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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In Wake Of Terror Arrests, Identifying And Addressing Public ‘Complacency’ And ‘Vigilance’

September 29th, 2009 · 4 Comments

With news of several alleged terror plots across the U.S. just weeks after the nation marked the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there have been renewed calls from current and former top officials warning Americans to avoid “complacency” and to continue to be “vigilant” about the potential terrorist threat. From the public’s perspective, that raises questions not only of what they should be doing differently but also of exactly what “complacency” and “vigilant” specifically mean when it comes to them.

One answer was offered by DHS Secretary Napolitano in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this month. When asked about what keeps her up at night, she said, “Complacency…The fact that it has been eight years since 9/11, and people just assume the government is going to take care of that. . . . Safety, security is a shared responsibility. It doesn’t take much for everybody just to take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, what would I need to do to be prepared?’

To date, the most tangible way the public has been told to stay “vigilant” has been to keep an eye out for suspicious activity by such awareness programs as “See Something, Say Something”. Most officials I have spoken to have told me they feel these types of campaigns have been useful (though there has not been much feedback to the public on exactly how). But do the concerns expressed by officials about “vigilance” and “complacency” mean that law enforcement want more and better information from the general public? If so, that needs to be explained more explicitly.

Secretary Napolitano has called for Americans to be in a “state of readiness,” and she has pledged to treat the public as “an asset” in the nation’s homeland security. (She will be elaborating on these themes in a speech on Wednesday at the American Red Cross in Washington that will emphasize, according to a DHS press announcement, “the nation’s shared responsibility for preparedness” and “will focus on the important role that citizens must play in building a national culture of readiness and resilience.” It will be streamed live at

As part of that shared responsibility, Napolitano has said, correctly, that the public should be viewed as part of the nation’s homeland security team. To continue the metaphor, if the public is to perform best as players on that team, they need more coaching as well as more context about the ‘game plan’ and the ’scouting report’.

Clearly, there is a limit to what can be disclosed without comprising intelligence sources and methods, but many in law enforcement believe that more can and should be told to the public. A goal of that education process should be highlighting how citizen involvement actually helps and more precisely what citizens should (and should not) be doing.

That was actually the finding of a recent FEMA/Citizen Corps public survey which which noted : “Individuals believed they had a personal responsibility to report suspicious behavior, but greater collaboration between citizens and law enforcement is needed.”

Of course, the idea of expanding public involvement in homeland security can bump up against some sensitive areas. And, as DHS Secretary Napolitano has said on a number of occasions she does not want this to instill fear among Americans nor raise civil liberties concerns. It is indeed a careful balance.

Another aspect of addressing public “complacency” was raised by Former DHS Secretary Chertoff, in an interview last month. He expressed his concern that Americans not be “complacent” in their role as voters/citizens and urged them to continue to support government investments in preventing and responding to terror threats, particularly in the biological and nuclear area.

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