Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Gargantuan "Failure of Imagination" Occurs Every 24 Months Under Emperor George W. Bush

In past 48 months the United States has suffered two colossal "failures of imagination": (1) The 9/11 attacks; (2) The devastation of Hurricane Katrina. These have not only cost tens of thousands of lives (including the death and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq), but hundreds of billions of dollars, and the peace of mind of tens of millions of citizens. These have been "Supersized Fuckups," if you will.

Having stated this, I say that not only should the United States have the Army Corps of Engineers, but it's own Intelligence Corps of Writers. Yes, writers. I'm a writer -- give me a set of variables and I'll give you a set of scenarios. Better yet, I'll give you scenarios with a few added variables -- "likelihoods." It's like a form of remote viewing. Writers, science fiction writers especially, have always been ahead of the social curve when it comes to imagining the future. Particularly calamities.

After the last four years, I'd say we need to have an entire wing at the Department of Homeland Security filled with writers coming up with scenarios -- and better yet, solutions.

Here's what I'm talking about. From Slate:
It's clear from the comments of the president, the governor, the FEMA director, and the secretary of homeland security that they never planned for this. I don't mean that they failed to anticipate the magnitude of the flooding; we knew that already. I mean that they have no idea how easily a natural disaster can turn human beings into a second-wave destructive force. They don't understand that disasters often bring out the worst in us, that the human dynamics are collective, and that "responsibility" is quickly swamped. If you don't understand these dynamics, you can't plan for them. You end up pleading for "personal responsibility" when what you needed was air drops and the National Guard.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. The 1977 New York City blackout led to an epidemic of stealing. The mayor of Charleston, S.C., during Hurricane Hugo says FEMA was clueless about law and order during that 1989 crisis. He thinks we need a military unit to take charge of these situations. That may be going a bit far, but we certainly need to think more systematically about the human dynamics of natural disasters. We run computer models of hurricanes, levee breaches, and flooding. What about isolation, desperation, looting, fighting, and shooting? It took the mayor of New Orleans three days to tell his cops to switch from rescue operations to controlling post-hurricane crime. Why? Because crime wasn't in the model.
Wasn't it just after 9/11 that a department in the U.S. government was created to bolster and improve the image of America overseas? Wasn't some crackerjack advertising executive put at the helm, and the net result a few commercial-like short films with smiling foreigners in America giving the "thumbs up"? And wasn't this all just an enormous waste of time, effort and money? Yes, it was. I could have helped with this, too: Living outside the United States, yet very close, I am in a unique position to report on how America is viewed outside the country and I have ideas for improving that image.

In 2002, I applied to work at the CIA-funded Rand Corporation. After they finished laughing at my application I was told that they only had offices in Washington, D.C. and California, and that my services, such as they were, were not needed.

The problem is, my idea -- which is a real solution -- hinges on one thing: America being serious about preventing the catastrophes it can prevent, and mitigating the losses and suffering from those it cannot prevent? Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that the 9/11 attacks were allowed to occur in order to provide the pretext needed to launch the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And since actions speak louder than words, the lethargy of the federal government in responding to the emergency in New Orleans speaks more of institutional racism than it does backasswards bureaucracy.

Would writers on the payroll have prevented 9/11 or sped up the response to the hurricane tragedy in New Orleans? Maybe. The problem with America is the problem with any nation -- it is like steering an ocean liner: it can't turn on a dime. And there are far too many hands groping for the wheel.

But as sailors of centuries past could read signs of coming storms in the sky and prepare for them, having writers onboard might provide some invaluable foresight to help guide Ocean Liner America.

My idea would only work if there was a genuine desire to have averted these catastrophes. While there is little question to general public would have wanted to avoid these tragedies, there's not much evidence the politicians would. There are too many votes and dollars to be made in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

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