Never Say ‘Never Again’
Our foolish obsession with stopping the next attack.
There will be no politicians at the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. They are no longer invited. Organizers of the memorial have now decided that they want to make the solemn events more intimate. The decision also reflects the continuing struggle between New York City, New York state, and New Jersey over the memorial, the museum, control of the site, and, as a consequence, the memory of 9/11. Last year, on this same day, the political grandstanding got so outlandish that it led to a showdown between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg over the choice of readings.
But, whatever the motivation, the United States may be ready for a change on how to remember 9/11 too. It is time to make it personal again, to make it less an event or even a call to action. The burden of tragedy is private, but the 9/11 families lost possession of a day that was ultimately theirs. So many of them — embracing new lives, spouses, children, professions, but forever cognizant that it might have been so much different — have, at long last, carried on. America needs to do the same.
This last decade has been summed up by a series of mottos that captured its zeitgeist. The War on Terror. Mission Accomplished. With Us or Against Us. The Surge. Heck of a Job. One Percent Doctrine. Red (Orange, Yellow, Green, Purple, Hazy) Alert. The System Worked. Security Theater. Bin Laden Is Dead.
But surely none has so animated the way we think about, and organize around, America’s security than the two words uttered by President George W. Bush as early as Sept. 14, 2001, and repeated to defend policies as far ranging as the war in Iraq to the establishment of the NYPD’s massive counterterrorism unit: Never Again.
"Never again." It is as simplistic as it is absurd. It is as vague as it is damaging. No two words have provided so little meaning or context; no catchphrase has so warped policy discussions that it has permanently confused the public’s understanding of homeland security. It convinced us that invulnerability was a possibility.
The notion that policies should focus almost exclusively on preventing the next attack has also masked an ideological battle within homeland-security policy circles between "never again" and its antithesis, commonly referred to as "shit happens" but in polite company known as "resiliency." The debate isn’t often discussed this way, and not simply because of the bad language. Time has not only eased the pain of that day, but there have also been no significant attacks. "Never again" has so infiltrated public discourse that to even acknowledge a trend away from prevention is considered risky, un-American. Americans don’t do "Keep Calm and Carry On." But if they really want security, the kind of security that is sustainable and realistic, then they are going to have to.
I have spent most of my career in counterterrorism and homeland security in both state and federal government. And though it may look thoughtless, even numbingly dumb at times, there is actually a theory behind it. Homeland security has rested on four key activities: prevention, protection, response, and recovery. And while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — created in 2003 out of some 40 agencies — is part of the national security apparatus, it is as much about the "homeland" as it is about "security."
There is little acknowledgment of the almost impossible balance that homeland security seeks to maintain every day. A country like the United States — a federal structure with 50 governors all kings unto themselves, hundreds of cities with transit systems that only function when on time, commercial activity across borders that makes Amazon.com so successful and gas so plentiful, respect (sometimes nodding) for civil rights and civil liberties, the flow of people and goods taken as a God-given right, and, oh yes, public money in an economic downturn that must be distributed to not only security efforts but schools, health care, transportation, and every other issue that people care about — was never going to succeed at "never again." But somehow that’s what Americans bought into. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the fear that animated so many decisions then made us forget this obvious fact: As a nation, we are built unsafe.
But "never again" would hear none of it, though it soon became clear that doing "everything possible" to prevent another attack was a lot, probably too much, and very, very expensive. The die had been set; the way we talked about homeland security no longer was some attempt to balance security needs with everything else or to prepare the public for the inevitable harm and the need to be resilient. Instead, over the past 10 years, the United States has spent nearly $640 billion on homeland security throughout almost every federal agency. To give a sense of how far-reaching the apparatus is, consider a study by the National Priorities Project, which found that of the "$71.6 billion requested for homeland security in FY2010, only $37 billion is funded through DHS." The rest flowed mostly through the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Justice.
But "never again" was not just fiscally outrageous; it was, somewhat ironically, myopic in its scope. "Never again" what, exactly? In 2005, Hurricane Katrina came barreling through New Orleans and the Gulf states and reminded us that a country too focused on one threat was surely going to miss the more common, and blameless, ones.
Perhaps the worst legacy of this exclusive focus on prevention was that it bred a nearly unstoppable institutional inertia. It made changes, modifications, reassessments, even total abandonment almost impossible to discuss, let alone enforce. What should have been an easy example — the vilified color-coded system that had been publicly rejected by former Secretaries of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge — took DHS over a year to amend. The alert system had so infiltrated every aspect of public safety, down to the smallest of local police departments, which had planned and trained around it, that it wasn’t so simple to say, "It’s over."
Ratcheting up is easy, ratcheting down not so much. For political leadership, the fear that the antiquated policy or unsuccessful program that is defunded or rejected ends up being the one policy or program that would have stopped the terrorists — a fear that has sometimes been manipulated by local and state first responders during budget decisions — has paralyzed the kind of analysis that is routine in other public policy arenas. Chertoff faced a backlash when he famously, and rightly, acknowledged in defense of the department’s priorities that not every piece of critical infrastructure could be protected. As he remarked on the obvious, that the bridge near his suburban home was not as significant as the Golden Gate Bridge, he faced a barrage of criticism from, mostly, senators who lived near suburban bridges.
