Obama: 'We Will Defend Our Nation'

An interview with the president on the challenges of homeland security in the United States.

Larry Downing / Reuters

Author’s note: In the course of the months I spent reporting “Is America Any Safer?,” I had the cooperation of most of the key officials—some well known, others who worked in relative obscurity—involved over the last 15 years in America’s post-9/11 homeland security build-up, including senior officials in the Obama administration who bear that responsibility today. Although I could not arrange an in-person interview with President Obama, he did agree to provide answers through an email exchange. Of course, that means that his answers are not spontaneous and cannot be probed with immediate follow-ups. And it runs the risk that the replies are actually produced by a committee of aides. However, I was assured that president had personally provided these answers.

Steven Brill: September 11 was for all Americans the first time since Pearl Harbor (which was a far-away military base) that we were attacked on our own soil. How do you think that new vulnerability affected the American psyche and what Americans expect from their government? And where were you on September 11, and how did the attack immediately change your outlook?

Barack Obama: We were living in Chicago. Sasha was only a few months old, and Michelle had taken the girls to drop Malia off at preschool. I was a state senator and was driving to [the] State of Illinois Building when I heard the first reports on the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. Like most people, at first I assumed it was a small plane or an accident. By the time I arrived at work, the second plane had hit, and we evacuated. Along with thousands of other people, I stood in the street and looked up at the Sears Tower, fearing it might be a target, too. Later, at my law office, we watched the television in disbelief as the towers came crashing down.

That evening, Michelle and I were glued to the television, thinking about all the innocent people on the planes, in the towers and in the Pentagon and all the police, fire fighters, and first responders who had rushed in to help. As it was for many Americans, the attacks were personal. I had lived in New York City for several years. I knew those streets that were suddenly covered in rubble and dust. Michelle and I started calling friends in New York and Washington to make sure they were OK. I remember rocking Sasha to sleep that night, wondering what kind of world our daughters were going to grow up in.

Obviously, 9/11 changed our sense of security. It wasn’t the first terrorist attack in our country—there was the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing, among others. Still, there was a sense that the oceans largely protected us from instability and threats overseas. With 9/11, with nearly 3,000 people killed in the places where we lived our daily lives, there was a feeling that our homeland was truly vulnerable for the first time.

How to deal with the threat from terrorist groups like al Qaeda and now ISIL has been the defining security challenge of the past 15 years. The American people rightly expect that their government is going to do everything in our power to destroy these terrorist groups and prevent attacks—and we do. Over the past 15 years, over two administrations, we’ve dealt devastating blows to al Qaeda and strengthened our homeland security. It’s much harder for terrorists to pull off a large-scale, 9/11-style attack. Now, as the terrorist threat has evolved, we’re focused on destroying ISIL and preventing attacks here at home by lone wolves or small cells, which are harder to detect. Even as so much has changed since 9/11, I’m also struck by what has not changed, especially when I meet the families of those we lost and the survivors. Our character as a country has not changed. As Americans, we don’t give in to fear. We will defend our nation. We won’t forsake our freedoms. We’re resilient. We’ve shown that we can take a painful blow and emerge stronger.

Brill: While you have vastly strengthened the country’s anti-terrorism effort, you also seemed to have tried to shift away from the Bush era promise of “never again” toward an acceptance that some attacks will inevitably succeed, especially in an age of lone wolves. When you were quoted in The Atlantic as admiring Israeli resilience, your political opponents criticized this as throwing in the towel, even as many homeland-security experts see this view as a responsible approach to resilience and recovery. Similarly, Senator Tom Coburn criticized a terrorism drill that DHS coordinated in Boston six months before the Marathon bombing for focusing on “preparing state and local first responders for the emergency and swift response,” rather than on “what additional roles DHS could play in preventing future terrorist attacks.” That “raises questions,” Coburn concluded, about whether “terrorism prevention truly is the Department’s first mission and whether that mission has been transformed into preparing to recover from terrorist attacks.” What’s your view of how a successor should navigate the political perils of your approach and answer these kinds of criticisms?

