How to Avoid “Stupid” Catastrophes

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Juliette Kayyem, who worked in counterterrorism before turning to a career in emergency management, makes a distinction among crisis, disaster, and catastrophe. In case it isn’t already clear, we are living in an era of catastrophes—events that feature significant, preventable destruction, suffering, or death. Louisianans did not imagine surviving Hurricane Laura only to turn on their generators and die of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Disease and a lack of clean water should not have killed tens of thousands of people in the weeks after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

In Kayyem’s field, these types of losses are called “stupid” or indirect deaths, because they didn’t have to happen. Her new book, “The Devil Never Sleeps,” whose title derives from something that a tornado survivor once told her, explores the power of planning for the unthinkable and the futility of expecting a trouble-free existence. We cannot stop the earthquake or the tsunami, but by identifying gaps in preparedness and improving our responses we may mitigate the consequences. “Less bad is our twenty-first-century standard,” Kayyem writes. Or, as she put it when we met last week for lunch, “We have to get better at failing safer.”

Kayyem, who directs the Homeland Security Project and the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, had driven to New York to see her publisher. She arrived at Chama Mama, a Georgian restaurant on the Upper West Side, lamenting that she had brought mostly springlike clothing for what turned out to be an unusually blustery, frigid day. Never mind—she carries an extra coat in her car, along with a glass-breaking tool, in case a bridge collapses. (“Everyone gets one irrational fear.”) She told me, “I live by a weird motto. I do not want my last words to be ‘I’m such an idiot.’ ”

A pot of mint tea arrived. Kayyem had been thinking about how to convey her book succinctly. The term “prepper” does not appear—no stockpiles of beans in a bunker—but the book is in many ways a paean to the art of good preparation. “All the drama in the world tends to result in the same eight lessons,” she told me. The key to staying out of trouble, and responding to it, is to expect that “anything can happen.” Sony failed to picture itself as the target of a massive cyberattack; Boeing should have better trained its pilots on the 737 MAX’s operating system. Drivers should travel prepared for blizzards. Kayyem writes, “We are all crisis managers now: at home, at work, in the world.”

I asked her whether there was a line between preparedness and paranoia. She thought about it for a minute and replied, “Paranoia is the pursuit of perfection.” There is no perfect preparation and no perfect response. She prefers to ask, “What’s gonna get me eighty per cent of the way there?” In a crisis, you have to move. “I try to take emotions out of all of it,” she said. “I’m very operational.”

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Kayyem graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995, the year that Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, killing a hundred and sixty-eight people and injuring hundreds of others. Kayyem later described that shocking event as part of a “slow awakening” to “our vulnerabilities at home.” She went to work as a civil-rights attorney in the Justice Department and soon became an adviser to the Attorney General, Janet Reno. In 2009, then President Barack Obama appointed Kayyem as an Assistant Secretary of the relatively new Department of Homeland Security, where she oversaw her counterparts in the fifty states.

In 2013, Kayyem’s columns for the Boston Globe were named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. In several of the pieces, she urged the Pentagon to lift its ban on women serving on the front lines in combat; the Defense Department soon did so. Kayyem came to wider public attention that year, after speaking authoritatively, on national television, about the Boston Marathon bombing: as Massachusetts’s former undersecretary of homeland security, she had helped design and implement protocols that went into place moments after the blasts. In “Security Mom,” a memoir published in 2016, she wrote that the nation needed to “redesign how we pay for disasters,” urging “proactivity instead of reactivity,” a concept reiterated—and expounded upon—in “The Devil Never Sleeps.”

On CNN, Kayyem contextualizes breaking news as an on-air national-security analyst. She does the same on Twitter, for an audience of more than two hundred thousand, leavening difficult messages with upbeat tweets about surfing, running, and the family dog. Kayyem unequivocally framed the assault on the U.S. Capitol as domestic terrorism. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, she was among those who urged a shutdown of public spaces, and last year she wrote, in The Atlantic, that “a no-fly list for unvaccinated adults is an obvious step that the federal government should take.” In the same article, she observed—not without backlash—that “vaccinated people should no longer carry the burden” for those who had chosen to forgo vaccination.

Scary stuff, delivered scarily, would almost certainly overwhelm the message. In “The Devil Never Sleeps,” Kayyem takes a relatable and, at times, almost playful approach. (“Zombie studies are a real thing.”) Subheadings include “What’s in Those Tacos?” and “It Snows in Texas.” She buoys what might otherwise appear to be a dark world view by assuring readers of their own agency. The government, company, community, or individual who foresees trouble and knows even the basics of how to respond may better manage or survive it—and help others do the same.