I saw the phenomenon up close when I entered state government as Gov. Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor in 2007. At that time, 19 members of the National Guard, deployed in late 2001, were still sitting outside our only nuclear facility in Pilgrim, Massachusetts. The Pavlovian response triggered by 9/11, then re-enforced by Governor Mitt Romney during his tenure, persisted nearly six years later, even though the guardsmen had no real function in securing the perimeter or the interior of the structure. Removing those National Guard members was not operationally questionable — if anything, their armed presence in a residential neighborhood was more troublesome — but it was politically difficult. We had to convince the public that we weren’t abandoning "never again," leaving them vulnerable to an attack, but instead balancing costs and benefits and acknowledging that other mechanisms — like better lighting — were more effective.
I experienced that same sense of unease, that cautiousness, when I later served on President Barack Obama’s transition team for DHS. As we heard about the multiple programs, assessments, and policies that the exiting regime had established, and were clamoring to protect, it became clear that "change" was going to be slow and methodical. Every piece of the homeland security pie had a constituency that believed that this one program (you name it, because there are plenty) was the reason why America had not been attacked again and that removing it would endanger the whole nation. It is not easy to prove them wrong.
I wouldn’t yet call the policies that seek to give more nuance to the homeland security effort a movement. But the limitations and delusions inherent in "never again" are surely taking a beating. This has been necessary because of how destructive that term has become to the very apparatus established to enforce it. "Never again" set a multibillion-dollar effort on a wayward course, a fool’s errand. Throughout government, there are countervailing, and complementary, approaches to preventive security that suggest that the entire apparatus is beginning to acknowledge what couldn’t be admitted 11 years ago: Bad things will happen, they most definitely will, and then, guess what, they will happen again.
One such shift has been in the acceptance of an "all-hazards" approach to emergency management planning, with an emphasis on areas that pose the greatest risk. When DHS started to distribute funds to state and local governments, it was animated by the notion that terrorism anywhere, anytime had to be prevented. Everything had to be new and shiny, every gizmo purchased to stop another 9/11. While that may have led to nice new cars for a willing police department, often the approach had no coherent philosophy behind it. The Office of Management and Budget hated the program for that reason: what exactly were state and localities buying with this money? I had once been on the receiving end of this funding when in state government and could never quite understand the policies behind the department’s directives; one year, it asked all states to spend 25 percent of their homeland security funding on preventing IED explosions, as if Boston were Baghdad.
By 2008, though, and more aggressively since then, funding to states and local governments shifted from new gizmos and counterterrorism planning to approaches that would be relevant for any threat and any known response. By this year, the department had so modified what it was willing to fund that it explicitly focused its guidance on "mitigating and responding to the evolving threats," without a mention of preventing terrorism. The department had once, at its peak, considered nearly 100 cities — ranging from New York City to Bakersfield, California — as high-threat areas that would be granted additional funding. This year, the number is a much more realistic 31 high-density areas.
In addition, the department no longer pretends it is something it is not. "Never again" was, of its many flaws, inherently paternalistic. It created a mythology that politicians and terrorism experts have been allowed to ride for over a decade: The government could actually achieve perfect protection. It gave the American people an easy out, absolving them of responsibility. The famous utterance by Secretary Janet Napolitano, my former boss, that the "system worked" in explaining how a passenger stopped the underwear bomber in December 2009 may have been criticized, but it was utterly honest. Why would we be offended by it unless we had handed government all our own responsibilities as citizens, as well as our expectations for perfect safety? There are 1.5 million people in the air, every day. Honestly, grow up.
This concept, dare I say it, that it takes a village is described in the department’s most recent planning as the "homeland security enterprise," defined as the broad scope of contributions to security from all federal agencies, levels of government, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, individuals, families, and communities. It is an admission by the agency formed to enforce "never again" that it is now delegating.
"Never again" had not allowed for that, and the Department of Homeland Security — a department known more for its public flaws than its unacknowledged successes — will surely thrive in the next decade if it can model itself more on the Education Department than the Defense Department. When parents think about their children’s education, they do not immediately think of a federal agency. They focus on their own children, their local schools, the options available to them, and the options they can afford. The Education Department sends money to state and local entities, sets standards, and enforces areas that are exclusively in the federal domain. But no one thinks the department owns education. The same could be true for homeland security. Phrases like "first 72 on you" (a motto emergency managers use to urge the public to plan for the possibility that services will not be restored after a disaster for at least three days, and so to have food, water, and resources available at home) or the more controversial "see something, say something" (which is self-descriptive and came into play when a car bomb started to smoke in Times Square in May 2010) are essential efforts to engage the public. It’s a little bit of tough love.
