Supply Chain 1, Bin Laden 0

Bloodied but resilient, the U.S. supply chain carries on the good fight.

So the United States finally caught up to, and summarily dispatched, Public Enemy Number One, aka Osama bin Laden. This may not have closed the book on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but at least it ended one of its bitterest chapters. Bin Laden’s legacy, unfortunately, lives on not only in his fellow al Qaeda masterminds but in the impact their “holy war” has had on the global supply chain.

Consider bin Laden’s prediction, made shortly after 9/11, where he explained that “the coming struggle would cause ‘great long-term economic burdens, leading to further economic collapse’ and, ultimately, the contraction of the American empire” (The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2011). Certainly the first, and perhaps both, of the recessions in the past decade were exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath of financial and supply chain disruptions. Bin Laden’s hoped-for total collapse of the United States, fortunately, has not come to pass.

Even so, judging by where we are a decade later, it’s clear that much work remains to restore a sense of confidence throughout the world that business can carry on as usual. Whether or not we’re safer—as a country and as a world—since 9/11 remains an open question. While there have been no large-scale attacks on U.S. soil since 2001, the bad guys keep figuring out other ways to get at us.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 was intended to jump-start new trade and security initiatives while overhauling existing supply chain practices. In some cases, programs such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI) have directly led to the adoption of best practices at the corporate level, such as improving security at all levels of a company’s operations to ensure that goods are not tampered with at any stage throughout the product lifecycle. Those companies who participate in these program enjoy the benefits of expedited processing through Customs, a distinct competitive advantage.

In other areas, though, the global supply chain has broken down. Sometimes the breakdown is due to ineffective collaboration between industry and government, sometimes it’s because of operational processes not measuring up to increasingly stricter standards, and sometimes it’s due to sheer incompetence. Bureaucratic guidelines meant to detect potential evil-doers have also left business travelers and casual tourists with the feeling that they are subject to overzealous scrutiny. To cite an obvious but nevertheless appropriate example, is it really necessary for six-year-old girls to be patted down by the TSA? And why, after a decade, is there no mechanism yet in place to prescreen frequent fliers so they don’t have to walk shoeless and beltless through security several times a week?

Although the United States still remains the world’s dominant superpower and will no doubt remain in that position for many decades to come, the Earth no longer revolves around that thin axis connecting New York and Washington. Managing a U.S.-based supply chain these days is a highwire act, but then again, it’s always been a highwire act. The main difference between 2011 and 2001 isn’t the presence of evil in the world, but rather, the ability of technology to instantly broadcast each and every little thing that happens anywhere on the planet, in real-time, to anybody. The ability to navigate through all that information and all those transactions—in the face of ever-possible terrorist threats, wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters of an intensity and frequency we never dreamed possible, and financial collapses of entire industries—speaks volumes about the resiliency of the U.S. people and the companies they run. In short, the supply chain still works, and works well.

So what, if anything, did the late Osama bin Laden win? To my way of thinking, not a thing.

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