Paul Pillar

Fragility in America

I have been absent from these pages the past few days because my household is among the many in the mid-Atlantic region that had to practice how to live without electricity. The storm and resulting outages have not been without their advantages. My meteorological knowledge and my vocabulary have both expanded, for example, as I have learned what a derecho is. The refrigerator and freezer have received overdue cleanings once the spoiled and useless contents were removed. But unsurprisingly most of the thoughts this interruption to comfortable, modern American life has engendered have been negative.

A frequent theme of commentary following such events is how ill-prepared we evidently would be to cope with big disasters such as major terrorist attacks. Such comments were heard again after last week's storm, especially given the failure in the Washington area of some 911 emergency services. Those observations are valid, but my own thoughts went in somewhat different directions.

The effects of the power outages demonstrated how much the stability and prosperity of our society are built on highly interconnected and longstanding patterns of mutual dependence. An absence of electricity in homes meant people driving along roads without functioning traffic lights, to stores that because of their own outages may not have had the food and supplies the people were seeking.  When everything works well in normal times it is not because someone is doing something great today; it is instead because we are benefiting from patterns established in the past—established perhaps in part because of something great that someone once did, but at least as much because of a nation's good fortune involving geography and resources or the historical accidents underlying development of culture and customs.

It is not just physical infrastructure such as an electrical power grid that entails slowly developing mutual dependencies. It also is a matter of the behavior of individuals and institutions. I was at the mercy of my local power company regarding when I would get my power back. The company says that it follows reasonable priorities in working first to return power to vital facilities such as hospitals, and then to neighborhoods where a single repair can restore service to many customers rather than just a few. I have no reason to doubt that the utility does follow these priorities, but I really don't know if it does. Perhaps some of the local politicians, who always seem quick to make an issue of inadequate emergency responses, will help to keep the utility on the straight and narrow. I don't find this possibility very reassuring. Political pressure could have negative effects equivalent to plowing snow first on the streets where city councilmen happen to live, to the inconvenience of those who live on other streets.

Some of the most important long-standing patterns do not involve physical infrastructure at all. They involve the mutual expectations and habits that are important to the proper functioning of a liberal democracy. Those expectations and habits—although we take them for granted most of the time—are ultimately at least as fragile as any electrical grid.

These thoughts lead to the conclusion that the biggest threats to what is fragile (and valuable) in the United States come not from an external force such as a natural disaster or an attack by international terrorists. They come instead from a breakdown of our own long-established customs and mores, especially as they relate to political life. One can see disturbing signs of this in the deterioration of previous mutual respect, civility, and shared sense of need.