Recalibrating the Response to Domestic Terrorism

Stephen Flynn wonders why the Cold War security apparatus is still being used to fight terrorism.

By: /
May 7, 2012
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Professor of political science and the founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University

The United States has made a mess of the homeland security mission. Painful as this assessment may be, it should not come as a surprise. Those who pieced together the response in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 did so under extraordinary conditions as they had few guideposts. Thanks to a combination of history and geography, the United States entered the new millennium with little practical experience in protecting its own citizens, infrastructure, and networks from attacks within its borders. Nearly a decade after al-Qaida struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, Washington is still figuring out how to manage a threat that will not stay contained to foreign battlefields.

A critical eye should be cast on the current top-down law enforcement and border-centric approach the U.S. government has embraced for protecting its country from the threat of terrorism. In the May 2010 bombing attempt on Times Square, it was a sidewalk T-shirt vendor – not a nearby New York Police Department patrolman – who sounded the alarm about Faisal Shahzad’s explosive-laden SUV. On 9/11, it was the passengers aboard United Flight 93 – not a federal air marshal – that prevented the hijacked airliner from reaching its almost certain target, the U.S. Capitol Building. And it was the people of Gander, Newfoundland who opened their community and homes to the passengers and crews of transatlantic flights diverted from U.S. airspace. Relying on federal officials and national security agencies to routinely detect and intercept every act of terrorism is an illusionary goal. Particularly when dealing with less sophisticated domestic terrorist attacks and always when it comes to responding to disasters, the first preventers and responders are likely to be family, friends, neighbours, and bystanders, who lend a hand in time of need.

For much of its history, the United States has managed the dangers it faced largely by drawing on the strength of its civil society. In past times of crisis, everyday citizens joined the fire brigade or mobilized for war. But the Cold War ushered in an era where national security depended on the efforts of career professionals. The threat of thermonuclear war required a large, complex, and highly secretive national security establishment. As U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals grew in size and lethality, even civil defence measures were judged to be largely futile. By the time the Berlin Wall came down, the general public had grown accustomed to sitting on the sidelines and the national security community had become used to operating in a world of its own.

To a puzzling degree, this self-contained Cold War apparatus is still being used to combat the far different challenge presented by terrorism. This is all wrong. Coping with terrorism requires a localized, open and inclusive engagement of civil society, and a far greater emphasis on resilience – the capacity to withstand, nimbly respond and recover, and adapt to the terrorist and other disruptive risk, as opposed to pursuing the unachievable goal of trying to prevent every act of domestic terror.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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