Juliette Kayyem: With the anniversary of 9/11 approaching, many ask are we safe yet?
Though we can never be fully safe, we can minimize our risk, maximize our national defenses and lift our spirits
Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. As widely reported, on Friday Kayyem is meeting with Hillary Clinton to discuss homeland security issues. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Are we safe? The question, as we approach the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, is a fair one to ask given the investments, money and wars we have fought in an effort to protect this nation. But it is also misleading. It assumes that there is some place, some zone of safety, that we can reach, claim victory and then move onto other efforts.
There is not. The question assumes that on September 10, 2001, we were living free from risk and without vulnerabilities. But a nation like ours – where the flow of people, goods and ideas are essential to our fabric – was built unsafely.
Having spent a career in homeland security, I now believe the most realistic way to think about our safety is to focus less on some place where we need to be, and more on the efforts and investments around three important standards.
First, are our efforts better able to minimize any risks? While September 11 made us focus on homeland security, it was actually Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that forced a course correction. It reminded us that a nation too concentrated on one threat – 19 men on four airplanes – could not save an American city from drowning. After Katrina, the homeland security apparatus began to shift, recognizing it needed to nurture its prevention and response capabilities against all threats. The idea, known as all-hazards planning, prepares first responders and public safety officials working to protect lives against a variety of potential threats. It is what guides us today in addressing the changing face of terror, hurricanes, oil spills, cyberattacks, bio-warfare, tornadoes, Zika and whatever mayhem may come our way.
Second, are our efforts better adept at maximizing national defenses? The focus on “national” is important. From airport security to hardening soft targets to protecting our cybernetworks, our capacity to protect ourselves isn’t so much the responsibility of one federal agency – mainly the Department of Homeland Security – but national efforts engaging local and state authorities, the private sector, multiple federal agencies, the international community and the American public.
Finally, are our efforts consistent with maintaining our spirit as a nation? This standard is as important as the others. Safety and security is, in so many ways, the easy part. The challenge is whether some policy or program is consistent with our democratic norms and community fabric. A nation that changes too much in the name of its own defense – puts up walls, antagonizes discrete populations or makes day-to-day living intolerable or burdensome – will find that the short-term victory of security has long-term and detrimental consequences.
Over the last 15 years, we have made progress, and we have made mistakes. The risks will continue to change; just think of the difference between al Qaeda and the lone-wolf phenomenon we experience today. Of course, there is still work to be done. Technology will make many of our efforts easier, but it can also be manipulated by a worthy opponent. Global climate change will continue to put pressure on our response and recovery capabilities.
With these standards in mind, it can help to focus our collective efforts for the next 15 years in a world where terror is just one of many threats. For example, our postal delivery system – where almost 1 million packages per day are being shipped into the United States from China, Russia, India and other foreign countries – is not adequately screening for dangerous and illegal content. While private carriers are subject to requiring advance manifest data on packages entering the United States, the same is not true for foreign posts and the US postal service. This is a loophole that can and should be closed.
This vulnerability can be exposed by those who would do harm to this nation, and has already been manipulated by those delivering illegal and synthetic drugs right to our doors. In this case, technology isn’t the challenge (it already exists and is being used by private carriers); it is the will.
[Note: Kayyem is a senior adviser to the Americans for Securing All Packages coalition, currently trying to pass legislation in Congress on improving postal security.]
Are we safe? The answer is no. That isn’t defeatist or apologist; simply put, we never have been. But with a consistent focus on evaluating and investing in efforts that help minimize all risks, maximize national defenses and maintain our spirit, we will continue to get safer. There is simply no finish line.
CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. As widely reported, on Friday Kayyem is meeting with Hillary Clinton to discuss homeland security issues. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.