Generating widespread fear about a real, but limited danger serves no useful end. Remember the color-coded warning system that was trotted out after 9/11? It was widely criticized, and for good reason. What were people supposed to do when the US Department of Homeland Security declared condition orange or condition red? The Obama administration quite rightly abandoned it.
Playing up a sense of pervasive and indiscriminate threat that leaves Americans feeling helpless and has two dangerous outcomes. For the already anxious, it fuels paranoia. For the skeptics, it provides fodder for their apathy and denial.
Second, don't overstate what can be done about the threat
. After 9/11, elected leaders and national security and homeland security officials would often say
: "Terrorists have to be right only once, while we have to be right 100% of the time." The intent was to convey commitment toward doing whatever it takes to prevent the next act of terrorism. But the outcome was to create overinflated public expectations about what can and was being done to make the homeland safe. In what human endeavor has government ever been 100% successful? When the inevitable happens, and the nation feels as though it has been misled, public trust ends up strewn among the casualties.
Preventing terrorism is hard, particularly when dealing with homegrown lone-wolf attacks. This risk is being well-managed by law enforcement at all levels, supported by recent homeland security programs
to combat violent extremism by providing resources to communities to put in place local prevention efforts. To President Barack Obama's credit, he has resisted the temptation to overpromise and has been willing to take the political heat for doing so. Over the past eight years, he has soberly declared
that acts of terror cannot always be prevented, while reminding Americans that we are a strong and resilient people who no adversary can defeat.
Third, don't alienate the people whose assistance is needed to deal with the threat.
Law enforcement and security professionals are rarely successful on their own. The most effective policing
is community policing supported by neighborhood watches. Policing that devolves into "us vs. them" ends up being dangerous for everyone involved.
Dealing with the risk of jihadist extremism requires close collaboration with American Muslim communities and the cooperation of intelligence and security services in majority-Muslim countries. Confronting the risk that terrorist groups may try to evade our border controls requires that homeland security officials have good relations with our Canadian and Mexican neighbors and with foreign officials at airports and seaports overseas.
Beginning with the Bush administration and accelerated under the Obama administration, a number of cooperative programs have been put in place to provide strategic depth by pushing our borders outward. These include the Proliferation Security Initiative
and the Container Security Initiative
programs, in which US Customs agents work with their foreign counterparts to inspect US-bound cargo before its heads our way. These efforts depend on good global relations centered around shared goals and common interests.
Trump wildly exaggerates the threat posed to the United States by terrorism. He matches his hyperbole with sophistry, promising to build "impenetrable" border walls and to "defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism" that "I alone" can deliver. By demonizing Muslims generally and immigrants specifically, Trump has been poisoning the well in ways that compromise decadelong counterterrorism efforts to engage with these communities.
Smart security is always nuanced and, at times, counterintuitive, which is why it trips up capable bad guys. Alternatively, tough security is always simple, which makes it politically attractive, but always ineffective for the adversaries we really need to worry about. And security is never an end onto itself. When the Founding Fathers outlined their intent "to form a more perfect Union," the only place they used the word "secure" in the Constitution, is in the preamble: "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
The measure of a security solution is not whether it sounds good but whether it works. In the face of the terrorist threat, Trump is only serving up sugar pills that undermine the best homeland security efforts of two Republican and Democratic administrations while also eroding the very constitutional principles that presidents solemnly take an oath to protect and defend. As such, he poses a clear and present danger to the safety of the very homeland, whose protection he has placed at the core of his presidential candidacy.