Shift In The World Order

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Sunday, January 12, 2020

In June of 2001 I went on a date. We ended up in a very detailed discussion -- or rather, an argument -- about how the US could experience a very serious terrorist attack. Like you do on a date. Three months later, 9/11 happened.

I've been thinking about that moment a lot over the last week or two. Since the US assassination of an Iranian leader. Probably because the moment feels similar.

What's weird is that I was the one on the date arguing that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Probably partly because I worked in disaster management, and saw vulnerabilities. I didn't work in national security. I worked in wildland fire, as the fire intelligence officer for the southern half of California at the busiest interagency coordination center in the world (on intel here and here here; random post on South Ops, and one more).

My date was a naval intelligence officer based at Camp Pendleton.

Very different kinds of intelligence. Kind of. Similar principles.

My point was that we had vulnerabilities, and also that there was no way that we could see every potential threat coming. We just did not have our systems tied together, or eyes on every potential bad guy out there. Plus there's just no way to do that anyway. With billions of people on the planet. I also gave the example of the Port of Long Beach as being vulnerable, in some detail. I also talked about the electrical infrastructure. We dealt with big infrastructure in wildfire often. I knew that the port was a huge deal for the region's economy. When wildfires threatened power lines that fed the port, it would lead to cascading impacts. What would a terrorist hit on the port do?

This guy was so confident in our intelligence and military. He said there was no way we would experience a domestic terrorist attack. Just no way. I pointed out what a map of the United States looks like, with two gigantic open coastlines, and a gulf. I was pretty sure the northern border was fairly wide open. I have since confirmed that by being assigned to work on a northern border security team for a short time. We covered lots of other potential ways people could get into this country. He just thought we had eyes on, well, more than we did. I'm not sure why I was so certain that we didn't. Probably mostly because I worked in risk management. And I knew a little bit about the US government. Enough to know that it was not as organized as people seemed to think from outside.

June 2001.

It was a strange moment. We were on a rooftop at a fancy Spanish restaurant in Riverside, California. It was a beautiful night. Super weird. All of my dates don't go that way. But I am still single....

When 9/11 actually happened less than three months later, one of the first things I thought about was that date. I saw the names of the very first ships that were deployed to the area where the attack was suspected to have come from. One of them was the ship that he was assigned to. I'm sure he thought about that date a lot, too.

Probably not a surprise given a conversation like that that I ended up working in the US Department of Homeland Security for nine years, after it was created in by law in 2002, and stood up on March 1, 2003. Or that I did a detail to FEMA in 2002 to help build what would eventually become a National Incident Management System. That I moved to DC in 2004.

Threat Shift

What strikes me about the moment we're in now is that lots of us can see the threat. I've been a bit surprised over the last week to see the media take the tension level down. Probably good. It's probably okay for everyone not to be completely freaked out a hundred percent all the time.

But I don't get the sense that the threat has diminished much. From Iran, from the Middle East in general, or from the US. There was a pivot. Some things changed. The world saw what this Administration -- and to them, this country -- is willing to do.

I don't think the people of Iran are going to be satisfied with the response last week. I don't think that the many, many groups that Soleimani worked with around the world will be, either. Martyrdom alone is no small thing.

I don't say this to freak anyone out. I say this to raise awareness. We're not in a new normal. We're in a new world. It's changed. From here on out, it's different.

That doesn't mean that we can't work from here forward to create the world we want to see. It does mean we need to be serious about it. We can't sit back and hope that it transpires. We have to dig in. For our kids. Nephews. Nieces. Neighbors. Relatives. Friends. Favorite people. For people, really.

Part of navigating an increasingly challenging world is being able to see it for what it is. So we're ready.

And so we're ready to change it.

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