Thursday, November 1

Then and Now: Instructive parallels between 9/11/01-Benghazi and Katrina-Sandy storms

So much has been happening on two fronts -- the incident now known simply as "Benghazi" and the Sandy Superstorm -- that my attempts to keep up with news about both has made me feel as if I'm watching a lightning-fast tennis match. I've been determined to keep up because I'm seeing what I find to be instructive parallels between four events: Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and 2012. It's just that I'm having a hard time articulating what I find so instructive about the parallels. What follows is the best explanation I can muster at this time.

Sandy and Katrina

Several of the worst incidents from Sandy would have happened under any conditions in that storm. The fires in the Breezy Point neighborhood in Queens, New York are one example.  But I think it's a different story, one strikingly reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with regard to the devastation that Sandy wreaked on New Jersey beachfront communities. 

All up and down the New Jersey coast, as Brian Williams (NBC News) described last night to Larry Kudlow (CNBC's Kudlow Show) after he saw the devastation first-hand, Sandy's strike created a new shoreline and swallowed many miles of beach in the process. Brian told Larry that the wind-driven waters just swept through everything in their path.

That sounded to me like an echo of the underlying situation that allowed Hurricane Katrina )2005) to cause such devastation to Gulf coast shores.  I recall that flood management engineers and environmentalists who looked into the Katrina tragedy identified the disappearance of vast marshy 'wetlands' as the underlying reason for the great devastation that the hurricane wreaked on the Gulf coastline and coastal cities.  This is because the marshy lands act as kind of sponge for the wind-driven waters. So they're the first line of defense against an ocean's fury during a hurricane.

Without the networks of wetlands, the second line of defense -- the 'barrier islands' -- is little barrier during a significant storm.  So the coastline for the land mass behind the islands no longer has any real defense against the brunt of the water's pounding during a high-velocity hurricane -- or even the slow-churning lesser winds of a storm like Sandy. 

Benghazi and 9/11/01

As more and more layers are peeled from the Benghazi tragedy, we find a defense community in pretty much the same situation that existed in the weeks prior to the 9/11/01 attack. From monitoring 'signals intelligence' in 2001, defense analysts knew, by picking up a lot of 'chatter,' that a terrorist group(s) was preparing a major attack on American soil. But they didn't know exactly where or when the attack would occur.

From eyewitness accounts and whistleblowers at State, CIA and DOD, a parallel story is emerging about conditions prior to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. The comparison isn't entirely symmetrical because it came out just yesterday that by the middle of August, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was quite sure a major attack would be launched against the U.S. Benghazi mission, and that it could be imminent -- and he communicated his assessment in a cable directly to SecState Hillary Clinton with copies to relevant parties in Washington. But I think my comparison holds together in a general fashion: there was the same ostrich behavior on the part of Washington, the American media and the public in the months leading to both "9/11" attacks.

It's as if a new era arrived, with its vast changes in weather patterns and attack patterns, and nobody is yet fully processing the nature of the threats. I guess such an observation is actually old news. But Sandy coming on the heels of Benghazi struck me as a kind of exclamation mark to the fact that civilizations start to fall at the point where they're no longer able to process the cumulative effects of their past.

Then and Now

I know I'm not saying all that very well. Casting around for an analogy to further explain -- it's like people who know on one level they're aging but don't adjust their lifestyle patterns to acknowledge the fact.

A man in his late 40s has a heart attack. It turns out that in many ways he's been living as if he was still in his early 20s -- burning the candle at both ends, heavy drinking on the weekends, black coffee for breakfast, burger and fries for lunch, and so on.

Actually nobody 'gets away' with such behaviors; they do take a toll on the body, but the natural vigor and recuperative powers during youth mask the toll. Then, when the natural defenses of youth disappear, the cumulative toll combined with the older body produce a serious health issue.

It's the same in many ways with any nation, any civilization; there's a toll for all the little mistakes it makes, but this isn't very evident during the civilization's youth. Then the civilization becomes brittle with doing the same things the same way over and over, complete with the same little mistakes.  Then one day it meets with events that are new to it. Then the cumulative effects of its earlier mistakes and repetitive behaviors combine with the new events to produce what seems to be a sudden catastrophic setback that leads to a fall.

