Steal This Question: September 11, 2015

I can’t produce every discussion idea I come up with.  So let me share them here, and if you like them, please use them yourself (though attribution is always nice).  Here’s the first: September 11th, 2014

It is four years in the future.  In a city in western Europe six men meet.  They are between the ages of 20 and 40.  Four were born and raised in western European countries; one is a citizen of Pakistan; one is American.  All are college-educated; all have parents with business or other professional backgrounds, and all were born into the middle class or into wealth.  Each has, over the past five years, become drawn to a branch of radical Islam not shared by their family or the people they grew up with.   Now they plan a terrorist attack on the United States, to take place one year from this meeting, September 11th, 2015.

Three of the six spent time in a “training camp,” based in a country with a barely functioning central government, to help prepare for their endeavor.  Now their goals in the next year are to obtain visas and enter the United States; obtain jobs; gather the physical materials and site-specific information needed to carry out their plan, and do it.  After this meeting, they will split up, and while subsets of this group will meet on occasion, most of their communication before the big day will be digital, and they will do their best to keep it secret.

Now we return to the present, and ask: What are the most effective steps we can take within the next five years to bring these terrorists’ chances of success as close to zero as possible?

Usually I much prefer scenarios that are described to participants for the first time at the event, but for the conference I imagine, each speaker would receive this scenario in advance and prepare a presentation to respond to it (including, if desired, something else I usually disapprove of: Power Point slides).  And the key to this conference is that policy speeches are not allowed.  All responses to the scenario must take the form of one specific project proposal, presented as one would present the business plan for a start-up: What would it do and how?  How much would it cost?  How long would it take to get it running? And what is the anticipated return on investment (not in dollars but in lives and property saved)?

I would love to bring together and hear from private security specialists; from computer scientists who specialize in organizing and making connections with staggering amounts of information; from psychologists or cultural anthropologists; from military strategists; from the very, very smart people in the NYPD.

The goal would not be to come up with the most original, pie-in-the-sky concept.  The goal would be to present the best possible use of the next billion dollars (let’s say) spent on national security.  The best use might be a whole new program; it could be beefing up or improving a current program.  Or it could be ending certain  government actions that actually make us less safe.

In my ideal version of this conference, after the presentations participants reach a consensus on the top 1- 3 proposals, discuss what needs to happen to make the programs a reality, then leave with specific assignments to help make it happen.

My guess is that there would be a very large and frustrating chasm between:

  • What a group of knowledgeable people would consider the most efficient ways to thwart a terrorist attack in the U.S., and
  • How we employ our funds (and, more important, our people) now.

*         *         *

Even if your discussion goals have nothing to do with thwarting terrorism, the structure of this conference is one that can be adapted to any group with a common mission.  One can prepare a case that represents, in some detail,  a best- or worst-case scenario for your big picture goals, then ask: What are the most effective steps we can take now to make this scenario a reality (or prevent it from happening) x years from now?  As above, answers must take the form of specific action proposals.


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