Review of Impact and Response

Common Themes in the Effort to Build National Resilience

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4.1.Common Themes in the Effort to Build National Resilience

These and other federal, state and community initiatives seem to address four common themes: preparation, communication, education, and social capital. For example, much of our attention in the post-9/11 homeland security environment has been focused on preparing for future attacks. Specifically, communities have spent a great deal of money and effort on educating and equipping first responders and emergency personnel. These efforts are driven by an overall national focus on preparedness for terrorism (see Appendix A: Homeland Security Presidential Directive on National Preparedness). Meanwhile, the U.S. government is doing its best to communicate to its citizens all that was known about the attacks (particularly through the highly publicizes 9/11 Committee Report104), as well as the threat of new attacks (see Figure 1 above). Education about terrorism and personal safety is also playing an important role in fostering resilience. Public education campaigns of what to do in case of fire have been conducted for years in public schools, office buildings, and so forth (which often include conducting periodic evacuation drills). The Department of Homeland Security has added to this form of education through a number of websites (for example, see, posters, television advertisements and other types of public awareness campaigns.

The fourth theme—developing social capital—is reflected in the Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) initiatives mentioned above, as well other Citizen Corps-sponsored efforts to engage community members in meeting the challenges of a terrorist threat, such as volunteering to support local emergency responders, disaster relief, and community safety.105 A year before 9/11, Robert Putnam’s bestselling book, Bowling Alone launched a national debate about how Americans are investing increasingly less time and effort on building and maintaining their social networks.106 His research indicated that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors, and that compared to fifty years ago, we belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. Many of these trends, he argues, are a result of changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles and other factors. Indeed, it is ironic that while the Islamic extremist movement is driven largely by social network connections, the same patterns of personal interaction and trust-building have eroded in many Western civilizations. This is unfortunate, given that—as described earlier in this essay—social networks have been shown to be important for providing assistance and information relevant to managing traumatic stress.107 After 9/11, according to one study, individuals with smaller social networks, poorer quality social support, and those who resorted to maladaptive coping styles (such as self-blame, substance use and emotional suppression) reported much higher levels of distress after the terrorist attacks.108 Thus, encouraging community members to join organizations like Citizen Corps can help build the social networks that strengthen public resilience.

These 4 themes (preparation, communication, education and social capital) help provide a framework for understanding how nations build resilience. Thus, under the general umbrella of “homeland security” initiatives, the United States appears to be hard at work building community resilience in order to respond more effectively to future terrorist attacks. However, a review of the initiatives described in this essay suggests that a small handful of recommendations can be formulated.


In order to build greater resilience among the American public, there are a number of areas in which new or greater effort can be encouraged. These include: providing new forms of public education; building social capital and strengthening social networks; promoting greater coordination among government agencies and between the private and public sectors; and learning from the resilience of other countries who have dealt with terrorism for many years. Bold leadership is needed at the federal, state and local levels to pursue these and other ideas for building our nation’s resilience.

Provide New Forms of Public Education: As observed earlier, a significant amount of post-9/11 activity has focused on preparing and educating local emergency personnel for responding effectively to future terrorist attacks. However, there is much that could be done to educate the public at large about the true nature of the terrorist threat. For example, members of the Bush administration have repeatedly claimed that al Qaeda and affiliate terrorist groups seek to attack the United States because of “our values” or “our way of life.” In reality, however, these groups have a set of strategic objectives which they are trying to achieve by their use of terrorism. Thus, perhaps one way to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack might be to educate the public about the strategy behind the threat and target choices. Knowing why and how the terrorists may strike could help to reduce the perceptions of random ‘anywhere’ vulnerability. Further, gaining an understanding of how the terrorists are trying to manipulate the American public through the use of terror may actually help our communities resist that manipulation.

There is also a need for more education about fostering resilience in our communities. Perhaps the government could sponsor a program to get the psychological community out there speaking with local officials, emphasizing that in addition to an emergency kit and evacuation plan, attention should be given to strengthening Americans’ ability to deal effectively with the psychological and emotional aspects of terrorism. Indeed, according to Brandon and Silke, education about our own psychological response helps us improve our preparation and ability to respond more effectively to terrorist attacks.109

On a similar note, current fears and expectations of a future terrorist attack in the U.S. are likely to involve airlines, large buildings and suicide terrorists, because that is what we have seen. More sophisticated observers may include subways in the their threat analysis, based on events in Madrid and London. However, to date very little attention has been given to the organizational learning/adaptive qualities of terrorist groups, many of which tend to be quite strategic and more sophisticated in their use of violence than the general public tends to believe. The U.S. government can do far more than it has thus far to educate the public about the root conditions and facilitators of terrorism. Are we still portraying the enemy as a wild-eyed crazy terrorist, or a thinking, adaptive enemy with a strategy, new recruits, a global funding and support network, and an ideology that is spreading via mosques, madrasas, universities and the Internet? As Sun Tsu would argue, knowing all we can about the enemy, as well as about ourselves, is vital for success in any conflict.

Build Social Capital and Strengthen Social Networks: According to the APA, resilience can be taught and developed before, during, and after a terrorist event. In a recent online guide for building resilience, they note that “good relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.”110 Clearly, it is a mistake to rely solely on the government to deal with the immediate impact of terrorist attacks. Community empowerment must play a prominent role in any national resilience strategy.

