We may never be 100% safe from terror attacks, but we could be closer to it

Between the numerous terror attacks in Europe this winter and the sporadic incidents here in the United States, it’s all too easy for Americans to come to think of this as the regrettable new normal in terms of how the world works. The daunting challenges we face in terms of identifying and stopping clandestine individuals bent on murder, mayhem and the disruption of civilization probably seem too great for us to ever achieve absolute security. It may be true that we will never stop every single attacker, but we also can’t afford to allow ourselves to be lulled into grim acceptance. I was reminded of this while reading Juliette Kayyem’s thought piece at the Washington Post this weekend with the somewhat disturbing title of, No, America isn’t 100 percent safe from terrorism. And that’s a good thing.

It’s a title which is no doubt intentionally provocative for the purpose of attracting clicks, but the essay contains much food for thought, both good and ill. After tackling the admittedly common question of whether or not Americans should make drastic changes to their lives and routines out of fear of the next terror attack, the “Security Mom” (the title of her upcoming book) praises the idea that America was founded as place where openness and freedom afford us nearly unlimited possibilities, but those freedoms come with a price.

The flow of people and things, the movement to and within cities, the congregation of the masses that makes our lives meaningful, whether at church or at Fenway Park, are inherently risky. Our system (a federal government with limited powers, mayors overseeing police departments, governors directing National Guards) wasn’t designed to produce a seamless shield against every conceivable threat. Every day, more than 2 million passengers board planes at U.S. airports. The movement of goods and services — the expectation that everything from airline tickets to groceries can be purchased with just a few mouse clicks — is our lifeline. We’ve traded a measure of safety for convenience. And in our America, there are sometimes monsters under the bed.

That’s a well written and laudable set of observations and I find myself in agreement. But at the same time, there’s a danger inherent such a sunny disposition. We can take that sort of thinking several bridges too far, as we find in this later paragraph:

Threats constantly change, yet our political discourse suggests that our vulnerabilities are simply for lack of resources, commitment or competence. Sometimes, that is true. But mostly we are vulnerable because we choose to be; because we’ve accepted, at least implicitly, that some risk is tolerable. A state that could stop every suicide bomber wouldn’t be a free or, let’s face it, fun one.

There is no question that some risk is “tolerable” but let’s not confuse that with being desirable. I suppose that a society where you have to wait in long TSA lines at the airport is a bit less “fun” (to borrow the author’s choice of words) but it’s a trade-off which we’ve settled on as being preferable to the minutes long, terminal ride to the ground which follows the sketchy person in row 38 blowing the tail off of our plane.

Such is the price of a completely seamless society… a concept which is now entirely extinct, assuming it ever existed at all. But what we need to avoid is a conflation of the ideas of a relatively free, open society for United States citizens within our own borders and the tendency toward extending that same attitude of openness to those who would cross our borders without permission. If it sounds like I’m arguing in favor of a double standard when it comes to citizens of the United States and non-citizens, that’s because I am. We neither have nor should we desire the power to establish and maintain the rights of everyone on the planet. (We face enough struggles just taking care of our own on that score.) Inside our borders we deserve and expect a relatively seamless society and freedom from an oppressive federal government boot heel on our necks. And once an intruder makes it into our country, that lack of control makes their job easier in terms of fomenting terror. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do more to ensure we keep as many of the bad guys from making it through the door in the first place. And when it comes to those measures, we do have to offer some compromises in terms of our free wheeling attitudes.

As the world became smaller through advances in technology (dating back to the first sail powered, ocean going vessels) new problems arose with every stage of development. One of the biggest challenges humanity faced was the spread of devastating diseases which migrated from populations with inherent immunity to unprepared societies which were decimated. For a time, that became the new normal as well, but we fought back, improved our medical technology, and standardized our defenses. Today we have the ability to cut such biological threats off at the pass, such as we’ve done with great success against threats like the bird flu and Ebola. But that comes at a price in terms of scrutiny for travelers, intrusive questions from officials and even the possibility of quarantines at times. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. We can – and should – adopt the same attitude toward any and all visitors seeking to cross our borders.

Does that make the country a bit less “fun” to travel around, as Kayyem might describe it? Possibly. But a repeat of the 1918 influenza pandemic wouldn’t be much of a hoot either.


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