But the most significant shift has been in the institutionalization of resiliency as a core mission of homeland security and the department. Obama spoke of it in his speech for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, giving voice to a philosophy that had barely been mentioned. Resiliency isn’t only about the capability to bounce back but how to actually do that. It isn’t just a state of mind, though that surely helps, but also a set of policies and procedures that would help a community come back from the brink. The National Security Council has a resiliency directorate, and the DHS has explicitly reoriented its mission to make resiliency a fifth core function (beyond prevention, protection, response, and recovery). This may sound like bureaucratic lingo, but the reality is that much of what the federal government does is to help communities get back on their feet after a disaster. This includes providing quick access to funding, planning procedures to ensure adequate and inclusive local efforts, and ensuring that essential services are functioning so that communities can begin to rebuild. And after each disaster, levees are built stronger, sheltering facilities are made more livable, and access to emergency funds are made more efficient — because there will always be a next time.
I saw the same sentiment play out when I served on the leadership of the National Incident Command, the ad hoc entity established to deal with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It looked ugly, I know, but over two years later, at the fear of sounding like a BP ad campaign, the Gulf thrives. That’s because the operational response was perfectly cognizant of one simple fact that seemed to catch both the media and the public off-guard: Oil would hit shore. Everyone working the spill knew that within weeks of the rig going down and the blowout preventer failing, there were going to be oiled pelicans. So, even as they tried almighty to keep the oil offshore, planners spent as much time preparing for when it inevitably did. If a port had to close due to oil, then the most important question was "How the heck do we reopen it?" If oil closed a fishing area, the planning focused on establishing standards so that the government would reopen it as quickly and safely as possible. Oil was going to hit shore — stuff happens — and the goal was to make sure as little of it came onto land as possible, but once it did to make sure its impact was felt for as little time as possible.
All these efforts are moving us from resistance and revenge to resilience.
And it is sort of amazing to see. I experienced this firsthand at the one-year anniversary of the Joplin, Missouri, tornado. How does a community that lost so many and suffered so much actually bounce back, which it surely had within a year? There, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had established a long-term recovery framework for the kind of planning that a very grassroots effort, and a devastated community, needed in areas such as housing, education, and mental services. The federal government didn’t fill in the details; it merely had the resources and even objectivity to help launch a very local effort to find the answers. If resiliency is a state of mind, the government can do much to help those actually impacted to embrace it.
The ideological debates within homeland security should be understood by the American public because acknowledgment is the first step toward acceptance. Prevention and resiliency are obviously complementary, but only one has been given voice. While the Bush administration embraced prevention as a unifying mantra, those still abusing it range in ideological and financial motivations. There is still a lot of money in the game, and it is simply much easier to galvanize support on Capitol Hill, win government contracts, and lure consulting fees with two quick words. How do you find a constituency in what is essentially a mood, a spirit of resiliency?
In many respects, what is happening is that many of the disciplines that make up the homeland security enterprise have tired of the focus and funding going to law enforcement and police departments. Emergency managers, public health officials, and fire departments can make a pretty strong case that in a world of hurricanes, H1N1, and massive forest fires, and with a terrorist threat that has changed and waned so significantly, we ought to adapt as well. Sure, this doesn’t explain the NYPD’s attitude — to this day, its motto hasn’t changed. While they may have history to support them, it is jarring that every time they are criticized — such as for extending an odd and quite likely ineffective "demographics" program to conduct surveillance of Muslim communities in New Jersey — they retreat, literally word by word, to "never again" as a defense, rather than an explanation. But, they are more an aberration than the norm, purposefully conflating "never forget" with "never again."
Just as the threat has changed, so has the homeland. There are 49 new governors since 9/11. (The only exception: Rick Perry from Texas.) My last role in government was to support the homeland security transition planning of 23 new governors who came in 2010, many of them without any government experience. They met at the Old Executive Office Building and with the president at Blair House. They were in a crisis, but it wasn’t one made by al Qaeda. State budgets had created a new enemy. None had a "homeland security" platform to speak of. And, to be honest, that did not seem entirely objectionable.
All these internal shifts and funding debates over priorities and planning are barely understood by the public. The ideological tensions will exist side by side, and perhaps it will take more years of relative calm interrupted by dramatic jolts (a virus, a spill, a hurricane, a loner with a bomb) for the public to realize that there has never been such a thing as peace in the homeland.
But having traveled throughout most of the "homeland," I have some hope that resiliency is taking shape in more than theory. Maybe it is in the long lines for the H1N1 vaccine, lines that were not filled with angry parents but accepting citizens who understood that, given our interconnected world, germs will spread. Or the planning meetings in Joplin, with bean dip and potato chips, where citizens openly discuss what they want their community to look like. Or the design of major new bridges that are no longer built to withstand an earthquake, but to literally sway with the movement. Or in how we choose to remember today, if we choose to remember today, with less anger and quiet acceptance.
And one day it will be acceptable, politically and publicly, to argue that while homeland security is about ensuring that fewer bad things happen, the real test is that when they inevitably do, they aren’t as bad as they would have been absent the effort. Only our public and political response to another major terrorist attack will test whether there is room for both ideologies to thrive in a nation that was, any way you look at it, built to be vulnerable.