The TASC List: Threat levels

The sea of politics, policy, and public concern is awash today with what in shorthand is expressed simply as Homeland Security. But underneath that simplification is a complex tangle of considerations. It involves notions of national defense, immigration practices, military and law enforcement readiness, budget implications, community values and opinions, American resolve to participate and to sacrifice — and more.
The variables are themselves interrelated, mutually reinforcing, and often indeterminate. One would hope to see the kind of solutions that emerged from the earliest World War II operations research studies that produced optimal approaches to problems like hunting a submarine, deploying fighter-interceptors, and developing counterintelligence. But the factors involved in any such mathematical modeling for today’s big problem at hand may not allow the production of sub-optimization, or even best estimates.
We have dealt in the past with external threats to the national well-being. Our geography itself and oceanic boundaries have served to isolate us to some extent, and certainly increase the difficulty for potential enemies to enter our civilian spaces to wreak havoc and cause disruption. The threats we may now face can originate from within. They can grow silently, build strength and capability slowly, and select targets after close examination of deterrents in place and weaknesses at the chosen sites.
Our simulation tools and threat-gaming platforms are of course now working overtime to suggest where the maximum losses might occur and the major vulnerabilities might be minimized. A peaceful New Year’s Eve in Times Square is proof enough that in certain limited situations our security and detection apparatus are more than capable for the task. As such techniques and methods evolve over time, we can expect that sensor-based and surveillance technologies will offer increased safety for traffic, transportation, and crowd control activities. And yes, there will be an important ingredient of individual participation in the processes, and a willingness to undergo, in some circumstances, a small reduction in access to and operation within certain restricted domains and environments.
Looking at the past may prove instructive to the buildup of necessary safeguards for tomorrow. When the wartime shadows of the early 40s in Europe reached America’s east coast, a network of developments took place. Anti-aircraft units sprouted within sandbagged fortifications on golf courses surrounding major industrial cities. Coast Guard teams with German shepherds patrolled the shoreline. Air raid wardens made certain that all blackout curtains were drawn during the drills and no auto headlights were visible. Schoolchildren were given take-home silhouettes with which to identify enemy bombers. On the homefront, meat, coffee, sugar, and gasoline were rationed; tires were unobtainable; tin cans and other scarce materials were delivered to neighborhood collection centers; “victory” gardens occupied empty lots tended by community volunteers. Patriotism needed no encouragement beyond the Gold Stars displayed in so many windows — where some occupant would not return again.
Here are some conclusions and suggestions for dealing with threats. First, we can assume that defending America is high on most people’s priority list. It may not be number one, but it’s near the top. Second, we need to define the exposures carefully and in great detail. Next, our defenders and guardians must quickly develop advanced tools for target identification and remediation.
We’ll need to include everyone in every community as participants in the process — young and old, liberal and conservative, patriotic and non-aligned. They won’t need to be reminded of danger by oil slicks and beach debris from tankers torpedoed just offshore, or rubber raft sightings of landed infiltrators, or casualty reports out of battle zones. Plain and simple. They will want to protect their children and grandchildren from “bombs bursting in air” over their own towns.
If an interior mobilization does occur, it will involve detailed knowledge of neighbors and neighborhoods (more difficult to acquire within large-area, low-density suburban tracts), working together as partners, and individual willingness to sacrifice — all at levels not seen since WWII.
That collaboration and total resolve will carry the day, as it always has in times past, and lead us to a more closely bonded and better protected community tomorrow.