TCSDaily | 6.29.09
By Alan W. Dowd

Wouldn’t we be better off if we just learned to live with the risks and threats posed by terrorism? That’s essentially the question DukeUniversity ecologist Raphael Sagarin is asking.

“Organisms do not try to get rid of risk in their environment,” Sagarin argues. “They learn to live with it.”

During a stint in Washington, D.C., as a Congressional science fellow a year after 9/11, Sagarin concluded that “everything” Washington was doing “was about more guards, more guns and more gates.”

In his view, that’s the wrong way to approach security. A better form of security would mimic the immune systems forged by nature rather than “a tough-talking Texas sheriff,” as Science Daily explained after interviewing Sagarin.

“A study of animal behavior suggests that advertising your security procedures and continually conveying to others that there is a state of elevated threat only helps inform potential terrorists of loopholes in the procedures, while keeping the general population uncertain and nervous,” according to Sagarin.

His solution is to focus on the big risks, be selective about whom and what to screen at the airports and, like nature, learn to live with the threats facing us.

In an age of skyrocketing security costs at home and trillion-dollar wars abroad, it’s a thought-provoking, compelling idea. But there are a few problems with what Sagarin calls “natural security.”

First, the reason the TSA inefficiently screens everyone at the airports is that screening only high-risk elements is known as profiling, which may be OK in nature but presents problems in egalitarian liberal democracies like ours.

Second, Sagarin’s argument that the U.S. focused solely on “more guards, more guns and more gates”overlooks the relationship between homeland security and national security.

Recognizing that we cannot defend against everything—it’s costly and impossible—Washington did not simply harden its defenses and hunker down after 9/11. Instead, the U.S. did the opposite by taking the fight to the enemy.

As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes in his essential Surprise, Security and the American Experience, which was written long before Sagarin released his book Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, “Most nations seek safety the way animals do: by withdrawing behind defenses, or making themselves inconspicuous, or otherwise avoiding whatever dangers there may be. Americans, in contrast, have generally responded to threats—and particularly surprise attacks—by taking the offensive, by becoming more conspicuous, by confronting, neutralizing and if possible overwhelming the sources of danger.”

For the United States, Gaddis explains, “expansion…is the path to security.” From the Monroe Doctrine and hemispheric hegemony, to America’s post-World War II global dominance and post-9/11 campaigns, history underlines Gaddis’ point. 

Third, even though we cannot defend against every threat, we—the West, the transatlantic community, a coalition of the willing, the U.S. alone—can defend against some threats. We can learn from past mistakes. And we can take actions that prevent or even remove some threats.

  • Pre-9/11, the FBI and CIA did not share information on suspected terrorists; other agencies could not detect or track financial transfers that funded the plot; and the U.S. government in general tried to treat al Qaeda as a latter-day mafia syndicate rather than what it is: a threat to national security. After 9/11, agencies were permitted to share info; communication replaced “stove-piping;” and the U.S. government targeted al Qaeda and its partners on the battlefield rather than in a courtroom.
  • This delayed reaction to the enemy was not new. Before 1947, many in the West, especially in Washington, held out hope that Stalin would be a partner in postwar stabilization. But after he unleashed his agents into Europe and then blockaded Berlin in 1948, Washington woke up, created NATO and began to wage a multi-faceted global struggle against a threat that had the capacity and intent to bury the West and the U.S.
  • And of course, pre-1941, even though the U.S. knew the threat posed by Imperial Japan was real, Washington failed to disrupt or defend against it. Likewise, pre-1939, even though Britain and France knew the threat posed by Nazi Germany was real, they failed to disrupt, defend against or remove it. Only after the Axis threat became existential did the U.S., Britain and others take action effectively ensuring that neither Japan nor Germany would ever threaten them again.

Individuals, by and large, do likewise. After all, we exterminate moles, destroy the wasp nest above the back porch and use vaccines to kill viruses inside us, knowing from past experience that if we don’t take these actions bad things could happen.

Of course, we also employ defensive measures. For example, we all know there is a risk that our homes could be burglarized. In response, some of us install alarm systems, others get a big dog, still others buy a gun.

Something not too dissimilar holds true in the animal world: Professor Sagarin’s observations notwithstanding, it seems that some animals do “advertise” their security assets and “convey” to others that they are on alert. What else are a porcupine’s spikes for, a lion’s roar, a skunk’s odor?

All of this is to say that nations—and individuals—sometimes do “get rid of risk” in their environment. Short of that, they try to deter or dissuade their enemies, predators or others who might threaten or encroach upon their zone of security. To be sure, they also live with certain threats.

However, nations and individuals don't really want to learn to live under the laws of nature or the law of the jungle, as Sagarin essentially suggests. To do so is to live under constant threat of attack. And to do that—whether you're a field mouse evading owls or a civilian bracing for the next terror attack—is to live in fear. Humans don't function very well in such a state. It’s one reason why we form societies, create governments, and build armies to protect us from some threats—and to eliminate others.