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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Cargo Screening, The Economy, Leukemia, And Why We Need A Public Discussion On Risk With Government & Citizens

April 9th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Cargo screening may seem a somewhat arcane topic for a blog that focuses on citizen preparedness and engagement. But the issue raises what I think may be one of the most important homeland security subjects for both the government and the public — risk. The topic of risk in homeland security is something that I think needs a public airing, and cargo screening offers one way to engage in that discussion. 

In a Washington Times op-ed, former Bush Administration Homeland Security Department Deputy Secretary Asa Hutchinson argues against the current mandate that the U.S. scan 100% of its incoming cargo by 2012: 

With limited resources, we cannot execute a so-called “100 percent” model that attempts to reduce the risk of security threats to zero…I can tell you that by focusing our energies on inspecting all cargo entering our country – indiscriminately, no matter whether it is shipped by known secure trading partners or by high-risk unknowns – we will be forced to divert resources and attention from the highest-risk cargo…

Moreover, efforts to scan – much less physically inspect – every single container will result in massive delays across the supply chain, leading to backups of cargo left waiting to be transported…Besides these troubling national security concerns, there is an additional reason to hesitate at implementing this questionable regulation: national economic security…If the scanning mandates genuinely improved homeland security, then perhaps they would be worth the damage they will inflict to our economy. But they won’t make us safer. They will only provide a false sense of security.

Hutchinson is now the chairman of the Safe Commerce Coalition so he has a dog in the fight, but his article highlights some of the tradeoffs involved in determining how to allocate the nation’s security resources and the role of risk management in making those decisions. This is a debate which should include the public. Right now, Americans aren’t engaged in the discussion over the security, financial, logistical and time tradeoffs involved in our own homeland security. 

The push to improve the nation’s approach to risk management crosses political lines. In a recent report, “A Long Term Vision For Homeland Security,” P.J. Crowley, Director of Homeland Security for the progressive think tank, the Center For American Progress notes the need to introduce risk management into homeland security which would lead us to ask and answer important questions: 

DHS must move past its perpetual state of emergency and shift its emphasis to long-term sustainability. This means shifting its priority from containing the crisis of the moment-first terrorism, then hurricanes, and most recently illegal immigrants-to implementing a strategy of genuine risk management. What is important? What improves our security and resiliency? And what can be done at a reasonable social and financial cost?

Those answers should come not only from policymakers but with the guidance of the public itself. Crowley made that point in a Washington, D.C. pre-election panel I attended: When it comes to terrorism, he said, we should be asking whether our objective is ‘this will never happen again’ or should our expectations be more along the lines of Britain or Israel where they expect that periodically the bad guys will succeed but over time strategically the good guys will prevail.

On first blush, it might seem to most Americans that we should be checking everything 100%, particularly in light of the potential consequences. However, with such a range of threats, that level of security may not be the most effective or efficient approach. The public should be asked: How much risk do you want to pay for? How much inconvenience do you want to deal with? These are dilemmas we deal with everyday in our lives; we need to bring that same approach to homeland security. 

Obviously, the economic tumult of the past year is forcing us as a nation and as individuals to reevaluate risk in other areas. One example is that business schools are reexamining what they are teaching:

Jay O. Light, the dean of Harvard Business School, argues that there have been imbalances both on campuses and in the economy. ‘We lived through an enormous extended period of financial good times, and people became less focused on risks and risk management and more focused on making money,” he said. “We need to move that focus back toward the center.” 

(On a more personal level, my diagnosis of leukemia completely out of the blue in October — ironically during the week of the stock market’s biggest percentage drop in history — has reoriented my own sense of risk.) 

When it comes to homeland security, as P.J. Crowley suggests, we need to consider moving closer to a risk model of Britain where there is a commitment to do everything possible to prevent terrorist attacks. However, simultaneously there is also realization both in government and among the citizenry that despite best efforts something is bound to happen. One cannot eliminate risk entirely, and together we must find the most effective and efficient balance. To get to that balance, there needs to be a public discussion of risk in advance. One way to begin is on the issue of 100% cargo screening.

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