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The Wall and ‘Supply Side Security’

It’s time to move past “do-we-or-don’t we shell Saddam” to the stuff burning holes in our hearts. Let’s name what we’re really after. Isn’t it security, to know that when we say good-bye to our families in the morning we’ll live to say hello again over the dinner table at night? To know that our kids get to have grandkids someday?

So let’s talk about security, and look at more than today’s headlines when we do. Then we’d have a few clues about how to handle the current “terror of the decade,” who turns out to be the same guy we supported in the 1980s when he was gassing the Iranians, our terror of another decade.

Bad News

Let’s start with the bad news, which unfortunately, is about as bad as it gets. Anybody and his brother can get super-killer weapons, and it’s going to get worse. Until recently, the bar of technology for producing those weapons was so high that only a handful of determined nations could acquire them. But technology drops the bar year by year, so low that today, any determined individual or group can acquire machine guns, surface-to-air missiles and bombs. The time lag in moving weapons from state monopoly to mass availability? Two to three human generations.

Want a peek at what our children and grandchildren are going to confront in their backyards tomorrow? Just take a look at what is in the labs and secret arsenals of nations today. What we see there ought to stop us in our tracks: weapons that place within the hands of one or two persons the power to destroy millions. Nuclear bombs in a suitcase; chemical and biological devastation in a can.

We cannot be more than a few decades from a time when someone will be capable of splicing, say, the HIV virus into the common cold virus. It is hard to resist the conclusion that by the time my grandchildren are adults, weapons of large-scale destruction will be accessible to thousands. Grim experience also suggests these weapons will be used.

Update Security

Will our grandchildren survive? Only if we update our notions of security. Current understandings rest security on military strength. By possessing weapons capable of devastating any attacker, we hope to deter aggression. History makes clear, of course, that deterrence is an unreliable defense. We ourselves have been victims of attack by groups who should have been deterred and were not. But for such occasions we trust in superior strength to limit damage and defeat those who are undeterred.

Deterrence and superior force worked pretty well, until science caught up with us a few decades ago. In my grandparents’ youth, travel was hard and crude technology limited the killing power of weapons. These natural limits created a security barrier so high that serious threats to America were few. But those days are gone. People now travel easily and in large numbers.

Worse, weapons travel and circle the globe unaccompanied – in missiles, airplanes, shipping containers, packages in the mail, even in rays of energy. Perhaps worst of all, weapons are cheap, and widely accessible. We have a lot more than “international” relations to worry about today. A few dozen determined individuals scattered around the globe can wound us so badly that we go into national crisis. It’s like waking up to see that a wall ten feet thick and a dozen feet tall got lopped off at five feet.

So why not just raise the wall higher and stay ahead of the rising tide? Well, how fast can you build a wall? Something like the speed of addition. And how fast is the threat increasing? Exponentially.

The genies of mass destruction are already out of the bottle. They are getting cheaper and more accessible by the year and worse ones are coming. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the capacity of enemies to do us terrible harm will multiply faster than our ability to deter or destroy them.

If the math doesn’t convince you, think about the drug war. After years of effort here and abroad, billions of dollars and mounds of political rhetoric, drugs still arrive daily, by the ton, in all 50 states. Please, give me some scenario with even a remote chance of security against weapons so small you could hide a dozen in one drug shipment! And remember that as weapons get more deadly, our margin for error decreases. Overlooking a dozen shotguns is one thing; overlooking a dozen SAMs is quite another. Overlooking a dozen canisters of biological weapons, well…

Increasingly we live in a world where none will be secure until all are secure. In this world, old doctrines will give us no peace in the night. In fact they will make things worse, for any influential nation that looks comfortably oblivious to the needs of others or menacing and arrogant will arouse widespread resentment.

Supply Side Security

So what is the alternative? Up till now we have practiced “demand side security” that focused only on our needs as consumers of security. “What will make us safe?” was the question and “build a wall of armaments” was the answer. The well-being of others, least of all the well-being of our detractors, was of little concern.

In the future we will have to practice “supply side security” and ask questions we ignored when we looked only at the world as consumers of security. What are the sources of enmity against us, and how could those sources be reduced? How can we increase the supply of goodwill, which is ultimately the most stable and plentiful source of security? What could be done to cause others to see us as important allies in meeting their own critical needs?

We will have to take seriously the goal of hearing and understanding needs, building economies, schools, hospitals; earning a reputation for deep, impassioned commitment to the well-being of all and accountability to the world community.

There is an old saying: If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail. It is time for America to demonstrate to the world that we have more tools in our security toolbox than big hammers. Our task is to leave no doubt that we care as much about the survival of others as our own. And we don’t even need to be generous to do this.

The truth is, our own survival is at stake.


Ronald S. Kraybill

Dr. Ronald S. Kraybill is a facilitator, consultant and trainer in conflict resolution based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was Senior Advisor on Peacebuilding and Development for the United Nations in Lesotho and the Philippines, 2009-2014, Professor of Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University, 1996-2007, Director of Training at the Centre… MORE >

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