Risk Management and the Vectors of Life

December 29th, 2009 by

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was depressed and lonely, so he decided to blow up an airplane. He boarded a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day with explosives strapped to his underwear. (The Freudians will have a field day with that one.) As the plane prepared for landing, Umar, in seat 19A, began to detonate his deadly concoction.
One row back and several seats over, Jasper Schuringa sat in seat 20J. As soon as flames and smoke began to rise in front of him, Jasper lunged across the row and seized Umar around the neck. He disarmed the would-be terrorist and prevented the ignition of the explosives. He suffered some burns, but none as severe as Umar’s.
We will probably never know the pathetic thought process that led the spoiled and privileged Umar to seek an end not only to his own life, but those of 280 innocent people. But we can certainly acknowledge the instinctual courage that motivated Schuringa. Like U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, Schuringa demonstrated grace under pressure. In the weeks ahead, most of the attention will be on the Umars of the world: how to find them, how to prevent them from carrying out their wretched pseudo-political vendettas against life itself. It would be reassuring to think that our risk management tools might help us identify these folks before they can act, but I doubt it. Umar has succeeded in adding underwear to the long list of items to be scrutinized before boarding a plane. What’s next: explosives hidden in dental crowns?
Seen from a perspective of time, our lives are vectors: as we move in the world, our paths intersect randomly with others. There are mostly gifts in these encounters – but there are also dangers. We all try to manage risk – personal and professional – but there are risks that fall well beyond our control. It takes a lot of luck just to survive. As we welcome the New Year, let’s take a moment to appreciate all the good fortune that brought us to this moment. And let’s give thanks to the latent heroes among us – the Schuringas and the Sullenbergers – who are ready in a flash to do what needs to be done.