Head in the Sand

image by Antoon Foobar

This has been around for a while now, but for those of you who haven’t seen it:

Cops outraged after NYU class requires students to plot a terrorist attack” (NYP) – the article details NYU professor (and decorated  Navy veteran) Marie-Helen Maras, and her requirement that students produce a 10-15 page paper “hypothetically [planning] a terrorist attack”.

The course has been criticized in both the media ( Fox News, the Daily Mail) and anonymous sources within the NYPD – “When told of the term paper, one ranking police officer who lost coworkers on 9/11 called it ‘the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.’… ‘I’m disgusted,’ said the source. ‘What is this, we have our students do the work for the terrorists?’”

I’m just going to come right out and say it – this is completely absurd. It’s absurd on multiple levels. First, it’s not as if Maras’ exercise is unprecedented. It’s a standard Red Team/Blue Team exercise – in which one simulates an attack on one’s self – which have been used by everyone from the military to the intelligence and government agencies to think tanks (check out the RAND Corp chem/bio Red Team exercise) for decades. The benefits of this type of exercise are evident and unique – as the Central Intelligence Agency Tradecraft Primer states, “…Red Team analysis is aimed at freeing the analyst from the prison of a well-developed mind-set… [it] transforms the analyst into an ‘actor’ operating within the adversary’s culture and political milieu. This form of ‘role playing’ is useful when trying to replicate the mind-set of authoritarian leaders, terrorist cells, or other nonWestern groups that operate under very different codes of behavior or motivations.” In order to understand how our enemies will attack us, we first need to understand our enemy.

Like most security studies programs, the GMU Biodefense curriculum includes similar exercises – we pick a target, choose a biological agent, and plan an attack. When asked about the exercises, Dr. Trevor Thrall, Director of the GMU Biodefense program, clarified, “Though I can certainly understand how people may feel sensitive about discussing terrorist strategies in public venues, it is ridiculous to imagine that such exercises somehow create terrorists or provide training that would-be terrorist could not get in other ways.”

“What these exercises in fact do is provide emerging counter-terrorism professionals an opportunity to hone their thinking about the threats posted by terrorist organizations. The more time we spend figuring out how and why terrorism works, the better we will do at preventing and responding to terrorism. As a result we would never ask our faculty to shy away from red team/blue team exercises and the like,” he said.

As students, yes, we were pretty sure that our Google searches were being red-flagged in a dark room somewhere (as well they should have been), and yes, there were even moments of surprisingly visceral unease (again, as well there should have been). However, completing the assignment was one of the most illuminative and useful exercises of my education to date. Echoing Dr. Thrall’s comments, Tom Kreitzer, a Biodefense MS student and federal emergency response official, said, “Red teaming exercises are incredibly important for those already in, or attempting to join, the emergency response or intelligence fields.”

The exercises taught us that there are certain things you simply cannot know – cannot even realize you don’t know – until you actually try to do them. Planning the terrorist attack helped us not only to discover the hurdles bioterrorists face – and there are many – but it  also helped us illuminate potential US weaknesses. Identifying these weaknesses enables us to correct them before they can be exploited. If they can’t be corrected, it enables us to develop strategies, allocate resources, increase security, and plan.

One of the most serious and in some ways sad admonitions of the 9/11 Commission Report was that of the “lack of imagination” on our part. If we could have imagined worse, expected worse, thought humanity capable of worse, we maybe would have been better prepared. This is what makes the condemnation of Professor’s Maras’ assignment so troubling. By penalizing those attempting to teach the value of imaginative thinking, we risk trapping ourselves again in the status quo – a mistake we cannot afford to make again.

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