In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend, which left 130 dead so far and hundreds more injured, the question arises yet again for our nation: Can terrorists once again slip across our borders to commit similar atrocities? Does our border security again need tightening?
Those are critical questions in need of answers, especially as law enforcement raids now going on in Belgium and France in response to those attacks are being formulated in part based on long-standing knowledge of suspected terrorist activities.
In short, the authorities knew potential terrorists were in their countries, plotting something – just what, specifically, they didn’t know.
Until this weekend.
The question now, though, is this: Do we need more? And, if so, how invasive should such measures be?
Jeh Johnson (at left), the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, discussed some of those issues back in September during a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, MO – the same college where the late Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech back in 1946.
“Today the global terrorist threat to our homeland is evolving,” Johnson said. “It is no longer limited to terrorist threats that are recruited, trained, equipped, and directed overseas and then exported to the homeland. We now also live in a world that includes the potential home-grown threat – the so-called ‘lone wolf’ – who may strike with little or no notice, and is terrorist-inspired by something he sees or reads in social media or the internet.”
Yet he also stressed that there are inherent dangers as well via an “over-reaction” to the terrorist threat, too.
“There are a lot of ways in which DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] can potentially assert itself into the daily lives of the American public, in the name of homeland security,” Johnson explained.
“But … I know we must guard against the dangers of over-reaction in the name of homeland security. It’s not simply a matter of imposing on the public as much security as our resources will permit,” he emphasized. “Rather, both national security and homeland security involve striking a balance between basic, physical security and the law, the liberties and the values we cherish as Americans.”
By the way, a few factoids about DHS worth remembering:
- It’s the third largest federal government department, with 22 components, 225,000 people, and a total spending authority of about $60 billion a year.
- Its responsibilities include counter-terrorism, border security, port security, aviation security, maritime security, cyber-security, the administration and enforcement of our immigration laws, the detection of nuclear, chemical and biological threats, the protection of our critical infrastructure, the protection of our national leaders, and the response to natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.
- Agencies within DHS include: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; the Transportation Security Administration (TSA); the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); the Federal Protective Service; the Secret Service; the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers; and the U.S. Coast Guard.
That’s a lot of muscle, obviously. But how should our nation use it effectively?
Johnson said the key is in the principals guiding its usage – and he cited words spoken by President Harry Truman 65 years ago as an example.
“In 1950, Truman asserted in a statement to Congress: ‘Everyone in public life has a responsibility to conduct himself so as to reinforce and not undermine our internal security and our basic freedoms. Our press and radio have the same responsibility. . . . We must all act soberly and carefully, in keeping with our great traditions.’ This assertion is timeless, and I agree with every word,” Johnson noted.
“All of us in public office, those who aspire to public office, and who command a microphone, owe the public calm, responsible dialog and decision-making; not over-heated, over-simplistic rhetoric and proposals of superficial appeal,” he stressed. “In a democracy, the former leads to smart and sustainable policy, the latter can lead to fear, hate, suspicion, prejudice, and government over-reach.”
One example he believes can inform and guide America’s anti-terrorist strategy can be gleaned from the eventual U.S. response to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa a year ago.
“The outbreak of a lethal virus always raises the potential for public anxiety, because of the great unknown at the initial stages of just how far or fast the virus will ultimately spread,” Johnson noted. “For a period last fall almost every air traveler to the U.S., from any part of the world, who got sick on an airplane came to the personal attention of the Secretary of Homeland Security.”
Yet instead of closing the borders to West African travelers, DHS instead funneled all air travel into the U.S. from that region – which included the nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – to one of five domestic airports for virus detection.
The U.S. also sent thousands of members of the military and the health care profession in this country went to West Africa; people who helped defeat the spread of the Ebola virus.
The lessons gleaned from the Ebola response, and the ones that must inform the anti-terror policies of the U.S. are these, according to Johnson:
- I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will amount to a prison.
- I can guarantee you a commercial air flight perfectly free from the risk of terrorist attack, but all the passengers will be forced to wear nothing but hospital-like paper smocks, and not be allowed any luggage, food, or the ability to get up from their seats.
- I can do the same thing on buses and subways, but a 20 minute commute to work would turn into a daily, invasive two-hour ordeal. You’d rather quit your job and stay home.
- I can guarantee you an email system perfectly free from the risk of cyberattack, but it will be an isolated, walled-off system of about 10 people, with no link to the larger, interconnected world of the Internet.
- I can profile people in this country based on their religion, but that would be unlawful and un-American.
“We can erect more walls, install more screening devices, and make everybody suspicious of each other, but we should not do so at the cost of who we are as a nation of people who cherish our privacy, our religions, our freedom to speak, travel and associate, and who celebrate our diversity and our immigrant heritage,” he added.
All good points, worthy of serious consideration – especially due to the impact such heavy-handed would have upon the business of moving freight within the U.S. and across its borders.
But will they truly counter the growing global terrorist threat we face? That remains to be seen.