THE EVENTS of the past few weeks have been a forceful reminder that all sorts of things that support ordinary life can go wrong. The blackout in the Northeast, the gasoline pipeline shutdown in Arizona, the virus that surged across the nation's computers - the list of American systems subject to Murphy's law could just go on and on. Toss in the arrest of a man for trying to sell a surface-to-air missile, and you begin to get an idea of just how vulnerable the United States really would be to a determined bit of sabotage.
Here's the truth of it: You can't protect everything. Government agencies should of course do all they can to safeguard the ports and power plants and highways that the country depends on, but they can't expect to be perfectly successful. There are just too many opportunities for mayhem out there, from Maine to Maui. And what the terrorists and hackers don't get, neglect and error and bad luck assuredly will, sooner or later.
What's important to remember, though, is that there are two parallel tracks when it comes to providing security. One is the effort to deflect trouble, and this is what gets most of the attention. The other has to do with providing backups - making sure that things can keep going even when the worst happens. America is weak on this score, and growing more so as technology advances.
For example: During the blackout, some patients at a suburban New York hospital were forced to spend the better part of two days with their beds in an upright sitting position, because there were no hand cranks to put them back down. When the computer virus struck, CSX had to halt its trains, because the time-honed techniques for running a railroad are no longer in place. And because most of the country's computers use the same software, most of the country's computers were vulnerable to the worm that flourished 10 days ago.
Experts say the Internet, as it has become more commercial, is more centralized and more vulnerable than it was. This is a move in the wrong direction.
A move in the right direction? Small, so-called co-generation power plants, big enough for a factory or an apartment house, hooked up to the grid in normal times and independent otherwise.
Backups, almost by definition, are not duplicates. The United States doesn't need to copy every power line and aqueduct and computer bank. It just needs to find other ways to get the job done. Think about the way ordinary ballpoint pens won't write on paper that has been dampened by the rain. Newspaper reporters (who inevitably find themselves at some point trying to take notes in the rain) don't solve the problem by carrying another pen; the smart ones make sure to carry a pencil, too.
Often, this is all it takes - a little ingenuity, a healthy dose of foresight, some initiative. Hold on to your baskets, and spread your eggs among them.