Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Citizen Vigilance Isn’t Sufficient

Are we safer now than we were a year ago, before terrorists struck America? Yes. But the reason has more to do with what happened on 9/11 than with what the U.S. government has done since to make us safe at home.

When terrorists flew their hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that summer morning, all of America watched the unfolding events on live television. That day ended our sense of invulnerability. It also turned more than 280 million Americans into the nation’s first line of defense against another terrorist attack.

Now, unlike a year ago, the nation has more than 280 million first defenders—each one more vigilant, more suspicious and more willing to help than before. That makes it more difficult for terrorists to operate, making our country safer than before.

The same urgency drives those whose job it is to prevent or respond to a future attack. The horrors of 9/11 have made every local police officer, state trooper and federal law-enforcement person more aware of the terrorist threat. The anthrax mailings have produced doctors, nurses and other health workers more determined to look for an unnatural outbreak of an infectious disease and more capable of preventing its spread. Those charged with keeping terrorists and their dangerous goods out, protecting our critical infrastructure and tracking suspicious people or cargo are today more aware of the threat and what they need to do about it than they were a year ago.

All of this makes us safer than we were before terrorists struck America with devastating effect. This contribution to our nation’s security is often forgotten. Instead, the focus has been on what the government has done—appropriately enough, given that its first responsibility is the security of its citizens.

George W. Bush’s administration has taken significant steps, especially abroad, that have helped make the nation more secure. It took the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan, routed the Taliban and eliminated a terrorist sanctuary. It effectively coordinated with other countries, sharing intelligence information, cooperating in law-enforcement efforts and stanching the money flow that keeps the terrorist networks afloat. All of this has weakened the ability of terrorists to coordinate future attacks.

At the same time, there can be little doubt that there are still many terrorists out there who remain committed to doing us harm. To protect the nation against these people, the administration has launched a major effort at home to prevent and respond to a possible future attack. Unfortunately, that effort has fallen well short of what is needed.

Author

The Bush administration has taken two major initiatives in this area—it has boosted funding for the effort and it has proposed the formation of a new Department of Homeland Security. Both have significant flaws.

The budget presented by the administration for homeland security spending during the coming year would, at $37 billion, triple the amount the administration proposed to spend on counterterrorism before the attacks. Unfortunately, its funding priorities reflect an attempt to fight the last war, rather than prevent the next one. There are major increases for airport security and responding to bioterrorism, and also significant funds in support of those responsible for responding to an attack.

All of these are important and deserve extra funds, but they are not a top priority. The problem of airline security was essentially addressed 45 minutes after the second airplane hit the World Trade Center – when the crew and passengers of United flight 93 took down their airplane over Pennsylvania. In the future, it seems unlikely anyone will be able to repeat what 15 hijackers accomplished (but four failed) on Sept. 11. Improving airline security is important. But the more than $6 billion being spent on it might be better devoted to enhancing security of container shipments—16 million of which enter our country each year virtually unchecked.

The proposed Homeland Security Department also misses the mark. Better coordination of the federal government’s effort makes sense, but merging 22 disparate agencies is a gargantuan task. Once the department has been approved, senior management will spend the next year or two working out the kinks of the giant merger—all the while leaving ther practical work of improving our nation’s defenses against attack untended. What’s needed instead is a more streamlined reorganization that would bring together a smaller number of agencies.

In fact, neglect has already occurred. Ever since President Bush proposed the new department three months ago, Tom Ridge—who is the only person in the U.S. government besides the president with responsibility for leading, coordinating and mobilizing the federal government’s homeland security effort—has been working to persuade Congress, the media and the American people of the need to support the massive reorganization. But, in so doing, Ridge has neglected his day job.

A year ago, America awoke to a dangerous new threat. The people responded with a renewed commitment to vigilance. The government must match the determination by getting on with a more focused effort to improve our nation’s defenses against attack.

Get daily updates from Brookings