TCS Daily


We Are Not Safe (And That's Okay)

By Brian E. Finch - September 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Polling data tell us the American public feels less safe than it did pre-9/11. American soldiers are dying daily at the hands of insurgents/terrorists in streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan. We just learned that terrorists were coming perilously close to destroying several airliners, and we are warned that new plots are being hatched on a daily basis. The Department of Homeland Security lurches from one crisis to the next, and still licks its wounds from Hurricane Katrina a year ago. There is but one conclusion from to draw from all this: five years after 9/11, we are not safe.

Fine.

But let me say I think we're safer than we were before 9/11. For all the missteps of the Department of Homeland Security, for all the close calls, and for all the heroes that have fallen in our defense, we are doing more than ever before to stop terrorists before they reach our shores. We are investing more than we ever have in combating not only existing terrorist threats, but emerging ones. We cooperate daily with our allies, friends and well-wishers to combat terrorists, even if we have ruffled feathers along the way. We are doing what we need to do in order to stop another 9/11.

Can we prevent another 9/11? No. Are we doing everything we can to try and prevent another attack? Absolutely. And that is what we should keep in mind.

It is unrealistic to expect that we will ever be truly safe because there is no such thing as truly safe. No matter how many airbags we have in our car, there will always be the possibility of injuries from a car accident. The same basic principle applies to homeland security. No matter how many screeners we have at airports, no matter how many cargo containers we scan, there will always be the possibility that a terrorist will break through our multiple defenses and cause harm to our nation because we cannot be everywhere at all times.

That reality is why we prioritize our resources, why Secretary Chertoff and others constantly talk about dividing our resources based upon "risk", a calculation based upon the sum of threat, vulnerability and consequence. We have to look around and see not what is the most pressing concern, not what is the easiest target, but rather the combination of many factors to determine what we need to protect first and foremost. For my money, we've been doing a pretty good job of that.

Take for instance the recent London bombing scare. If one stops to think about it, so much went right in that event. Because of good intelligence, we were able to discover a plot in its early stages. Because of good law enforcement work, we and our allies were able to keep tabs on the suspects so when we wanted to apprehend them we could. Because of five years of strong dedication to airline security, we were able quickly to ratchet up airport security. Screeners could be given immediate orders on what to exclude from air travel, and we were able to isolate the security measures to one segment of our nation's infrastructure. That did not and could not have happened on 9/11.

That type of quick and relatively effective reaction makes me feel hopeful that we are in fact safer than we were five years ago. Our methods may not be perfect, but we certainly have made great strides in protecting ourselves.

This is not to suggest complacency about our security measures. Far from it. Our foes are determined, and they are constantly thinking of ways to circumvent our defenses. We must be continually vigilant, and we must not allow ourselves to succumb to the fatigue that so often accompanies extended periods of concern over a threat or hazard. Complacency about the terrorist threats could at this point be one of our greatest enemies.

Another great threat is reactionary security. We have seen too much of that over the past five years. A transit attack occurs somewhere in the world, and all of a sudden we should expend all of our resources on transit security. That is not the way it works. Homeland security needs more long-term thinking, and we cannot let one attack sway us from the fundamental strategy of allocating resources based on risk. Moving away from that thought process will only lead to a Department of Homeland Security that is constantly being thrashed around, unable to focus and plan for the long term. As it is, the Department will never be able to protect us from every threat, and we should not make its task more difficult by demanding that it respond to the threat du jour.

Ultimately, I wish we could be safe. I wish that, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I could look around and say nothing will harm us. But I know that may not be the case. And that's okay. As long as we can say "we're making progress, we're on the right track"...

Brian Finch is the head of the Homeland Security Practice Group at the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro LLP.

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