Are we safer 10 years on? Yes, but let’s look forward | Power & Policy

Are we safer 10 years on? Yes, but let’s look forward

The Power Problem: Part of a series of views on lessons learned in the exercise of American power in the decade since 9/11.

Juliette Kayyem

Juliette Kayyem

By Juliette Kayyem

Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; former assistant secretary, Department of Homeland Security

Are we safer? Those three words, so difficult to answer, permeate the atmosphere on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. Why?

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes, if you just look at the threat we faced on the anniversary. In terms of the threat, al Qaeda is essentially a shell of what it once was, though its ideology isn’t completely dead yet. Lone-wolf actors exists, as they surely always will, but likely do not have the capacity to wreck such monumental violence. Our defenses — what we call generically homeland security — are better, more organized, and sweeping. They too are not perfect, but they are working.

There are too many caveats to fully answer that question. Safer from what? The world, and the dangers, have moved on. The economic downturn poses a national security risk. Other threats, unheard of before 9/11, such as cyber or biological or environmental (think oil spill!) are still a risk. And then there is mother nature, always impossible to control, not so easily understood as a war.

That is why I avoid the answer. Because I don’t want to fall into the trap of propagating fear (to justify my professional existence) nor to give an excuse for seeing our world vision as The War on Terror. Nor do I want to seem immune to the risks that still exist.

That is why I prefer to write about the future; what happened during these 10 years that should make us somewhat more hopeful than we were on Sept. 12, 2001. My recent column for the Boston Globe embraced the new generation, call them the Millennials, but essentially those who grew up under the legacy of 9/11. And the data, provided by the Pew Research Center¬† is tremendously inspiring. Not simply because they are liberal, diverse, plugged in, and still love their moms (yes, they are exceptionally close to their parents). It is because they are more sophisticated than our political discourse often allows. They view the United States as great, certainly, but have an understanding of the outside world — and potentially its greatness — against our growing isolationism (most obvious in the Republican presidential field). They can’t find jobs, but are exceptionally hopeful that struggle is a good thing for America.

A tourist looks over the ground zero construction site in New York, Monday, Sept. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

A tourist looks over the ground zero construction site in New York, Monday, Sept. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

And, as the column suggests, many of them have gotten tattoos. I have been criticized for that aspect of the article; is it too cute, too flip, too casual for the lessons of 9/11? I don’t think so. I am no fan of tattoos, and promise I will hit the wall if any of my children get one. But, given the odds, one of them will.

The tattoos represent a different kind of 9/11 marking, as much as the waving flags after 9/11. They have no moral judgment about tattoos — they are non-ideological. And, they are hidden. It is that fact that seemed so surprising to me, yet consistent with how this generation is. They aren’t in your face with certainty, no “look at me” generation. They have simply taken the edge out of something so edgy; complicated — for sure — but strangely hopeful nonetheless.

Still, I will hit the roof if one of my kids gets one.

Juliette N. Kayyem, the national security and foreign policy columnist for the Boston Globe and on the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School, has spent nearly fifteen years in counterterrorism, homeland security, and emergency management arena. She was Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the first two years of the Obama Administration.


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