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Discussion Point: Introducing 'Political Resilience'

The following is the first in a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This article and those that will follow it are penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

Introducing 'Political Resilience'

The Department of Homeland Security is the lead agency of the U.S. Government for enhancing protection and resilience of critical assets against disasters of many kinds, including fire, flood, earthquake and terrorist attack. Protection means preventing disaster; resilience means fast and efficient recovery from disaster. On the material side, DHS has focused on critical infrastructure resilience, including information, transportation and energy systems (National Infrastructure Advisory Council, 2009). On the human side, the focus has been on individual and community resilience, including programs to encourage emergency planning, stockpiled food and medicines, and trusted links between citizens and government agencies (Homeland Security Advisory Council, 2011).

Here I introduce an expansion of the concept of community resilience to include political resilience. Political resilience means citizens who have heard and understood what every terrorism expert has agreed: the next big terrorist attack in the United States is a question of when, not if. In other words, it is beyond the capacity of government or angels to prevent the next terrorist attack. Enemies who are willing to give their lives to kill U.S. citizens will sooner or later succeed. The implications of "when not if" need to be more broadly recognized. First, we do not have time or money to do everything that can possibly be done to prevent terrorist attacks.

Terrorist ingenuity is infinite; securing all possible attack scenarios is not even conceivable let alone practical. The value of the concept of resilience is that it moves the problem from prevention of one rare form of threat: terrorism-- to system adaptations that will improve response to all forms of threat and disruption. Second, and following from the first implication, we do not have time or money for a new commission of inquiry every time we suffer a significant terrorist attack.

Americans need to understand that at least some security failures are unavoidable. A terrorist attack that succeeds does not mean that a security official or security system has failed; we can learn from terrorist successes without finding someone to blame. Third, we do not want to give terrorists the status and satisfaction of ever greater reactions to the threat of terrorism. Terrorists want more than a feeling of power. They want to look like heroes to those who sympathize with the cause they claim to represent; they want to play David against our Goliath. They want us to pay attention to them and their cause.

As some definitions of terrorism make explicit, they want to coerce us in directions that we don't want to go. Unfortunately we are no less coerced if we change our society, our politics and our government to fight terrorism than if we change our society, politics and government to appease terrorists. Bin Laden's right hand man, al-Zawahiri, boasted that 9/11 brought U.S. troops into Muslim countries where they would incite Jihad against the West. Before he died, Usama bin Laden boasted of putting the United States on the road to bankruptcy. The lesson from our enemies is that our reactions to terrorism can be as dangerous as the terrorists.

An American public that understands these implications will be politically resilient. We will not see a new terrorist attack as a requirement for new security measures. We will be suspicious of anyone whose first order of business after terrorist attack is to assign blame. We will be resistant to promises of more security if only we surrender new powers and new tax monies to government. If we recognize the value of political resilience, how are we to develop it?

One approach will almost surely fail. We cannot wait until the next terrorist attack to begin work on political resilience. Imagine the President or the Secretary of DHS trying to talk about resisting overreaction with the relatives of terrorist victims still before him. Identified victims are compelling news, and the timing would make this an argument of weakness. Rather political resilience--like other forms of individual and community resistance--must be built before it is called on. Political leadership must draw the implications of "when not if" for Americans before the next terrorist attack. Since 9/11, U.S. security forces have achieved a remarkable record of uncovering and blocking potential terrorists. Their successes are evidence that our security system is strong; an occasional terrorist success should not be allowed to push us in directions we don't want to go.

References National Infrastructure Advisory Council (2009). Critical Infrastructure and Resilience: Final Report and Recommendations. Homeland Security Advisory Council. (2011). Community Resilience Task Force Recommendations.

Clark McCauley (B.S. Biology, Providence College, 1965; Ph.D. Social Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 1970) is Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. He is researcher in the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and a member of its executive committee. His research interests include the psychology of group identification, group dynamics and intergroup conflict, and the psychological foundations of ethnic conflict and genocide. He is founding editor of the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways toward Terrorism and Genocide.