The rationale for using terror as a means of warfare is, “It’s easy to do, and I get a big bang for my buck,” he continued. If, in a more resilient society, terrorism “became less easy to do, then fewer people would be capable of doing it. And if they did it, it’s a fizzle, not a bang,” making the use of terrorism against that society less attractive. Intent and capability, and thus the threat as a whole, would be diminished. The goal of resilience is not just to design systems so they can withstand shocks, but also so they can “fail gracefully and recover nicely.”
Resilience policies can involve governments informing the public in greater detail about the nature of contemporary terrorist threats and how to spot potential plots. They can involve governments creating community preparedness plans modeled on fire and building codes, developing mobile-phone apps to issue alerts in the event of an attack, and encouraging constituents to receive training in tactical first aid. It’s a cliche, but one that also happens to be true: People can’t entirely control the threat of terrorism, but they can control how they react to it. And exercising that control might actually decrease the threat.
What resilience does not mean is neglecting efforts to prevent terrorism. We don’t resign ourselves to car accidents: We enact laws against drunk driving and we install air bags. Instead, the goal is for societies to determine the lengths they are willing to go to try and stop terrorist attacks, and then to find ways to reconcile with the risk that remains by minimizing the costs of terrorism and, when attacks occur, learning from what went wrong and funneling those insights back into prevention.
Flynn pointed to federally funded emergency drills with security and medical personnel, which have helped contain the damage inflicted by attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing. (As with climate-change adaptation, resilience measures are typically implemented in partnership with local government, civil society, and the private sector.) “Every single person who didn’t die immediately [in Boston] was in a hospital [or en route to one] in 22 minutes, and they all survived,” he said.
But, in his opinion, the Obama administration has failed to build resilience on a number of fronts. What worries him most is the “dirty bomb in the box” scenario in which, for example, explosives mixed with radiological material are placed in a container and detonated at a U.S. port. “Should that happen, the response almost certainly will be to shut everything down to sort it out,” Flynn told me. “And that will create a series of cascading events that will shut down the global trade system within about two to three weeks.”
“Today we have no plan for how to deal with that. There’s no organized effort to work either with industry or countries for that scenario,” Flynn said. “One of the thinnest documents coming out of the Obama administration … is the Global Supply Chain Security Strategy that’s, like, five and a half pages, which includes the executive summary.”