While taking in news reports on Sandy I was struck by the many times meteorologists used the term "unprecedented" to describe the storm. Unprecedented in the history of the American nation, perhaps, but this land has probably been visited by many strange and violent weather patterns going back millenniums. What's different is that for millenniums the shores that fronted the oceans had powerful natural protection -- wind breaks that had probably been in existence as long as the land mass itself existed.

Then, in the space of about a century, the crucial wind breaks -- the wetlands -- began to shrivel then all but disappeared. That was 'okay,' in the manner of a young person getting away with burger and fries for lunch, as long as the global weather pattern remained relatively gentle. Now the pattern seems to be cycling into another type -- one that might be very violent for several years, whether or not it's the harbinger of a new kind of global warming trend.

Why did the wetlands become a ghost of their former selves? For the answer I'd have to dig into this blog's archives or return to doing the kind of research I did after Hurricane Katrina. But I vaguely recall the disappearance was due to a combination of things; among them, waste from modern industry being dumped into waters near the wetlands and, paradoxically, the brilliant engineering feats that created the modern system of levees. The latter somehow interfered with the ecosystem of the wetlands.

The levees were 'okay' in that they were built to withstand a certain level of water force. They were no longer okay when the force greatly increased.

The point is that weather events in this century that wreaked "unprecedented" damage on the Gulf Coast and now the Atlantic Coast might be a reflection of weakened protection for the shore lands -- something that's been on its way for a century.

In the same manner the Cold War way of doing things was 'okay.' But when Washington and West  European capitals applied the Cold War template, which had worked well in Eastern Europe, to the modern Middle East and North Africa they faced an Islamist movement that was not focused on a quest for democracy.

So one might say that Washington's inability to head off the attacks on the U.S. Benghazi mission and the U.S. embassy in Cairo was the most visible result of repetitive Cold War behaviors. Although Washington and other NATO countries gave lip service to dealing with the Islamist threat they were tending to ignore the now in favor of a time when their behaviors seemed to work okay. The catch is that the time, like the body of a 20 year-old for a man in his 40s, no longer exists.

What is renewal, anyhow?

Of course there are limits to the parallels one can find between an individual and a nation or civilization. But I think it's within bounds to ask whether a nation that's had severe setbacks can right itself, in the way a person in his 40s who's had a heart attack can expect to live a long life if he makes healthy changes his lifestyle.

I think the answer depends on what one means by a nation "righting itself." To switch analogies somewhat, I've seen makeover artists work wonders on both men and women and do it without surgery -- not only shave years off their appearance but also make them look more attractive.

How do the makeover artists do it? What's their secret?

First, they refuse to see the person they're making over as the person wants to see himself or herself.

What makes many people look so old is trying to look the way they did during a specific stage in their life -- often, their senior year in high school! This means they've created an image in their mind of how they should look -- an image that ignores who they are now. The upshot is that they look very inappropriate.

Oddly, this translates to the person looking older to others than he is.

So the makeover artist takes years off a person's appearance not by trying to make him look younger but by making him look appropriate to his present.

Can these observations somehow be applied to a nation, if only in a limited sense? My hunch is that the answer is somehow yes.

As to exactly how the observations somehow apply -- I'll have to ponder some more and get back to you on that.


Charles Cameron (hipbone) said...

Hi Pundita:

Two things strike me strongly about this post.

The first is that you have an amazing breadth of thought going on here – especially in your paragraph:

It's as if a new era arrived, with its vast changes in weather patterns and attack patterns, and nobody is yet fully processing the nature of the threats. I guess such an observation is actually old news. But Sandy coming on the heels of Benghazi struck me as a kind of exclamation mark to the fact that civilizations start to fall at the point where they're no longer able to process the cumulative effects of their past.

Seeing parallels between Benghazi and 9/11, or between Sandy and Katrina, would be one thing – but managing to see parallel changes in both "weather patterns and attack patterns" is quite another -- and even though people may want to question and qualify some of the details, the overall scope and view is breathtaking.

The second point is your analogy between the state of the nation, and the older guy with the makeover artist. That's powerful, too.

I very much hope you'll do your further pondering here on the blog. And in any case, thanks for this post: in my view, it's one of your very finest.

Pundita said...

Charles -- Thank you. Pundita is one part Thinker and one part Street Fighter. As to the latter, wait'll you see the next post. Remember the Alamo! BANZAI!