With the fall of Afghanistan on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans seem more eager than ever to shake free of the past two decades. We want to honor and memorialize the tremendous losses of this war and that day, of course, but we also want to move on from what seems like a period of ever-expanding conflict, global pandemic, natural disasters, and economic turmoil. And as we mark this moment, Americans want to know above all: What lies ahead?
In many ways, the state of the nation’s homeland security offers a lens through which we can assess this question. Why homeland security? Because it represents the most durable legacy of the September 11 era. Indeed, the very term signifies a certain coming of age for this country in its whole-of-nation effort to ensure a safe, secure, resilient place where the American way of life can thrive. Created with the founding principle of protecting the American people from terrorist and other threats, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its many partners across the federal government, state and municipal governments, public and private sectors, and local communities have spent much of the last 20 years learning what it takes to secure the American homeland in today’s world, and those lessons are worth some reflection as we look to the coming decade, and beyond.
First, the terrorist threats facing our country have evolved in the past 20 years and continue to change. Collectively, we have strengthened the homeland security enterprise to defend against these dynamic threats and reduce our vulnerabilities. We have seen that, notwithstanding the death of Osama bin Laden a decade ago, the terrorist threat still exists. While al-Qaeda is only a pale reflection of its former self, it remains a source of inspiration and direction for others who act in its name. Other groups, believing the means of terror can advance their interests, continue trying to disrupt and destroy.
Governmental actions reflect these realities. For example, we have tackled head-on the repeated efforts by terrorists to attack commercial aviation. We are continually making improvements to layered defenses: smarter screening, hardened aircraft, timely and actionable public information, and better information-sharing with industry and international partners. We have brought many of these insights and techniques to other modes of transportation and to our critical infrastructure, to reduce vulnerabilities – for example, in global supply chains – and also to promote a culture of vigilance and preparedness.
Second, we know this country can protect itself. The United States has, in large measure, successfully fought terrorism abroad by working relentlessly to locate and keep terrorists far from our shores. We’ve pursued this strategy with a skillful combination of intelligence, military operations, and partnerships with key friends and allies around the world.
Closer to home, however, we must rely on different tools: our borders, our law enforcement, our knowledge of threats and vulnerabilities, and our people. Engineering successful prevention requires active strategies for information-sharing with the hundreds of thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials who work daily to prevent crime before it happens, and who know their communities best. It also demands that we appropriately engage and inform the public in ways that help people sound the alert when things are amiss. Private citizens, for example, were instrumental in preventing the detonation of an in-flight explosive on Christmas Day 2009, and in foiling the Times Square bombing plot in 2010.
Third, the American people truly understand that we all have a role to play. To speak of a secure homeland is to speak decisively about “freedom from fear” – fear of attack at home or abroad. But homeland security also has emerged as a way to describe how we have overcome our fear – how we have come together to secure our freedoms, opportunities, values, and principles – with the creativity and fortitude that characterize Americans. This American spirit and culture is what we have known all our lives as “the American way.”
Traditionally, we have seen our “national security” as embracing the totality of what is essential to ensure our national survival; the interests and policies that drive it are strategic, centralized, and top-driven. Homeland security complements these efforts but is driven from the bottom-up – by the many and varied state, local, and tribal priorities for safety, security, and resilience under a variety of circumstances that are often quite particular to individual communities. Securing our homeland demands a different approach to security, and relies on informed individuals, capable communities, and a responsive federal system, each equipped to play its part.
“The American people truly understand that we all have a role to play.”
Fourth, we have learned that we must prioritize our efforts. DHS has focused on five key missions as most important – preventing another successful terrorist strike in the United States; securing our borders; properly administering and enforcing our immigration laws; ensuring the security of the nation’s critical cyber infrastructure; and, finally, building our national resilience to help prevent and recover rapidly from crises when they do occur.
While integral to our efforts to prevent any terrorist attack on U.S. soil, securing our borders presents a dual challenge: on the one hand, we must work to keep out people and goods that might be dangerous while at the same time put in place processes and means to expedite legitimate trade and travel. In a similar way, we must properly enforce our immigration laws to prevent those who would exploit our freedoms only to endanger the rest of us while welcoming those who enrich our culture and our economy – people from around the world who remind us of who we are and how, in large measure, this country came to be.
Of course, every country has a right to know who lives and works within its borders. Indeed, a legal workforce is essential to a healthy, thriving national economy. The United States does not just want, it depends – vitally – on welcoming peoples from around the world to visit, shop, and do business here. Our society will be sustained, in part, by the intensive interactions with countries from across the globe, countries with which the American way of life is so deeply connected.
Because of our interconnectivity, we must do better at securing cyberspace. The internet functions as the very endoskeleton of modern life, and we must maintain its safety and accessibility for all users. Again, the challenge here is twofold: secure our identities and our information while maintaining a responsible environment of openness and interchange. At the moment, there are no rules, and cybercrime and cyber exploitation are rampant. The status quo is neither acceptable nor sustainable. Yet, we most assuredly do not want to restrict access to cyberspace in the name of security. Cyberspace is fundamentally civilian space where each user and machine must be informed, aware, and equipped with the means to prevent hostile penetrations or attacks, and where government must play an appropriate role in making clear the threats and working with the public and with industry to reduce our vulnerabilities.
Fifth, a key part of our national strength is our national resilience. We know that this country can protect itself. We can defeat terrorists who threaten our way of life. We can rebuild when hurricanes, tornados, floods, and wildfires devastate our communities. We can check the advance of global disease and restore the environment when disaster strikes. Just as we have overcome crises and challenging times in the past, so too have we mastered the lessons of this passing decade. This resilience is part of our history; it is the DNA of the USA.
Sixth, we understand that the security of the American homeland fundamentally rests with people. We should acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of the men and women from across the nation who come to work every day committed to doing their best to keep the homeland secure. Indeed, any American who has responded to a call of distress when they could have stood idle, who helped fill sandbags when they could have stayed dry, or who took the responsibility to “say something” in aid of others have been part – and at the heart – of the homeland security enterprise we continue to build.
Each year, the president stands before the American people to report on the state of our union. Now, as we put decades of fear behind us, and despite the challenges we continue to face, on this September 11, each of us should have the confidence to say that whatever comes our way, we are stronger, more secure, and more resilient than ever before.