This is the fundamental question of the nearly 15 years since the terrorist attacks on 9/11: Is America any safer? It’s the most honest way to ask about U.S. homeland security, and what Steven Brill raises in his recent cover story for The Atlantic. It isn’t “are we safe”—a standard that is unobtainable in a nation like the U.S. where the freedoms and flow of people, goods, and ideas are both a blessing and a vulnerability—but whether the country’s progress has outweighed its failures over this decade and a half. It is not a linear story; programs have been adopted and abandoned, money spent with no overriding planning, and priorities set less by risk assessments than by politics.
But this question is just one piece of a much broader picture, one that includes two often-ignored aspects of homeland-security assessments: The homeland, which encompasses state and local responders, and the home, the preparedness and response capabilities every citizen can build into their daily lives. The questions for those audiences are different.
For first responders facing all manner of mayhem and all sorts of harms, the daily question is: “Are we safer from what, exactly?” For them, recent adaptations to new threats are not the result of al-Qaeda or ISIS. If 9/11 is homeland security’s genesis, then Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was its course correction. It taught security experts that a nation so focused on stopping one specific threat was unprepared to stop an American city from drowning. The deaths in New Orleans and surrounding areas were not deaths by destruction; the hurricane itself killed few. It was death by negligence.