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Harnessing the resilience of the American spirit

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

From braving the Atlantic Ocean to exploring America’s unknown frontier, the country’s first settlers met risks head on with a sense of strength and resilience, said political science professor Stephen Flynn, codirector of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security.

“Overcoming adversity is a central narrative of the American story,” Flynn told more than 80 students, faculty and staff in a lecture in West Village H last Thursday. “It has fueled our sense of optimism and the sense that we have the power to shape our future for the better.”

Unfortunately, Flynn said Americans today try to eliminate risk and assign blame once a catastrophe manifests itself, rather than learn to manage, cope with and adapt to the situation. Natural disasters or the failure of complex manmade systems, such as telecommunications networks, are facts of life, he said.

He expressed hope that America has the capacity to return to its more resilient roots. During his lecture, Flynn showed a video that recently premiered at a summit he organized in Washington to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Narrated by actor Tom Hanks, “Boatlift” documents the spontaneous effort of hundreds of boaters to surge into New York Harbor and evacuate nearly 500,000 people trapped in lower Manhattan after the attacks.

Emulating the resilience depicted in “Boatlift” can both honor those who perished on Sept. 11, 2001 and serve as a blueprint to overcoming adversity in the future, Flynn said.

“We could have a competitive advantage over every other country in the world by harnessing that capacity,” he declared. “People will live and invest not in places that are risk free — because there aren’t any — but in places that cope with it well. That’s what we need to do.”

Flynn said the Kostas Research Institute, which opened in September at Northeastern’s campus in Burlington, Mass., will help Americans cope better with risk by addressing critical homeland security challenges through use-inspired research.

Resilience, he noted, is a highly interdisciplinary field; it relates to everything from how buildings are engineered to mitigate earthquake damage to how businesses are configured to withstand financial ruin.

He said resilient systems are less likely to be terrorist targets because of the diminished impact. “As a country], we haven’t had a place yet that has brought all this idea sharing together across many disciplines,” Flynn said. “Northeastern is the perfect place for that to happen.”