Homeland insecurity

haifa | The Department of Homeland Security has failed, “will fail and they won’t help you — forget it.”

So says Avi Kirschenbaum, professor of organizational sociology at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Wearing jeans and a work shirt and with his Brooklyn accent still strong despite his years in Israel, the bearded social scientist stands apart from the typical, hard-science Technion professor.

Kirschenbaum’s harsh views on Homeland Security — or any other huge disaster-management agency, for that matter — provided little comfort to a group of U.S. journalists on a recent visit to the Haifa institute.

“Don’t trust your agencies,” said Kirschenbaum, a disaster management specialist. “People are more flexible, faster and more effective than techno-fix or agency-fix.”

Funneling tens of billions of dollars and massive research into a super-bureaucracy such as Homeland Security is a waste, he maintained.

It won’t save lives or make you any safer.

Since the 1960s, he said, more people than ever have died in natural disasters despite the creation of more disaster agencies, and “the number of people killed is still going up.”

Kirschenbaum, however, isn’t totally negative. He says that people, not bureaucracies, have the answers on how to cope with disaster, including manmade ones. Just look at Israelis.

“How has Israel survived? Two months ago, we surveyed how people have changed their behavior” because of the intifada and the everyday threat of terror, he said.

The findings show that people are far more resourceful dealing with stress and disaster than they are given credit for.

In the last 40 years, bureaucratic agencies have tried to take the place of family and community, suggests Kirschenbaum, whose book “Chaos Organization and Disaster Management” was published in 2003.

But such agencies “don’t relate to the people themselves and what we’re capable of doing.” Rather, “disaster managers manage themselves.”

In his research, Kirschenbaum found that individuals adapt to the threat of terror by successfully using several coping mechanisms. Among them:

• Avoidance behavior, such as not dining out at restaurants or shopping in public markets — the repeated targets for suicide bombers.

• Seeking professional, therapeutic counseling.

• Getting social support from family and friends.

• Employing protective behavior (such as carefully choosing where to sit on a bus, or which bus line to ride).

• Turning to religion (some 35 percent in the study prayed more than in the past).

• Not watching grisly TV coverage of events.

• Taking pharmaceutical drugs.

• Preparing for the future by writing their eulogies, purchasing burial plots, making wills, etc.

Israelis’ ability to live under the threat of terror attacks should come as no surprise, given the country’s history and its recent turmoil. Their resilience provides an excellent example, in fact, for misguided bureaucrats, according to Kirschenbaum.

He recommends that agencies try to understand how people behave in disasters and get away from organizational solutions. The focus should be on disaster preparedness, he added.

The resources needed to coordinate “the unwieldy web of competing and superfluous interests inherent in government-mandated agencies cancel out the advantage of size, rendering large organizations less effective,” he elaborated in an opinion piece.

He wrote that the World Trade Center attack in New York offers a “dramatic example” of how people — not agencies — know best. “The official orders to remain in the World Trade Center after impact — rather than the more sensible behavior to get out — probably led to unnecessary deaths.

“Ordinary people around the world have shown time and again that they make logical, practical decisions when it comes to assessing and acting on risks — long before committees can get together to coordinate their reactions, let alone implement decisions.”

In Israel, Kirschenbaum said, “there are communities and families … and they are the ones who give help. Disaster agencies are there to pick up the pieces afterwards.”

Liz Harris was one of six journalists to visit Technion on a recent trip sponsored by the American Society for Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.