Why July 4 terror precautions were necessary

Sen. James Risch warns of terrorist attack on US soil
Sen. James Risch warns of terrorist attack on US soil

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Sen. James Risch warns of terrorist attack on US soil 04:14

Story highlights

  • The government amped up security for July 4 in light of growing terrorism threats
  • Juliette Kayyem: Spike in lone wolf attacks and holiday symbolism validated security hype

Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is also the host of the Security Mom podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The increased threat warnings that led up to the recent July 4 celebrations were anything but subtle. Government officials and security analysts warned Americans that the large gatherings for America's Independence Day might provide fertile ground for ISIS attackers or their affiliates to attack. Police officers and first responders increased their efforts and the American public was told once again that if they see something, say something.

The lack of any violence related to terrorism -- as compared to the gun violence that swept cities such as Chicago -- might be seen as an administration invoking fear or simply covering their backsides. Certainly, some suspected that leading up to the weekend.
Juliette Kayyem
And it wasn't too long ago when the much-maligned terror "color code" system (remember those red and orange alerts?) seemed to make a joke of how the government communicated with the public about threats.
    The color-code system may be long gone -- the Obama administration disbanded it -- but the challenge of communicating threats and risks to the public remains. The truth is: There is no good alert system out there. And the reason isn't because the government can't get its act together.
    The reason is because intelligence can almost never provide enough information to thoughtfully and specifically prepare the public for a threat. And while a tremendous amount of progress has been made so government agencies are better at sharing information with each other and state and local officials, the notion that terrorist attacks can be stopped if we simply "connected the dots" better is often wishful thinking.
    In the end, especially for those who self-radicalize with no formal ties to terrorist organizations, there may not be that many dots to connect.
    Indeed, life would be so much easier if terrorists always spoke about specific targets at specific dates and times, and we intercepted their messages.
    But, "We will meet at the intersection of Constitution and 7th Avenue on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 11 a.m.," is not how terrorists work.
    In an age of lone-wolf attackers, it is even rarer to be able to intercept any communication that would tell law enforcement who -- of the thousands of people who toy with ISIS online -- is going to attack and when.
    And so the United States, like other countries, is left with a bit of a dilemma: the government has to try to prepare the public for potential terror threats that are inherently random.
    What isn't random, however, are days that matter to the United States -- anniversaries of other terror attacks, national and religious holidays, and large gatherings such as the Super Bowl. Those we can control. And we have to, because the impact of terror strikes on those days -- whether a large or small attack -- will be much greater psychologically, because the public views those days as more meaningful than days that are normal.
    ISIS 'call to arms' raises terror threat levels
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    ISIS 'call to arms' raises terror threat levels 01:43
    Let's do a rather crude exercise. An ISIS attacker, acting on his own, attacks a police officer on some Tuesday in July. The officer is killed. That is a story, of course. But imagine if the officer were patrolling a July 4 gathering in New York. That too is a story, but it is also a symbol. And the terrorist organization will surely use it to recruit others to their cause.
    So, instead of viewing terror threats as fear-mongering, it is time to see them as an embedded reality of the age we live in. Symbols matter to terrorists, and to us. As the administration admitted, they had no specific evidence of an attack threat, and that is simply because specific evidence of direct threats is wishful thinking in the age of lone wolves and home-grown affiliates.
    We can't easily control them. But what we can control is an aggressive and publicly heightened alert on days when terrorists will view the consequences of random violence as a victory against our national pride and as a recruitment effort.
    The truth is that we will never know whether a planned attack was thwarted because a would-be lone wolf decided to wait it out based on the public warnings of increased vigilance. And there is a very real possibility that there will be several ISIS-inspired attacks or planned attacks by year's end in the United States.
    In a world where both possibilities are a reality, government warnings are not to cause unnecessary fear. They are meant to put some sort of order and process into an age when terror attacks have none.