topic also was consistent with the August message that President George Bush had been delivering to the country's army bases, that is, that America is safer than it was in the summer of 2001, or for that matter in the winter of 1776 or the spring of 1861, but not yet so safe that we can afford to stop building the pyramids of invincible bureaucracy.

The organizers of the Council's symposium didn't set themselves an easy task. The once-upon- a-time glorious conquest of Baghdad plainly has been transformed into a murderous fiction; the reports from Washington suggest that the Department of Homeland Security, having been shown to be criminally negligent in its dealing with Hurricane Katrina, continues to subside into a state of near-perfect dysfunction; as to the whirlwinds of biblical devastation forecast by the Muslim jihadists releasing propaganda balloons in the mountains of Waziristan, nothing has been seen in an American time zone for five years; of the terrorist plots said to have been uncovered by the FBI, many of the ones exposed to the newspapers amounted to little more than a murmuring of underfunded rhetoric. Coincident with the date of the Council's symposium, an article appearing in the then current issue of its bimonthly journal, Foreign Affairs, compared the total number of people killed since September 2001 by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-like agents operating outside of Afghanistan and Iraq to the number of people who drown every year in bathtubs.

How then to tell the fantastic but familiar tale about America meeting the threat of imminent apocalypse at all points of the geopolitical compass in such a way that it didn't collapse into comic farce? Not, as noted, an easy task, and one that I would have thought impossible to perform in front of a crowd of sharp-eyed money managers who over the course of the last five years have seen the value of Manhattan real estate move nowhere but up, an apartment that cost $890,000 to buy in 2001 now priced at $1.5 million. I failed to bear in mind the also steadily rising market in the willing suspensions of disbelief. The Council could count on the presence of people who had learned that when passing these days through the national-security checkpoints, ill-considered sarcasms get confiscated or sent into the cargo hold with the Coca-Cola and the lipstick.

The program divided into three parts ("The Terrorist Threat in New York", "Assessing New York's Emergency Preparedness", "What Individuals and Organizations Can Do"), each of the panel discussions facilitated by a television news analyst and upholstered with expert witnesses representing the New York City Fire Department and the US Department of Homeland Security as well as with scholars specializing in the theory of counterterrorism and the mysteries of the Middle East. On a table in the foyer of the Council's auditorium the young ladies acting as ushers had placed a display of pamphlets establishing an appropriately sinister tone: "America - Still Unprepared, Still in Danger", "Corporate Responses to Public Disasters", "Preventing Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism". The proceedings began promptly at 8:00 AM, all present on the alert for updated bulletins from the frontiers of man's fate. Two fifteen-minute breaks (for coffee and pastry served in the library on the Park Avenue side of the building) allowed for the changing of experts and the rearrangement of the microphones, but at no time was it deemed proper to inquire as to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, to remember that the illegal crossings at the Mexican border now number between 1,000 and 4,000 a day, or to point out that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by an act of international terrorism is about one in eighty thousand, the odds roughly equivalent to those of being killed by a comet or a meteor.

So much of the discussion took place at more or less the same altitude of abstraction ("situational awareness", "consequence management", "threat matrix", "modeling the fears"), in more or less the same gravely concerned tones of voice, that it can be fairly rendered in the form of a dialogue spoken on the stage of an ancient Greek amphitheater. The language has been simplified and the sequence of questions and answers much abbreviated, but the points of emphasis remain intact. The complete transcript can be found at; the reader without access to the Internet is free to imagine the experts wearing stately masks, the chorus of citizens draped in shapeless robes.

Q - Is New York still high on the list of terrorist targets?
A - New York is the big bull's-eye.
Q - And why is that so?
A - Because the city stands as the preeminent symbol of America's wealth and power. Muslim jihadists regard the city as the palace of the great Satan, rich with heavy concentrations of money, media coverage, and Jews.
Q - Any terrorists presently submerged in sleeper cells in any of the five boroughs?
A - A tenement in Brooklyn is as good a place to hide as a cave in Afghanistan.
Q - Who's the enemy?
A - They show up across a broad spectrum of evil intent. At the foreign end of the spectrum, we see members of Al Qaeda central; at the domestic end, disturbed teenagers (most of them Arab, some of them American) who look to the Internet for lessons in nihilism and instructions for the making of a bomb ... What we do know is that today's terrorist is a fiend-a clever, resourceful fiend, computer-literate and familiar with the tactics of asymmetric warfare, capable of striking at any place, at any time, with virtually any weapon.
Q - If New York is the big bull's eye, why doesn't Washington send us more money?
A - It's your responsibility not to become part of the problem. For your own peace of mind, learn to think of your survival in New York in the same way that you would think about your survival on a camping or a boating trip.
Q - What about nuclear weapons?
A - The radiologicals are worse. Cheaper to acquire, easier to deploy. Dirty bombs don't kill very many people in a department store or on a street, but if the radiation gets loose in the wind, they can be very tough on high-priced real estate. We would have to take down a lot of contaminated buildings.
Q - How do we know what to secure against?
A - New York City takes an all-hazard approach to disasters both natural and not. Figure at all times an eighty percent probability of a high-impact, significant event that knocks down a company's stock price by as much as thirty percent. We need to build trust, between the private and the public sectors, leverage the acts of good citizenship, offer tax breaks to companies that provide their employees with upgraded levels of security,
Q - What about the ports? How do we inspect all the shipping containers?
A - The dangers are exaggerated. Anything that you can bring in a container you can buy in New Jersey. The really dangerous threats are the hypothetical, the ones we don't expect and can't predict.
Q - Why no car or truck bombs in New York City? You'd think that somebody would have the wit to drive one into Times Square.
A - We have very alert police. Even so, car bombs are a product of modern life. We probably should expect a truck or car bombing once every six months. They inflict minor losses, which we must learn to accept.
Q - What else must we learn to accept?
A - Shared accountability. The private sector owns 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure, but over the last five years the Fortune 500 companies have increased their security spending by only three percent.
Q - In the last five years, why haven't we seen more terrorist attacks in the United States - no poisoning of reservoirs, no dynamite in the subways or the tunnels, no blowing up of national monuments?
A - We've been very good and very lucky.
Q - Can we trust the news media not to spread panic?
A - Here in New York we're fortunate to have media people, also a mayor and a public-health commissioner, skilled at modeling the fears.

