A New Kind of National Defense

Lessons learned from two anniversaries

Two important national anniversaries passed recently: 9/11, of course, and 8/29, the date that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. I hope it won’t seem crass, but I think there are important lessons to learn from those terrible days.

It is clear that the federal government failed to respond effectively to either immediate crisis. But on 9/11 it was for lack of ability, while on 8/29 it was for lack of proper planning and execution. Understood together, the events of 9/11 and 8/29 point to a new conception of national defense: one less obsessed with speedy anti-terror response, which, as on 9/11, will often fail or prove untenable, and more focused on basic, boring competence in those areas where governmental action really is plausible and necessary.

When it comes to protecting ourselves from terrorist attacks, we tend to romanticize about scrambling fighter pilots, rapidly deployed interceptive missiles, and secret agents pulling a Jack Bauer to save thousands of lives. As Professor Elaine Scarry has written, these notions go hand in hand with counterterrorism policies where major decisions are rushed (just 24 hours to save us, Jack!) and a handful of officials make them in secret, where torture is justified by the need for speed and preventive detention by simple expedience.

But what if all of this governmental hastiness doesn’t get us anywhere? After all, the only effective national defense that took place on 9/11 was bottom-up rather than top-down: the passengers who took back United Flight 93. The fighter jets could not scramble fast enough, and we may not have wanted them to: Who decides to shoot down a passenger plane, and what criteria does he or she use? We must stop assuming that we face a choice between heroic governmental protection from terrorism and no protection at all. At least with regard to airborne terror (remember also the “shoe bomber,” foiled by passengers and crew), vigilant citizens may be the only defense we have and need.

The implications for national policy should be drawn out: If the government could not protect the Pentagon with roughly an hour’s notice, maybe we should not let it abrogate the rule of law in the name of rapid and effective national defense. If our hair-trigger responses could not stop the hijackers, maybe we should slow things down and focus on wisdom rather than speed. We now know that decisions made rashly in the aftermath of 9/11 (spying on citizens, torturing suspects, detaining without trial men of unproven guilt) were of dubious effectiveness. Just as significantly, no obvious danger would have ensued if we had made those decisions together, through public deliberation over the course of days and weeks. We didn’t know all of this in 2001, so some deference is due. But we know now that citizens should be allowed to take responsibility for their national security in all situations, not just in dire ones like on Flight 93.

Four years after 9/11, we saw governmental incompetence of a different sort, the outcome of neither logistical impossibilities nor ethical quandaries. The various levels of government faced Katrina unprepared and failed to think on their feet. Dithering by local, state, and federal officials caused unnecessary damage and loss of life, a House Select Committee concluded. FEMA was “under-trained and under-staffed” and became “overwhelmed” by the crisis, evacuation plans were put into effect far too late, and “sparse or conflicting information was used as an excuse” for doing nothing.

This is not what one would expect from officials who believed that responding to natural disasters is one of the most important and unique functions of government. It’s not what one would expect from people who realized that only a huge entity like the state can perform the monumental tasks involved in an ongoing humanitarian crisis: providing helicopters and boats for rescue efforts; soldiers for security; food, water, and housing for hundreds of thousands of people. The idea of citizen responsibility that is so key to anti-terror protection is almost meaningless when we’re talking about projects of this scale.

It is painful to revisit these national tragedies, but we need to face up to their lessons. When disaster threatens the country, the appropriate response depends on the type of disaster at hand. When the threat is from a few evil men and the country has only minutes to respond, perhaps only individuals in the moment can effectively act. But when the threat is God-sent, only the most God-like entity we have is up to the task. We should recalibrate our governmental institutions, and our cultural intuitions, accordingly.

Sam Barr ’11 is a government concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.