As the friend and relative who nags others about situational awareness and distributes well-packed go-bags, I may be Kayyem’s born reader. A devotee of “all-hazards planning,” she presents a range of case studies for what went both wrong and right. Her book contains surprisingly positive revelations about a nuclear facility near Fukushima that survived a tsunami without leaking radiation, and the Ever Given, the cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal. (The supply chain kept moving, despite the blockage of a major global waterway.) Kayyem told me, “The story that’s neglected is that an industry was able to shift.”

The night before we met, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars. Afterward, Denzel Washington slid over to Smith and told him, “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” Kayyem was watching and tweeting. But she resisted the obvious tie-in to the title of her book. She had recently drawn fire for tweeting that public-safety officials should slash the tires of the trucker convoy impeding trade between the U.S. and Canada. She told me, “I have strong feelings about reproductive rights, I have strong feelings about the Academy Awards, but I stay in my lane.” She avoided trouble, tweeting, “I’m choosing to focus on the great news that @questlove just won an #Oscars for #SummerOfSoul.”

In 2019, Kayyem was forced to respond to what some might consider a gap in her own awareness. That September, she accepted a short-term consulting position with NSO Group, the Israeli technology company whose Pegasus spyware has been used to surveil journalists and human-rights workers. Various publications have reported that NSO software was found in the hacked phones of people close to the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who had been murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, in 2018. NSO has denied that its tools were used to monitor Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia, and contributed to the Washington Post’s opinion pages.

When the Post hired Kayyem to write for those same opinion pages, her NSO consultancy became a point of contention. Kayyem told me that she had provided “full disclosure” to the newspaper; she nevertheless voluntarily backed away from the offer—and eventually left NSO Group. Yet the association lingered. In early 2020, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center invited Kayyem to speak at a Webinar about how female journalists could protect themselves physically and virtually. A staffer at the Committee to Protect Journalists tweeted that the scheduled appearance was like inviting a “coal executive to talk about renewable energy.” The event was cancelled.

Until we talked, Kayyem had not publicly addressed her work for NSO Group except to tweet, in a prepared statement, that she believed that she could help insure that the company’s products would be “used appropriately.” She noted, “There is a critical role for cyber technology in the fight against terrorism, child sexual predators and other serious crime,” and “I still believe reasonable people can disagree on issues of our security and rights.”

When I asked Kayyem about this, she called her association with NSO Group “a miscalculation.” She said that she was brought in to help implement “structural reforms.” Two other high-profile advisers, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and Gérard Araud, France’s former Ambassador to the United States, were hired at the same time. Kayyem told me that she worked with the company’s legal team: “I never had any operational oversight. I never knew who their clients were.” She said that she “fell on the wrong side of an understandable sentiment about what this group was.” In “The Devil Never Sleeps,” this kind of response is known as a “managed retreat.”

Kayyem does not mention NSO Group in her book. She describes the Department of Homeland Security only as a “behemoth whose capabilities and competencies have often been under scrutiny.” Readers might have benefitted from insights into both. Instead, she roundly prescribes vigilance in the face of experts’ false assurances. At lunch, she said, “Lots of people are getting very, very rich by convincing you the devil is not coming.” She mentioned, not by name, former military generals now working in private-sector security jobs, and lamented a prevailing attitude: “If you just buy enough stuff and get enough wise men, you, too, will be fine.”

Kayyem frames devastating events in terms of a horizontal timeline. At the center is “the boom”—the awful thing that has happened or may happen. “Left of boom” refers to precipitating actions or inactions—say, NASA’s failure to heed the warning of the contractor who correctly predicted that the space shuttle Challenger’s now infamous O-ring would not hold. (Everyone on board died when the shuttle exploded, in 1986.) “Right of boom” refers to how entities respond in the wake of the crash, flood, fire, mass shooting, cyberattack, bombing, pandemic. In class, Kayyem asks her students to think about how they would spend a hundred pennies of security funding. She uses the exercise to illustrate how often we create “glaring and indefensible gaps” by investing too much on the left, too little on the right, or sometimes vice versa.

If the concept of sustained preparedness sounds like a depressing way to live, it may help to think of it, rather, as tactical. This can be carried out at the personal level. In the event of trouble, what is your plan? Do you have water? Fresh batteries? Is there gas in the car? Where are your medications? What about the dog? Kayyem writes, “It may seem I am asking for overreaction, 24-7. But that is only a criticism if one sees overreaction as a bad response.” Underreacting can turn an emergency “into a calamity.”

In “The Devil Never Sleeps,” Kayyem leaves the reader with the idea that we must learn from history (“An important lesson from the tragedy of Columbine is that we taught our children to run”) while understanding the importance of revision (“Formal active shooter drills are less beneficial than once thought. The trauma to students, especially younger ones, outweighs any benefit they may gain”). Living “more confidently in anticipation” of potentially catastrophic events requires “nurturing our immediate responses again and again and again.” She noted that the 2020 hurricane season brought an unprecedented thirty named storms, and wrote, “Mostly, we need to stop being surprised.”

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