The Department of Homeland Security's disappointing record.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 11 2007 7:20 AM

Homeland Insecurities

Six years after 9/11, we're still not thinking strategically.

(Continued from Page 1)

U.S. officials also need to integrate a better understanding of its adversaries into the nation's defenses. Terrorists seek targets that will resonate with their constituents. We should ask what will play in Peshawar, Pakistan, not Peoria, Ill. Despite Thompson's fears, planning for a massive agro-terrorism event would be wasteful if al-Qaida or its affiliates have no intention of laying waste to the U.S. corn crop. The United States has spent billions on port security, yet, to our knowledge, no jihadist group has ever devised a serious attack plan for such a strike.

As these criticisms suggest, better security doesn't require spending more on defending even more potential targets. Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, warns that terrorists could attack shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, and similar soft targets and, in so doing, "terrorize the entire nation." Perhaps. But at the same time, Ervin notes that terrorism is "like water, it seeks, finds, and takes the path of least resistance." Ironically, such a statement also argues against protection.In theory, we could guard every restaurant, nightclub, gas station, or for that matter, any place where people congregate. But even if all public places were protected, the terrorists could simply shoot the guards and proceed with their attack. In practice, we can't protect everything, and we must remember that terrorists have their own priorities that lead them to concentrate on a limited set of targets.


It is tempting to say that too much preparation never hurts and that a steady drumbeat of fear is necessary to prepare for what is, in the end, a dangerous movement. After all, who wouldn't drive a car that was "too safe" or eat a diet that was "too healthy"? But excess preparation for homeland security can waste tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that could be better spent on fighting terrorists abroad, or, for that matter, on health care, auto safety, or a tax cut. Aside from the dollars wasted, many of the proposed defensive measures could impede trade, discourage tourism, and restrict civil liberties.

The very concept of homeland security is new for Americans, and the department was thrown together quickly and involved many already-dysfunctional bureaucracies. Even so, our nation's dialogue on homeland security is disappointing. Mistakes, misconceptions, and a lack of strategic thinking are tolerable in the immediate aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack like 9/11, but they are less forgivable six years later.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data


The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 4:03 PM You’re Doing It Wrong: Puttanesca Sauce
Oct. 23 2014 4:36 PM Vampire Porn Mindgeek is a cautionary tale of consolidating production and distribution in a single, monopolistic owner.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.