Midway through the session assessing New York's emergency preparedness, Linda Vester, the facilitator on loan from Fox News, asked the assembled company for a show of hands indicating the number of people in the room equipped with emergency supplies of food, medicine, and money. How many had assigned a rallying point at which to gather their families, their pets, and their domestic servants for an escape to Queens or the flight into Connecticut? Both calls for shared accountability met with clear majorities declaring themselves armed with the required life-saving devices and possessed of well-rehearsed exit strategies. Nobody was more pleased than Ms Vester. She hadn't expected to find so many Latter-day Saints ready for the Day of Judgment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

"That's impressive", she said, "and do you have a gallon of water per person?"

Most people did, which was commendable, but to what purpose? Did anybody in the room seriously believe that in the event of a major calamity it would be possible to reach, much less get across, the Triborough or the George Washington Bridge, that they could see themselves through the fire and smoke with a flashlight and a crate of Fiji water, that what President Bush on. the evening of September 11 described as "the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century" somehow resembled a camping trip in the Catskills or a fishing cruise off Montauk?

For the better part of four hours we had been listening to a battery of experts conjure up horrific scenarios for urban disaster, but in the long series of questions and answers never once did I hear in any of the voices a trace element of genuine alarm. The symposium-goers hadn't come to prepare themselves for Armageddon; they had come to see a critically acclaimed postmodern play to show one another that they had read the reviews and maybe even the script, were familiar with some of the author's earlier work, knew how to decipher the trend-setting acronyms (AEP for Area Evacuation Plan, COOP for Continuing of Operations Plan, PALMS for Private Assets and Logistics Management System), had bought their duct tape in the colors of military camouflage. Dutifully making their devout observances, they marked themselves eligible for salvation; by showing themselves willing to swallow the government's recommended daily dosages of fear, then surely nothing more would be required of them, and old man Death would move on down the avenue to round up people who had failed to read the instructions on the label, didn't know what was meant by the term "shelter in place", hadn't seen the movie or the play.

As with the chorus of citizens, so also with the voices of authority issuing disclaimers. Because the war on terror, like the war on poverty or the war on drugs, is a work of the bureaucratic imagination, the winning of it is a matter of filling out forms, acting professional, addressing the contingencies, adding office staff. Everything that could be done was being done, and in New York, as in Washington and Baghdad, the resident experts commanding the fight against the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were sending forth into battle a mighty host of paper - heavier-caliber bullet points, faster computers, stronger acronyms, the Department of Homeland Security armed with ninety echelons of classified information, the New York City Fire Department capable of responding within the span of four minutes to big trouble with any one of the four medieval elements, the city's hospitals assisted by technicians capable of distinguishing different kinds of radioactive isotope, twenty-eight databases placed at the disposal of the National Counterterrorism Center, precisely measured evacuation rates for each of New York City's five boroughs, a 900-page document drawn up as a remedy for hurricanes.

And yet, regrettably and as much as anybody might have wished to say otherwise, even the best of governments cannot perform miracles. It's not the business of government to issue the patents of immortality or hold itself accountable for the acts of God. At the end of the day, people must fend for themselves, trusting to luck, bottled water, their insurance agent, and their strength of character. Fortunately we can depend upon the patriotic volunteerism of the American people, who don't expect government to go riding around on their backs, courageous and resilient people ready and able to believe that "the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad".

That last line of ad copy for the war on terror I borrow from the address that President Bush delivered to the American people on the evening of September 11. Speaking from behind the golden mask of power in the White House, he cast himself in the role of the nation's Great Protector, but nearly everything he had to say (about the struggle for civilization, America the injured victim in a war that it didn't provoke, Arab terrorists pursuing Americans into their own homes, the world's evil-doers unanimous in their hatred of freedom) showed him to be protecting nothing more than his persona as the Great Protector. By his actions he had proven himself so little interested in the happiness and safety of the American people that he had made of them objects fit, in the words of Shelley's poem, for "The statesman's game, the priest's delight, the lawyer's jest, the hired assassin's trade".

Like Mr Bush, the symposium-goers at the Council on Foreign Relations afford themselves the luxury of striking a pose, pleased to think that it's possible to preserve civilization and ward off the days of doom by acting the part of the prepared citizen, following the rules, going by the book. The people who do the work of dying in Iraq, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, don't enjoy the same privilege. Old man Death doesn't take the American Express card , doesn't extend credit on the strength of a firm handshake, a brave grin, the well-told and uplifting lie.

Bill Totten


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