another excerpt from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a
publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
I am beginning to see the appeal of this austere, cerebral memorial. I don’t know most of the victims, and neither will others who come here. The memorial is not meant for memory but for connection. It tells us nothing but the names and the birthdates of the victims, but I see now that those are enough to build a web of connections. Just those facts drain some of the anonymity from the dead. They are all that’s needed to pull us out of airy sentiment and make us feel instead the concrete loss the victims and their families suffered.
It’s not much, in fact it’s sadly impersonal, but it’s more than most memorials can convey.
With Chertoff’s full support, I fought back against the determined resistance of airlines, foreign governments, and civil liberties groups; we put in place a coherent border inspection strategy despite them. We hadn’t won every battle when I left, but we were winning, and it looked as though the new Secretary and the new administration would keep up the fight. That was satisfying.
But satisfaction was not what I was feeling. I’ve never understood political memoirs that are a long tale of successes. In my experience, government rarely offers clear victories. The more ambitious your goals -- if you want to do more than enjoy the limo rides, if you want to solve problems and reshape policies – the more likely you are to fail. In ways that hurt so bad you’ll never forget them.
Maybe other government memoirists are better at putting their failures behind them. But I can’t, maybe because I fear that my failures will end up costing the country as much as the failures that led to 9/11.
That’s because the same exponential changes that undercut border defenses are at work elsewhere. Moore’s Law, which has predicted decades of exponential growth in computer capabilities, is creating scary new vulnerabilities here at home; soon a host of criminal and military organizations will be able to leave individuals bankrupt and countries without power or a financial system. Similar exponential changes in biotechnology will empower a generation of garage hackers who may or may not end up curing cancer but who will certainly end up making smallpox at home.
Unlike jet travel, these technologies have not yet been misused on the scale of 9/11. And without three thousand dead, business, international, and civil liberties groups have been ferocious in opposing any action that might head off disaster. I struggled to sound the alarm, to prepare the country for network and biological attacks, but I failed more often than I succeeded.
That’s over now. I’ve been relieved. The new administration has embraced civil liberties rhetoric with enthusiasm. Some of them seemed convinced that they have a mandate to roll back any security measure that reduced privacy or inconvenienced the international community. I don’t think that will happen with border security, but the new administration’s deference to privacy groups and international opinion will make it far harder to do anything about the new threats.
Maybe, I think, they’re right not to pick those fights. Maybe Americans are tired of battle, tired of remembering 9/11, tired of its lessons. Perhaps the fight against the new threats will just have to wait until something bad happens.