Are we safer now than were on September 11th? At one level this is an existential question to which no concrete answer is possible. At another level it is an eminently practical question that demands detailed response. The Bush Administration is spending tens of billions of dollars on homeland security. The American people need to know if their money is being well spent and if the government’s actions are well advised.
But the first question begs a second, more fundamental one. How do we measure increases in security? Israel, representing the gold standard for security measures, is reported to foil 15 terrorist attacks or suicide bombings for every one that gets through. But is a failure rate of 6.5% acceptable? Perhaps, if each successful attack caused “only” a few casualties; probably not if casualties were in the hundreds; and definitely not if each event resulted in tens of thousands of dead and injured. Reducing the frequency of attacks is very important. But given the reality that some attacks are going to get through, it is more important still to enhance our ability to limit the scope and scale of damage and loss of life to the lowest level possible.
The true measures of success for homeland security are not quantitative, but qualitative. It is not the number of attempted act of terrorism foiled, the mass of people deployed or the amount of resources expended. Rather, it is the existence of a family of capabilities that collectively provides high assurance of damage limitation and casualty reduction under all circumstances, but particularly against the threat of so-called catastrophic terrorism.
The Bush Administration has moved rapidly to address the most obvious national vulnerabilities, those that would make it all but inevitable that the homeland would be struck not once but many times and not with small attacks, but catastrophic ones. In creating the Department of Homeland Security, Washington sought to close obvious gaps in homeland security caused by the distribution of responsibilities among dozens of cabinet departments and government agencies. In less than a year, the Transportation Security Administration, in a unique partnership with private industry, was able to deploy tens of thousands of screeners and hundreds of screening machines to more than 440 airports nationwide in less than a year. These are important first steps.
Limiting access by terrorists to the U.S. homeland or to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) can support the overall capability for damage limitation. But the borders cannot be rendered impenetrable. Nor can access to all forms of WMD be denied with confidence. Therefore, increased security should be measured against the standards of potential lives saved and damage limited across a range of scenarios with an emphasis on potential catastrophic threat. Relatively simple measures can substantially reduce the consequences of low-order terrorism. But to a large degree, the likelihood that any single individual will be affected by this type of terrorism is statistically equivalent to random chance. Not so for catastrophic terrorism which can kill thousands and permanently affect millions more. In this era of new threats, the success of homeland security must be measured in terms of the capabilities needed to survive even the worst form of attack.
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