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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In NYC Speech, Napolitano Says “For Too Long, We’ve Treated The Public As A Liability To Be Protected Rather Than An Asset In Our Nation’s Collective Security”; Promises To Begin “Engaging And Empowering Our Citizens To Be Part Of Collective Effort” Towards “Creating A Culture of Awareness And Preparation”

July 29th, 2009 · 16 Comments

In a major speech this morning here in New York City that focused a great deal of attention on the role of the American citizen in homeland security, Secretary Janet Napolitano said that “for too long, we’ve treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation’s collective security” and promised that there would be increased focus on “creating a culture of awareness and preparation” where “every individual understands their role.”

The speech was delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan. A transcript as well as the video and audio can be found on the Council’s website here.

U.S. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations July 29, 2009 in New York City. The head of the Department of Homeland Security is scheduled for several stops in New York today, including Ground Zero, as she addresses national security issues. Napolitano has also initiated a review of the color- coded terror-alert system deemed vague by critics that's intended to inform the public on terror threats.

Janet Napolitano speaks to the Council on Foreign Relations this morning (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images North America)

Below are some excerpts from the speech that I thought were particularly notable on the public’s role and responsibilities in homeland security. I have excerpted a lot because I think it signals a significant commitment from the Secretary to inform, involve and engage the citizenry going forward:

“I will speak candidly about the urgent need to refocus our counterterror approach, to make it a shared endeavor, to make it more layered, networked and resilient, to make it smarter and more adaptive and to make sure that as a country, as a nation, we are at the point where we are in a constant state of preparedness and not a state of fear.

The challenge is not just using federal power to protect the country, but also enlisting a much broader societal response to the threats that terrorism poses.

Now, a wise approach to keeping America secure should be rooted in the values that define our nation, values like resilience, shared responsibility, standing up for what is right. These are the values that led us to fight and win two world wars, that were on display in the dark days after the September 11th attacks. We must embrace them again now.

So how do we secure our homeland and stay true to our values? We do it with four levels of collective response. It starts with the American people. From there, it extends to local law enforcement, and from there up to the federal government, and then finally out beyond our shores, where America’s international allies can serve and do serve as partners in a collective fight against terrorism…

So what is the right response, and what are we doing? As I mentioned earlier, there are four layers, and the place we start is the work of engaging the American people in our collective effort. I’m often asked if complacency is a threat in the United States, and I believe the short answer is yes. But I think a better question is this: Has the United States government done everything it can to educate and engage the American people? The answer there is no. For too long we’ve treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation’s collective security. And this approach, unfortunately, has allowed confusion, anxiety and fear to linger.

Let me stress, this is no small matter. This is a first-order issue for us. The consequences of living in a state of fear rather than a state of preparedness are enormous. We may be better prepared as a nation than we were on 9/11, but we are nowhere near as prepared as we need to be. There are, of course, aspects of countering the terror threat that are inherently governmental, but the smart government is one that knows what it does best and which helps others do their best as well.

So here’s how we’re looking at this. First, with respect to individuals and the private sector, we’re taking a much closer look at how we can support and inform our greatest asset, individual citizens, and with them the private sector. You are the ones who know if something is not right in your communities, such as a suspicious package or unusual activity.

Three years ago, it was an attentive store clerk who told authorities about men trying to duplicate extremist DVDs. This led federal agents to eventually round up a plot to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix army base here in New Jersey, in New Jersey. (Laughter.)

Just last month, a — just last month, a passenger saw two employees exchange a bag at the Philadelphia airport that had not been properly screened. That passenger’s vigilance ultimately stopped a gun from getting onto the plane.

So there’s no doubt that building a culture of preparedness in our communities will require a long-term commitment from all aspects of our society. But there are, as I said, simple ways for you as individuals and community and business leaders to engage right now. With basic training, every one of us can become better first preventers as well as first responders…

Let me close by going back to something I said earlier about people, because in the end, what we really do is about people. We are a nation of more than 300 million. More than that, we’re a nation of families, communities, organizations, of cities, suburbs, tribes, all of their local governments and organizations. And within these groupings lies an extraordinary pool of talent, ingenuity and strength.

We face a networked enemy. We must meet it with a networked response. The job of securing our nation against the threat of terrorism is a large one, and it may never be totally completed, but we have a much larger chance at success if we strengthen our own networks by enlisting the talents and energies of Americans.

Countering the terrorist threat is not just the effort of one agency; it is one — or one element of society. Nor is countering terrorism the consequence of one tactic. Rather, it requires a holistic, unrelenting approach at all levels, with all tactics and all elements of society.

We need to be the very best at what we do, and that means engaging and empowering our citizens to be part of our collective effort, an effort aimed at effective prevention and of resilient response. So when I hear the phrase “Department of Homeland Security,” I think of us as a hub, but the hub of a very large wheel that involves every single person in our country.

You can use to make an emergency plan for your family. You can volunteer by contacting your local Citizen Corps or America Corps (sic) councils. You can get free training on basic disaster response by joining a local CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team…

You know, I think there’s actually an important role that we can play in educating even our very young about watching for and knowing what to do if — if you’re in an airport and you see a package left with no one around; you know, that sort of thing. I also think we could do a much better job at educating young people about how to — how to prepare how to handle themselves so that they can protect themselves also if something untoward were to happen.

So do we have a plan in that — in that way, or have we actually worked that angle of this? Not yet. But I think you’re getting the gist of what I’m saying, which is to say we need a culture of collective responsibility, a culture where every individual understands his or her role; which goes along with my saying that the more we prepare, not only the stronger we are, but the more preparation you have, the less fear that you possess.

I am obviously very supportive of the Secretary’s emphasis on the role of the public in homeland security and and the need for government to see us all as assets rather than liabilities. Of course, the devil in citizen preparedness can be in the implementation details. But as I have discussed previously, the key to making progress is commitment and focus. I trust that Secretary Napolitano will be providing both, and this blog will continue to offer ideas on how to move forward on what she believes is very important.

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security · Preparedness Ideas

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