Going the Distance (after 9/11)

by rthieme on October 30, 2001

Americans tend to be sprinters.  Hair-trigger reflexes at the ready, we wait at the line for the gun, and when it comes, we shoot out of the blocks and burn it up.

The wars we fought in the Gulf, in Panama, Somalia, Grenada, were sprints. We broke that tape and returned to our homes.

Now our homes are the front lines.

When we find ourselves in a long distance run like the Viet Nam War, we are more vulnerable. We did not lose a single major battle in Viet Nam, but we lost the war. The famous Tet Offensive turned a military defeat for the opponent into a propaganda victory that broke our will. In Somalia, a thirty-second video clip of a dead U. S. Army Ranger was the weapon that shattered our confidence.

Today the world is a theater and a chronic state of warfare is our current script. Before September 11, most Americans were unaware of that fact.

Now, everybody understands.

The September 11 attack was theater. The timing of the second hit to be visible to television cameras was impeccable. The terrorists counted on networks to show those images again and again, reinforcing their impact in a way that turned the networks – filters for the mind of society – into implicit allies. They used the mind of society to aim terror at the mind of society.

That’s how asymmetric warfare works. It’s “death by a thousand cuts.”

In the new battlespace, the mind of society is both target and weapon. That we are all on the front lines is just beginning to percolate through our collective denial.

The war against terrorism is like the Viet Nam War, except it is fought here, there, everywhere in the world. Saddam Hussein was the last person on earth willing to confront the military force of the United States symmetrically. Spectators then, now actors, our enemies watched and learned their lessons. They are trying to execute the wisdom of Sun Tzu from two thousand years ago. All warfare, Sun Tzu said, is based on deception. Wars are won by managing perception, controlling  the opponent rather than destroying him.

This war is a long distance run, not a sprint. It is being fought in the mind of society. Long distance running requires a different kind of discipline and a different kind of training. It is not a jog in the park or even a marathon. It is a race with no beginning and no end, global in scope, and it will ask everything of us.

“The ideal war,” I said in a speech last July at the Black Hat Briefings for security and intelligence personnel, “is one which no one realizes is being waged. It is invisible. War need never be declared again, because we are always at war.”

This is the war in which we are all engaged.

Be alert! the President of the United States told us. Then he added, go back to your normal lives.

Between those two orders is a huge gulf. “Normal life” will never be the same. The battle against organizational and individual denial is the first order of business. We can create new routines, but “normal lives” are a thing of the past. Those who pretend otherwise do us a disservice and demean our capacity to respond appropriately and even heroically.

Wisdom and insanity are contextual. When the earth shifts on its axis or the ground shifts under our feet, what once seemed insane may now be appropriate. What was once wise may no longer make sense.

In the context of the attack, what does it mean to “be alert?”

To become alert is one thing, to remain alert is another. In the immediate shock of attack, adrenaline rushes through our bodies, fuel-injecting awareness. Our senses process information at an accelerated rate. But after we calm down, our scanning apparatus returns to its default position. We filter out those thousands of impressions that seem irrelevant to daily survival.

To be alert at a higher level requires training. We have to be willing to learn new habits. We need credible structures to do that training effectively. We need the will and the discipline to remain committed to the long run. We need to be accountable to mutually-agreed-upon goals. Above all, we need a vision articulated clearly and forcefully as a plumb line for keeping ourselves aligned.

A commitment to stay the course at the highest level of intentionality doesn’t mean that we don’t get discouraged. It means that when we do, we know how to get ourselves encouraged again.

This will not just happen. We don’t just say to ourselves one evening, be alert! and find ourselves alert in the morning. We need training and we need to practice.

One area in which we need to be trained is anomaly detection, learning to see what doesn’t fit the patterns of normal life.  Then we need to be trained to know how to respond.

It’s not that we’re all to become little spies. It’s more like a global neighborhood watch in which the commitment to collective security outweighs indifference to what’s happening next door.  The terrorists of September 11 lived in areas with a high turnover rate, where no one noticed and no one cared. We are now called both to notice and to care.

“The phrase ‘anomaly detection’ has been the cornerstone of intelligence operations through the ages” said a veteran intelligence officer, “from the bird that brought a branch to Noah to today’s massive changing patterns in all walks of life.”

It means learning to see what’s right in front of our eyes. We can be trained to notice indicators and warnings, the telltale behaviors that signal that something is not quite right. Those skills shade inevitably into the consciousness training techniques that are aspects of martial arts. They are also the “spiritual tools” handed down by all of the world’s religions.

For individuals and for societies, becoming alert begins with a shift in intention. It’s like deciding to become more physically fit. One minute you’re sedentary, the next you’re building structures – hiring a trainer, reading about nutrition, gathering support – toward the goal of a lifestyle change. It’s the difference between sprinting and long-distance running.

I propose that we organize a grass-roots effort on behalf of educating and training average citizens who find themselves on the front lines of this new kind of battle. The Homeland Defense Organization is to be a loosely organized network of classes, training opportunities, and awareness-enhancing experiences.

Since September 11, many people have experienced a sense of urgency and a desire to “do something.” The Homeland Defense Organization channels that desire in productive ways, providing constructive means for transforming anxiety into positive energy.

All of the good in humanity and all of the evil are going to show up. There are real rocks up ahead in the rapids, but as a friend who did white water kayaking said, look at the rocks, you hit the rocks. Look at the water between the rocks, you go where the water goes.

This war requires all of our mental, emotional, and spiritual capabilities so we can stay focused on the flow of the water and go where the water goes.

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