Homeland Security

Vulnerability Isn't Always Failure

By Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, April 21, 2016, 8:10 PM

Next Tuesday I’ll have a conversation with Juliette Kayyem at the Hoover Institution in Washington about her terrific new book Security Mom. (Please join us!) One of the book’s central themes is the importance of resiliency to any effective counterterrorism strategy. Here is a flavor of the book, from a recent piece by Juliette in the Washington Post:

We will simply never get to maximum defensive posture. Regardless of political affiliation, Americans wouldn’t tolerate the delay or intrusion of an urban mass-transit system that required bag checks and pat-downs. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, many wondered how to make the race safe the next year. A heavier police presence helps, but the only truly safe way to host a marathon is to not have one at all. The risks we tolerate, then, are not necessarily bad bargains simply because an enemy can exploit them.

No matter what promises are made on the campaign trail, terrorism will never be vanquished. There is no ideology, no surveillance, no wall that will definitely stop some 24-year-old from becoming radicalized on the Web, gaining access to guns and shooting a soft target. When we don’t admit this to ourselves, we often swing between the extremes of putting our heads in the sand or losing them entirely. . . .

This is not to say we should throw up our hands and hope for the best; our sense of unease is real. Yes, gun-related deaths (firearms are responsible for more than 30,000 American fatalities per year) far outstrip any violence in our country associated with terrorism , and our chance of dying in a terrorist attack is 1 in 20 million — which is why President Obama says the Islamic State is not an existential threat. But it doesn’t help much to criticize the nervous and anxious simply because terrorism makes them feel terrorized. If that 1 in 20 million is my child, it’s an existential threat to me.

Yet we still live, often joyfully, in a world with gun violence. And drunk drivers. And disease. We implore government to allocate resources as best it can to minimize those risks. Once we move past our angst, this becomes the most rational way to approach terrorist violence. . . .

[W]e must maintain our spirit. Those who challenge xenophobia and Islamophobia are often derided as “politically correct.” If that means pro-security, then it’s a critique worth embracing. In the course of America’s history, the single attribute beyond geography that has made us safer is our capacity to absorb, integrate and assimilate communities that come to our nation and call it home. It’s an experiment we have not always lived up to, but it’s one that puts us on surer footing than our European allies. And to stray from that tradition would lead us in directions that are more dangerous than the one we find ourselves heading in today.

If the attributes of our homeland security sound familiar (risk-reducing, defense-building, spirit-maintaining), it is because we practice them every day at home. We lock doors, wear helmets and keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen — but we don’t shy from cooking on the stove. Stuff also happens in the homeland. We must demand much from our government to make us safer. But we must also accept that vulnerability isn’t always failure.