Keeping our options open: Waco or Apollo 13?

Creating a Response to September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001 has created a crisis for the United States.

Crises are marked by events that do not easily fit into existing organizational and conceptual categories. During a major crisis, we discover that:

  • We cannot easily understand the meaning of the events.
  • We struggle to define the problems exposed by the crisis.
  • Even when we think we have some idea of the nature of the problem, we do not have the language for expressing our ideas.
  • We have difficulty mobilizing resources to deal with the problems arising out of the crisis.
  • We need to create new organizational structures and new organizational relationships in order to address the crisis effectively.
  • In a complex crisis, short-term emergency management responses (search and rescue and disaster relief) are followed by uncertainty about appropriate long-term responses.

We must choose between two types of responses to our current crisis.

We can fall back on our existing systems and try to apply whatever tools we already have to the current problems. If, as is the case in most crises, the tools do not completely fit the new problems we are facing, we can persist in trying to make the situation fit our tools.

Or, we can take a creative problem solving approach. We can recognize that we need to rethink the ways we use our existing resources and tools. We can also acknowledge that we need to invent new tools or adapt existing resources to deal with the new reality that has been exposed by or created by the crisis.

Waco or Apollo 13: Examples of Responses

If we are overly reliant on our existing tools, we may try to force the new situation into old frameworks. The results are often disastrous.

This was the case during the 1993 standoff between federal law enforcement agents and a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians. After an initial deadly confrontation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) worked for 51 days using their existing model of crisis negotiation – using pressure by threatening force along with negotiation – in an effort to convince the Branch Davidians to surrender. Because their barricade management system had been remarkably successful when dealing with criminals and disturbed subjects, they assumed the model would work with a barricaded religious community. When the Branch Davidians did not respond in expected ways to the threat of force, the FBI commanders did not revisit their strategies. They simply escalated the pressure on the Branch Davidians. The final result was a tragedy that continues to reverberate through our social, political, and legal systems.

If we recognize that our reality has been changed by the crisis, we are more likely to redefine the problem, redesign and adapt our current resources and create new tools that fit the new reality. The results are not guaranteed, but our chances of success increase when we take this approach.

This was the approach taken by NASA during the Apollo 13 mission. The film Apollo 13 captures the decision-making processes used by the astronauts and NASA engineers as they struggled to manage a crisis created by the failure of critical systems on board the spacecraft. One crisis fed into another and the astronauts soon realized that, having moved to the landing module as a lifeboat, their air purifying system was not designed to support three people long enough to get them home. From the beginning of the crisis, NASA officials recognized that the goal of the mission had changed (from landing on the moon to survival), all problem definitions had to be reframed, and the use and limits of every single piece of equipment had to be rethought. At one point the NASA flight supervisor tells everyone, “I don’t care what anything was designed to do, I care what it can do.” In the end, NASA engineers and the Apollo 13 crew succeed in bringing the crew home safely.

Limits to the Apollo 13 Analogy

There are limits to the analogy between the Apollo 13 mission and our current situation. NASA and the astronauts faced a technical problem using a limited array of resources while we are facing a complex political, social, economic, and military problem with access to a much wider array of resources. Nevertheless, the analogy can help us focus on the following lessons:

We need to be clear about our goals before we can craft an effective response to the crisis.

  • Is our goal revenge?
  • Is our goal to eliminate a specific terrorist organization?
  • Is our goal to increase security?
  • Is our goal long-term peace and stability?
  • Or, is our goal actually some complex mix of short- and long-term objectives? If so, how do the short-term and the long-term goals intersect with one another?

We must check our tendency to assume that the answer to our problem can be found only in the tools and resources we have already developed.

  • The attacks on New York and Washington felt like a military assault, but does that mean this is a military problem?
  • We have funneled massive resources into our military system for the past 50 years, but does that mean those are the best resources to use in this situation?
  • What other resources can we bring to bear on this situation?
  • How will we need to adapt existing resources to the new situation?

We must recognize that defining our current problem is a complex task of finding or creating new ways to understand our situation and that we should use language very carefully during the period of problem definition.

  • As we use concrete language to describe our current crisis (e.g., it is a war, it is a natural disaster, it is a crime), we need to reflect on the action implications of each analogy or metaphor.
  • As we invoke values and goals (peace, security, justice), we must recognize that we may need to reconsider our definitions of these values and goals.

Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.