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The Age of the Unthinkable

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Ramo’s study of the dangers we confront is at once sobering and hopeful. Take terrorism. A few dollars worth of box cutters and a fanatical vision was all it took to “beat” the greatest military force in history and take down the World Trade Center.

Today, several wars, agencies, and hundreds of billions of dollars later, we shouldn’t assume that we can anticipate – let alone deter – the next attack. Yet that is what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in concert with other agencies, exists to do.

It’s a hopeless mission, Ramo argues. We can’t stop every strike. But we can boost our ability to absorb their effects. Doing so would spur us to invest in better education, transportation infrastructure, and national health coverage. DHS itself should be rechristened as DHR: Department of Homeland Resilience.

At first glance, those prescriptions seem trite – and some are undercooked – but Ramo is trying to help us recognize the power of slow, not fast, variables; the salience of background, not foreground; and the potentially destructive power of a single grain on the sand pile.

To survive and thrive in today’s unpredictable world, Ramo urges us to aim for “deep security.” Doing so requires a radical reorientation of our sense of safety.

In the game of Whac-a-Mole, traditional security tries to keep up with the randomly popping moles through better guessing and by honing reflexes to hit them faster. That just leads to exhaustion and failure. Deep security admits that one person can’t keep up. It asks everyone at the arcade to help.

Some tilt the machine, some hack the computer’s scoring, and others swarm overthe moles with dozens of small mallets.

Ramo’s concept of deep security is rooted in the body’s immune system. That may be an apt and reassuring analogy, but it’s also controversial.

Strong immune systems are built on a cold Nietzschean logic: that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Thus, exposure to many moderate viruses is a good thing, no?

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