With President Obama declaring a “systemic failure” of our security system in the wake of the attempted Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, familiar arguments about what can and should be done to reduce America’s vulnerabilities are again filling the airwaves, editorial pages and blogosphere. Several of these arguments are based on assumptions that guided the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and unfortunately, they are as unfounded now as they were then. The biggest whopper of all? The paternalistic assertion that the government can keep us all safe without our help.
1. Terrorism is the gravest threat facing the American people.
Americans are at far greater risk of being killed in accidents or by viruses than by acts of terrorism. In 2008, more than 37,300 Americans perished on the nation’s highways, according to government data. Even before H1N1, a similar number of people died each year from the seasonal flu. Terrorism is a real and potentially consequential danger. But the greatest threat isn’t posed by the direct harm terrorists could inflict; it comes from what we do to ourselves when we are spooked. It is how we react — or more precisely, how we overreact — to the threat of terrorism that makes it an appealing tool for our adversaries. By grounding commercial aviation and effectively closing our borders after the 2001 attacks, Washington accomplished something no foreign state could have hoped to achieve: a blockade on the economy of the world’s sole superpower. While we cannot expect to be completely successful at intercepting terrorist attacks, we must get a better handle on how we respond when they happen.
2. When it comes to preventing terrorism, the only real defense is a good offense.
The cornerstone of the Bush administration’s approach to dealing with the terrorist threat was to take the battle to the enemy. But offense has its limits. We still aren’t generating sufficiently accurate and timely tactical intelligence to adequately support U.S. counterterrorism efforts overseas. And going after terrorists abroad hardly means they won’t manage to strike us at home. Just days before the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the United States collaborated with the Yemeni government on raids against al-Qaeda militants there. The group known as al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is now claiming responsibility for having equipped and trained Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up the flight. The group is also leveraging the raids to recruit militants and mount protests against Yemen’s already fragile central government.
At the same time, an emphasis on offense has often come at the expense of investing in effective defensive measures, such as maintaining quality watch lists, sharing information about threats, safeguarding such critical assets as the nation’s food and energy supplies, and preparing for large-scale emergencies. After authorities said Abdulmutallab had hidden explosives in his underwear, airline screeners held up flights to do stepped-up passenger pat-downs at boarding gates — pat-downs that inevitably avoided passengers’ crotches and buttocks. This kind of quick fix only tends to fuel public cynicism about security efforts. But if we can implement smart security measures ahead of time (such as requiring refineries next to densely populated areas to use safer chemicals when they manufacture high-octane gas), we won’t be incapacitated when terrorists strike. Strengthening our national ability to withstand and rapidly recover from terrorism will make the United States a less appealing target. In combating terrorism, as in sports, success requires both a capable offense and a strong defense.
3. Getting better control over America’s borders is essential to making us safer.
Our borders will never serve as a meaningful line of defense against terrorism. The inspectors at our ports, border crossings and airports have important roles when it comes to managing immigration and the flow of commerce, but they play only a bit part in stopping would-be attackers. This is because terrorist threats do not originate at our land borders with Mexico and Canada, nor along our 12,000 miles of coastline. They originate at home as well as abroad, and they exploit global networks such as the transportation system that moved 500 million cargo containers through the world’s ports in 2008. Moreover, terrorists’ travel documents are often in perfect order. This was the case with Abdulmutallab, as well as with shoe-bomber Richard Reid in 2001. Complaints about porous borders may play well politically, but they distract us from the more challenging task of forging international cooperation to strengthen safeguards for our global transportation, travel and financial systems. They also sidestep the disturbing fact that the number of terrorism-related cases involving U.S. residents reached a new high in 2009.
4. Investing in new technology is key to better security.
Not necessarily. Technology can be helpful, but too often it ends up being part of the problem. Placing too much reliance on sophisticated tools such as X-ray machines often leaves the people staffing our front lines consumed with monitoring and troubleshooting these systems. Consequently, they become more caught up in process than outcomes. And as soon procedures become routine, a determined bad guy can game them. We would do well to heed two lessons the U.S. military has learned from combating insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan: First, don’t do things in rote and predictable ways, and second, don’t alienate the people you are trying to protect. Too much of what is promoted as homeland security disregards these lessons. It is true that technology such as full-body imaging machines, which have received so much attention in the past week, are far more effective than metal detectors at screening airline passengers. But new technologies are also expensive, and they are no substitute for well-trained professionals who are empowered and rewarded for exercising good judgment.
5. Average citizens aren’t an effective bulwark against terrorist attacks.
Elite pundits and policymakers routinely dismiss the ability of ordinary people to respond effectively when they are in harm’s way. It’s ironic that this misconception has animated much of the government’s approach to homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, given that the only successful counterterrorist action that day came from the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. These passengers didn’t have the help of federal air marshals. The Defense Department’s North American Aerospace Defense Command didn’t intercept the plane — it didn’t even know the airliner had been hijacked. But by charging the cockpit over rural Pennsylvania, these private citizens prevented al-Qaeda terrorists from reaching their likely target of the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The government leaders whose constitutional duty is “to provide for the common defense” were defended by one thing alone — an alert and heroic citizenry.
This misconception is particularly reckless because it ends up sidelining the greatest asset we have for managing the terrorism threat: the average people who are best positioned to detect and respond to terrorist activities. We have only to look to the attempted Christmas Day attack to validate this truth. Once again it was the government that fell short, not ordinary people. A concerned Nigerian father, not the CIA or the National Security Agency, came forward with crucial information. And the courageous actions of the Dutch film director Jasper Schuringa and other passengers and crew members aboard Flight 253 thwarted the attack.