Defense Media Network

What 9/11 Has Wrought

Ten years later, are we safer? And is that the only question worth asking?

Bin Laden’s Ghost: Risk and Resilience

For a legislator, guaranteeing constituents the inspection of every inbound cargo container will always be easier than discussing the intricacies of the global supply chain. Since 9/11, terrorism has been an emotional issue; for everyone lost on that day, there’s at least one person who would give anything to bring him or her back and to prevent more heartbreak and bloodshed. If you’re a legislator, why risk acknowledging the pointless extravagance – and likely impossibility – of inspecting 16 million cargo containers annually? Why not simply adopt the “zero tolerance” stance?

The job of the government is to prevent any and all attacks, everywhere.

The simple answer is that, in the current budget climate, we can no longer afford this approach. In their recent 222-page compilation of essays, titled The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism, the RAND Corporation’s experts contend that, despite positive strides and improved security, the nation’s approach to homeland security has been a decade-long overreaction, one driven by emotions rather than empirical assessments of the actual risks posed by terrorism. In their public statements, many congressional members and public figures have echoed a popular public sentiment: It’s not enough for the government to minimize the damage and pain inflicted by terrorist attacks. The job of the government is to prevent any and all attacks, everywhere.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Marine unit Midnight Express boat patrols the waters off of the Port of Miami. U.S. Department of Homeland Security photo by James Tourtellotte.

This is an unreasonable expectation. “Calling another attack ‘intolerable,’” wrote Greg Treverton, director of the RAND Center for Risk and Security, “is wishing, not making policy.”

Given the debt crisis, it does seem worthwhile to ask whether the costs – estimated anywhere from $3.7 trillion to $7.6 trillion – spent on national security since 9/11 have been a good investment. In an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times in August 2011, “Is Homeland Security Spending Paying Off?,” John Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor, claimed that the number of people killed worldwide each year by Islamist terrorists is roughly equal to the number of people who drown in the bathtub.

While it may seem unfair to assume this fact has nothing to do with the efforts of DHS, the military, and international partnerships over the past decade, it also seems reasonable to think many of our trillions have been spent in response to fear and other emotions. Fiscal health, it is frequently pointed out, is also a key determinant – perhaps the most important determinant – of national security, and U.S. fiscal health has been in a long and sometimes precipitous decline over the past decade.

The good news is that the Department of Homeland Security has, from its inception, wanted to adopt a risk-based approach to homeland security policy, and began adopting risk-based decision models about five years ago.

The good news is that the Department of Homeland Security has, from its inception, wanted to adopt a risk-based approach to homeland security policy, and began adopting risk-based decision models about five years ago. “In a few niche places,” said Willis, “the department stood up that capability. They now have analytic shops in place that have emerged over the last two to three years. I’d say now that you’ve built that, it takes a while to get the right people in place and have them in an organization that can help support their leadership.”

Nelson believes a more austere budget climate will drive the nation toward sharper thinking about the issue of terrorism. “DHS has been hindered,” he said, “by philosophies such as: ‘We have to be right all the time, and terrorists only have to be right once.’ This zero-defect mentality has forced DHS into a position where they have to secure everything and eliminate all vulnerabilities.” Nelson went on to say that DHS can use budget cuts as an opportunity to emphasize a risk-based approach that doesn’t treat every person as a threat. As an example, Nelson mentioned the TSA’s new Pre✓™ Program, a pilot recently rolled out at five U.S. airports (seven by early 2012), in partnership with four private airline companies, to evaluate the feasibility of voluntary expedited pre-screening for travelers. “Administrator John A. Pistole and the TSA have done a good job of this,” Nelson said. “They all have, getting away from that mentality and saying: ‘Listen, to build these capabilities is going to take time, and we have to do it properly.’”

One of the phenomena pointed out by RAND experts in The Long Shadow of 9/11 is that, while much progress has been made in responding and rebuilding infrastructure after a disaster, little attention has been paid to the recoveries of human beings and communities. This shouldn’t surprise: In many ways, we still haven’t completely recovered from 9/11, as evidenced by some of the things we demand of our government. The fact that “risk-based” and “evidence-based” are fairly new terms in the homeland security lexicon may be an indication that, for all the concrete progress made in the fight against terrorism, we may not yet have gained the upper hand in the one dimension of counterterrorism – psychology – that may ultimately matter most.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials at the Denver International Airport security checkpoint have been highlighted to help us reflect on how we have been changed by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Photo by Peter Stanley.

When Treverton writes, in The Long Shadow of 9/11, “Terrorism, as long as terrorists do not obtain nuclear or highly destructive biological weapons, is more a nuisance than a mortal threat,” he writes from an actuarial, technocratic perspective that surely smacks of sacrilege to those who lost loved ones in the attacks or in the ensuing wars. But he’s also correct: Conventional terrorist attacks are not an existential threat to our nation in the way that our Cold War enemy once was.

Terror is terror, and Americans will never completely overcome their fears of terrorism. But RAND’s experts and other analysts have argued that in the post-9/11 world, we don’t simply need more resilient infrastructure, buildings, and institutions: We need more resilient Americans to drive the laws and policies developed by our elected officials. This may have been what President Barack Obama looked forward to when, on the occasion of the 10th 9/11 anniversary, he spoke at the Kennedy Center in Washington and imagined what people in the future would think about the United States’ reaction to the attacks.

“They will remember that we have overcome slavery and Civil War; bread lines and fascism; recession and riots; Communism and, yes, terrorism,” said the president. “It will be said of us that we kept that faith; that we took a painful blow, and emerged stronger … With a just God as our guide, let us honor those who have been lost, let us rededicate ourselves to the ideals that define our nation, and let us look to the future with hearts full of hope.”

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2011-2012 Edition.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24992">

    Dear sirs, Mam, I am writing to see if I could purchase copies of your magasine issue 2011/2012 The year in homeland security, It has a picture of two firefighter,s on the front and says a year from hell on it, Our son is a firefighter and his picture is on the front . We would love to be able to get some copies for ourself and family. We would greatly appreciate yor help . Sincerly Darlene Carpenter, Thank you for your help

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-25284">


    Please check your email. We’ll get those copies to you.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-25293">

    Very Nice !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-25676">

    Thanks for the copies we enjoyed reading them , it really is informative.