What President Obama should say about terror

Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama to deliver Oval Office address Sunday about terror threats
  • Juliette Kayyem: Effective security against terrorism cannot be solely about "never again"

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 the host of the "Security Mom" podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)On Sunday night, in a rare Oval Office speech, President Barack Obama will address the nation about the terrorism threat. He recognizes that Americans need to hear about the progress we are making and the challenges ahead. It is appropriately timed.

I've been involved in counterterrorism and homeland security since before September 11, 2001, and judging by the emails and texts I've been receiving since the Paris attacks and now the San Bernardino shootings, anxiety levels are as high as I have seen them since this country was attacked 14 years ago.
All these messages have had a common theme: Am I safe?
    Juliette Kayyem
    Maybe one day our intelligence will be good enough, our knowledge of the human mind and the process of radicalization will be specific enough, and our capacity to disrupt every terrorist-inspired mass killer strong enough, to say confidently that these kinds of tragedies will not happen again. I certainly hope so, and I say this as both a professional and as a mother of three.
    But in the meantime, before we throw up our hands in despair, it is worth keeping in mind something remarkable about what happened this week: Fewer people died in San Bernardino than might have, otherwise, thanks to the incredible performance of public safety and health professionals in California.
    That should be treated as a success even in the face of a dreadful tragedy. And it certainly wasn't down to chance -- it was investments in security training and exercises based on the potential for an active shooter or a mass casualty event that taught those on the ground how to react, protect and respond when the community needed them the most.
    The list of the fruits of this investment is long: the quick response by those on the ground that appears to have disrupted plans for further carnage (the attackers had accumulated a stockpile of ammunition and explosives); the absence of injuries during the chase and shootout on public streets; the lack of any loss of life among first responders; the ability of nearby hospitals to quickly triple their response staffing to ensure that those who made it there survived.
    That isn't luck.
    All this was possible in part because of a learning curve set in motion by those involved in homeland security following the 9/11 attacks. I say learning curve, because there have been some important lessons that we have needed to learn since that tragedy hit our country.
    For years after 9/11, federal and state leaders were very much focused on ensuring that something such as catastrophic terrorism never happened again. Indeed, "never again" became the mantra not just for the "war on terror," but for the priorities, planning and funding that went to state and local first responders.
    However, over the years -- beginning with Hurricane Katrina and the realization that our emergency management apparatus was inadequate -- that emphasis began to shift so that both the Department of Homeland Security, and the funding it gave to states and localities, also began to focus on nurturing response and recovery capabilities, or what we probably too casually call "after the boom" capacity.
    Of course, there has always been a focus on prevention and intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism. However, state and local first responders have simultaneously adopted an "all hazards" approach to training and planning.
    In practice, this means that at the moment the "boom" occurs, it simply doesn't matter to the first responder whether it is a terrorist with evil motives, a disgruntled employee, an industrial accident, Mother Nature or a cigarette smoker's negligence that has caused a massive fire. Instead, by focusing on the best way to save lives -- whatever the motive or cause -- first responders are given the training, equipment and staffing to deal with major catastrophes.
    The adoption of the all-hazard approach means that first responders are ready when prevention fails. This mindset was on full display during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013: at the moment of the boom, the responders did not know what had actually happened. Instead, their vigorous planning led to a quick response that immediately got runners away from harm and minimized casualties at the finish line: of the hundreds seriously injured, not a single person who made it to a hospital alive died because of their injuries.
    The reality is that effective security against terrorism cannot be solely about "never again." Instead, it must be built around three basic tenets: minimizing risk (through intelligence gathering and disrupting terrorists abroad), maximizing security (for example, protecting airplanes and major sporting events), and, finally, maintaining a vigorous response capability (first responder training, active-shooter training for companies and schools, and emergency planning by families).
    None of this on its own can reduce risk to zero. In a country like the United States, that simply is not possible. But together, all these elements have undoubtedly made us safer -- and saved many lives in the process.