Commentary: Nature's lessons for adapting to the terrorist threat

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 8, 2010 

TUCSON, Ariz. — As we breathe a collective sigh of relief that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's recent alleged attempt to blow up an airliner failed, we also must come to grips with the critical fact that our enemies have been adapting to our security measures faster than we're able to change them.

After 9/11, we increased body screening of passengers, so Richard Reid tried to blow up an airliner with a shoe bomb. After Reid, we started checking passengers' shoes, so al Qaida devised plans to destroy an airliner with a liquid explosive. After we discovered the liquid explosive plot, we began banning most liquids, so Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to blow up an airliner using a powdered explosive.

Now we've announced to the world that passengers no longer will be able to cover themselves with blankets or books in the last interminable hour of a flight, a measure to which terrorists will adapt again. Whether it's terrorists or cyber-hackers or insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, we appear to lack the adaptability that our enemies possess, and while almost every after-action report on the latest disaster urges our security agencies to adapt more quickly, we appear to be at a loss about how to do that.

It would help to get out into nature more. Natural organisms have been dealing with lethal threats for 3.5 billion years, and evolution has produced millions of examples of how to survive in a dangerous, changing and unpredictable environment.

These survivors are still around because they're adaptable, and they're adaptable because almost all of them are organized with limited central control and a lot of autonomy to individual parts that sense and respond to threats.

For example, an octopus' skin is covered with countless color cells that change instantaneously — without much centralized deliberation — to match its surroundings, an adaptation that helps the octopus avoid predators and be a better predator itself.

By contrast, we humans continue to rely on small, centralized groups of experts in Washington to determine the latest security protocols, which then become orders that the rest of the population must follow, no matter how irrelevant to the local threat they may be.

Organisms in nature also adapt by reducing uncertainty for themselves and increasing it for their adversaries. Birds flock to increase the uncertainty for predators looking for weaklings. Cicadas emerge en masse after hiding underground for 13 or 17 years because prime number periods are much less predictable than yearly seasonal cycles.

Predators stalk from hidden vantages to increase the uncertainty of unsuspecting prey. Yet we do the opposite of what nature does, reducing the uncertainty of our enemies by telling them exactly what we're searching for, and increasing our own uncertainty by providing a shrill and constant level of nearly meaningless color-coded warnings. Does anyone, for example, know what we should do differently if the Department of Homeland Security raises the threat level from orange (where it's sat since 2006) to red?

Finally, organisms are adaptable because they employ diverse symbiotic partnerships to extend their capabilities beyond what their own bodies provide. Indeed, the one clear success in our security systems, beginning on 9/11, has been the adaptability shown by individual humans who've recognized the need to work with and for their fellow passengers.

Passengers on United Flight 93 gave their lives to bring their hijacking to a premature end in a Pennsylvania field. Reid — and allegedly Abdulmutallab — failed because passengers had adapted from the "play possum" mode, which had worked well with hijackers who only wanted to make political statements, to a "honeybee" defense. Having learned that today's hijackers are a lethal threat to the hive, these individuals risked their own lives to save others.

Likewise, soldiers in Iraq, who come to sense threats like the skin of an octopus does, quickly learned that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the biggest threat and demanded help from the Department of Defense, to the point of publicly embarrassing former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Although the Pentagon's deployment of more heavily armored vehicles was fraught with problems (they arrived after the IED threat in Iraq was on the decline, and they're too big and heavy to use in Afghanistan), Army Gen. David Petraeus' strategy of forging partnerships with local citizens to infiltrate the networks of bomb makers helped curb the threat.

Petraeus' strategy demonstrates that by providing resources and basic rules of engagement, even large centralized bureaucracies can help largely autonomous and adaptable security systems flourish. To do so, however, the leaders of the agencies responsible for security need to lose their bunker mentality, venture out into nature and stare into the eye of an octopus.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Dr. Rafe Sagarin is a research scientist at the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, in Tucson (www.environment.arizona.edu). He's the editor, with Dr. Terence Taylor, of "Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World" (University of California Press, 2008) and the facilitator of an interdisciplinary working group that's studying the lessons that nature and evolution hold for security in society.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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