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.
More than any terror attack, Katrina moved federal, state, and local planners to more aggressively adopt two shifts in policies. First, the money that was flowing to state and local agencies, money that Brill points out was so often out of proportion to the need, began to go to “dual use” purposes. Instead of buying fancy gizmos or trucks, the department began to require what state and local first responders already knew was necessary: The most successful gear had to be able to be used for both in the event of terrorism and national disasters (or any another potential event). At the moment the explosions went off at the Boston Marathon, the first responders had no idea if it was the result of two brothers with a bomb or an overheated generator. It didn’t matter. Plans in place to protect American citizens had to be viable for national-security threats, natural disasters, or any other mayhem. The second change was a complement to the first: a focus on “all hazards” planning so that responders throughout the nation worked under a similar template to save lives, regardless of the specific threat. It means that first responders are not sitting around waiting for unlikely, random terror events, but are honing their skills daily for all hazards. Both of these efforts existed before 9/11, but they were neglected for years in the wake of the wartime mentality that followed. Hurricane Katrina reminded Americans that war wasn’t the country’s sole concern.
The American public has a different priority, though. For citizens—mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and the network of loved ones, those with that nagging feeling that something or anything horrible could happen—the pressing question is much more internally focused: “Are my family and I safer?” It isn’t anything to be ashamed of: After Brussels or Paris, for example, many must have wondered whether they or their teenaged children should travel to Europe.
The band of experts in homeland security and counterterrorism have often treated the American public in ways that make them either tune out or freak out, with little in between. Resetting the standard of success that was offered by George W. Bush after 9/11—“never again”—is a consistent political dilemma, but its one that the public can surely grasp if given the tools to prepare and respond.
The “never again” standard is as absurd as it is simplistic. It is as vague as it is damaging. It tried to convince Americans, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that invulnerability was a possibility. This has hindered homeland-security planners for a decade and a half: Knowing that no security apparatus can stop all forms of harm, including “lone wolfs,” progress is better measured in how well people prepare and educate themselves for the inevitable. What if the United States simply accepted, as a nation, that bad things happen and get ready for that possibility?
I learned that lesson on the morning it was most needed: September 11, 2001. I had just finished serving on the National Commission on Terrorism and was heading a program on domestic preparedness—what we called homeland security at the time—at Harvard University. I was on maternity leave; my daughter, Cecilia, was five weeks old when, distraught by lack of sleep and needing to assert some independence from the tyranny of laundry, I decided to take her to New York City to visit family on the morning of 9/11. My husband called me when the second tower was hit, but the train had already left Boston. As an expert in a subject that few knew anything about, I was immediately fielding media inquiries while comforting an unruly baby. With no protocols in place for terrorism—even assuming the conductor knew a terrorist attack had happened—we just kept heading to New York City. A young, crying woman who overheard my calls asked me to give her advice: “I just want to go home,” she said between tears. I told her what I knew but had not yet acted on: We all needed to get off that train. It was heading to a city that we should not be entering. And so I told her she should get off the train. The advice was passed on from passenger to passenger until I finally stood on the chair and told everyone to get off. Get off. Get off. And they did.
Since then, not a day goes by that I don’t hear from family and friends—or friends of friends, or even the dog walker’s friends—with intimate questions about what they should do, mostly as a parent, and how they should act. It’s the same question we faced on the train: Get off or stay on. The headline does not matter: Paris or Brussels, San Bernardino or Orlando, Ebola or Zika, hurricanes or earthquakes.
I have come to believe—as a security expert but also as a mother of three—that among all of its flaws, the worst aspect of “never again” was that it let experts like me run the show. We have failed to show that the conflicts and choices inherent in protecting the homeland are really not that different from those Americans and people around the world encounter every day. In our day-to-day lives, people try to protect those closest to them, but they also plan for the bad things that will happen. The essential aspects of those two priorities—preparedness, planning, flexibility, communication, back-up systems, learning from mistakes—are essentially the same. By too easily separating the homeland from the home, experts have failed to nurture the vigor and resiliency which is the greatest strength of a nation that was built on vulnerability: the American public.
And if the United States could build resiliency one home at a time, maybe, in another 15 years, the country will have stopped asking the question to some anonymous bureaucracy with strange acronyms and esoteric risk assessments: “Are we safer?” Instead, people should start embracing, “Am I ready?”
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