As described in this paper, Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) initiatives have been developed throughout the United States to do just that, and provide an important model for other countries who seek to build resilience in their communities. However, if the social aspect of responses to terrorism is indeed an important aspect of resilience, our government must do more to foster greater social capital; there is more that can be done to promote civic engagement and community networking, in order to address the kinds of social capital development issues raised in Robert Putnam’s book. In addition to community programs like Americorps and Citizen Corps, the government can provide tax breaks to individuals and families that join any number of local organizations and participate in community-building. Overall, we are doing a great deal in terms of preparation (equipment and education) for first responders, but the average citizen is an important asset we must keep in the mix.

Promote Greater Coordination: In the past five years, a flurry of reports (including the 9/11 Commission Report111) have highlighted a lack of intelligence sharing and organizational cooperation that exists throughout many federal and state agencies.112 Many observers have emphasized how we must break down the barriers to interagency cooperation—like organizational culture, differing technologies, turf wars, personality clashes and parochial agendas. Also, agencies at the federal, state and local levels need to be able to communicate effectively; it is a travesty that 5 years after 9/11, the NYPD and FDNY still do not have common frequencies and protocols for communication, despite the fact that this has been highlighted in several post-9/11 investigations as a primary factor behind the deaths of so many police and fire department personnel. We also need public-private coordination in order to address many of the preparation and education-related dimensions of resilience described earlier in this essay. Perhaps most importantly, this coordination can help ensure critical infrastructure redundancy in case of future terrorist attack, since 85% of the nation’s critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector.113

Provide Bold Leadership: While it has become a cliché to say that leaders matter most in times of crisis, this is particularly true in fostering a nation’s resilience in the face of terrorism. Leaders communicate challenges and strategies, and provide resources for preparation and education. As described above, our nation’s leaders must do more for social capital development. Much of the current administration’s focus is on combating terrorism, specifically, locating terrorists, disrupting their networks, and bringing violent criminals and extremists to justice. While all of this is clearly in the best interests of the nation, we also need leadership that is dedicated to public education, rather than to secrecy in all matters related to national security. We need our leaders to enlist the support and assistance of the public, and enable them to be responsible contributors to the struggle against terrorism.

In the absence of any significant terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 2001, one could argue that Americans feel a sense of invulnerability again. Support for security measures which would dramatically inconvenience individuals or commercial transportation has declined a great deal since 9/11. Passengers are now allowed to bring scissors and other small, formerly-declared dangerous and prohibited items aboard domestic U.S. flights. Our nation’s leadership must not allow the public to develop a sense of complacency when it comes to the threat of terrorism, or we risk being unprepared for the next 9/11-style attack.

During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill led the British in a courageous defiance of the Germans despite merciless bombings, an historical event which is often cited as an example of how leaders can inspire a group of people to be strong and resilient even in the darkest of times. Today, the community of responsible nations is facing a threat of terrorist attacks from religiously-inspired extremists, and requires leaders who are able to ensure our peoples’ resilience. Indeed, without strong leadership, a nation risks faltering at the hands of terrorists, awarding them a victory they do not deserve.

Learn From the Resilience of Other Countries: Finally, our efforts can also be informed by studying how other countries have responded to terrorist attacks. Indeed, many countries have shown exceptional resilience in responding to terrorism. For example, terrorist attacks have been endured for decades in places like Colombia, France, Israel, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. In each of these countries, the terrorists have failed to achieve their objectives. Attacks have not produced massive uprisings of people seeking to overthrow government. In Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, terrorists have not forced the government to allow ethnic separatist regions to form an independent state. In Israel, terrorists have not forced the government to withdraw military forces from occupied territories. Decades of terrorism in England and Northern Ireland did not result in driving the British and unionists out of Northern Ireland. And in Colombia, terrorist attacks have not weakened the government’s resolve to combat the drug trade or disarm the paramilitaries.

Clearly, the attacks of 9/11 led to a variety of research studies which have illuminated and informed many important U.S. domestic and foreign policy issues. But there are many more areas which can be studied in order to expand our understanding of how to build national resilience and what can be done to manage/mitigate the impact of terrorist attacks. For example, as described earlier, the spread of horror from the terrorist attack of 9/11 was amplified by the mass media. Is there a way that governments can harness the power of the media during times of national crisis that can help build resilience, without impinging on the freedom of the press? Further, there are important questions about political culture and institutions that warrant additional research. For example, are there particular elements inherent in an open, democratic society that foster resilience? Do democracies, by placing a great deal of responsibility in the hands of its citizenry, foster greater levels of national pride, loyalty and patriotism, which in turn help develop the social capital needed for greater national resilience? When a nation’s leaders are elected by the people, and given a considerable amount of trust to act in the best interests of the nation, are they trusted more in times of crisis than the unelected leaders in other countries (who, in general, are often far more often feared by their citizens than trusted)? Also, if the strength of an individual’s or community’s resilience is based to some degree on their social networks, are there parallel dimensions to explore in terms of fostering economic resilience? Indeed, if it can be empirically shown that economic networks which are strong/diverse help a country be more resilient, this would seem to support arguments for the kinds of free markets typical of liberal democratic societies.

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