Obama: I absolutely reject the notion that preparation and prevention are mutually exclusive. The security of the American people—including preventing terrorist attacks—is and always has been my highest priority. And since I took office, we’ve continued to strengthen our counterterrorism efforts. We took out bin Laden and thousands of terrorists off the battlefield—terrorists who will never be able to threaten us again. Devastating blows have been dealt to the al Qaeda core in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve taken out leaders of al Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen and Somalia. We’re leading the coalition against ISIL, pushed that terrorist group back in both Syria and Iraq and taken out more than 120 top ISIL leaders and commanders. Over the years, our intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement professionals have prevented many terrorist attacks, around the world and here at home. And we’re going to keep doing everything in our power, every day, to prevent future attacks.

But even as we’re relentless in preventing terrorist attacks, part of keeping the American people safe is making sure we’re ready for all contingencies. So it’s not “either or”—preventing attacks or being able to respond to and recover from attacks. We have to do both. In fact, to focus solely on prevention while ignoring response and recovery—or vice versa—would be irresponsible. And so, even as we devote extraordinary resources to going after terrorists overseas and preventing attacks here at home, we also work with our state, local and private sector partners to make sure we’re prepared in the event of an attack. I’m confident that my successor, whoever it is, will do so as well. After all, from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, we’ve seen how important it is for communities and first responders to be ready if and when tragedy strikes. That’s a critical part of preventing attacks from causing even greater loss of life. It’s a key part of our resilience. It’s one of the ways we can show terrorists that they will not succeed—that Americans get back up and we carry on, no matter what.

Brill: Why is fear of terror different? If a teenager gets an assault rifle and shoots up a movie theater and kills a half-dozen high-school kids because he is mentally ill and hates his English teacher, the media and the public will react differently than if the same teenager goes into the same school and shoots the same number of kids and yells out an ISIL phrase that he learned online. Does this difference in the public and media reaction make sense?

Obama: There’s no doubt that many people often react differently to a shooting or massacre depending on the identity or motives of the killer. We’ve seen this repeatedly in recent years. If the perpetrator is a young white male, for instance—as in Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown—it’s widely seen as yet another tragic example of an angry or disturbed person who decided to lash out against his classmates, coworkers or community. And even as the nation is shaken and mourns, these kinds of shootings don’t typically generate widespread fear. I’d point out that when the shooter or victims are African American, it is often dismissed with a shrug of indifference—as if such violence is somehow endemic to certain communities. In contrast, when the perpetrators are Muslim and seem influenced by terrorist ideologies—as at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino, and Orlando—the outrage and fear is much more palpable. And yet, the fact is that Americans are far more likely to be injured or killed by gun violence than a terrorist attack.

I’m not a sociologist, but I suspect several things are going on. One factor, tragically, is familiarity. Gun violence, including mass shootings, have become so common in our country that I worry there’s a creeping resignation—a feeling among many people that this is just the way it is; that this is the new normal in America. In contrast, terrorist attacks here are still relatively rare, so they still have the power to shock and generate fear, which terrorists groups reinforce with their repeated warnings of more attacks.

Another factor, perhaps, is our collective perception of responsibility. Make no mistake, responsibility for violence always rest, first and foremost, with the killer. If an incident is seen as yet another example of the epidemic of gun violence in our country—perpetuated in part by our refusal to take common sense steps that could reduce gun violence—then these tragedies also ought to trigger some self-reflection about what we can do, collectively as a nation, to prevent them. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, that kind of reflection too easily gives way to stale political debates that prevent any real change. On the other hand, if the incident is a terrorist attack, there’s a tendency to blame others, such as all Muslims—even when terrorists do not represent Islam and when the perpetrators are American citizens, as they were in Fort Hood, Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando. And as we’ve seen throughout American history and around the world, fear of people who somehow appear different from us—fear of “the other”—can be an extremely powerful force.

But San Bernardino and Orlando remind us that a tragedy can be example of both gun violence and terrorism, which is why we need to do more to keep terrorists from getting their hands on weapons of war. Every life lost to gun violence ought to outrage us—whatever the motivations of the killer. It ought to galvanize us to take action that we know can save lives.