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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In Harvard Speech, Napolitano Says Citizens Deserve “Clear Appraisement” Of Terror Threats; Challenges Americans That “Every Single One Of Us Can Become Smarter, Can Become Better Informed, And Better Prepared”

April 16th, 2010 · 6 Comments

In a speech aimed at the public and delivered last night at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said U.S. citizens deserve a “clear appraisement” of the terror threats and challenged Americans that “every single one of us can become smarter, can become better informed, and better prepared.”

At the beginning of her remarks, Napolitano interestingly cited Secretary of State George Marshall’s famous address to Harvard graduates in 1947 in which he announced the Marshall Plan for post-war reconstruction:

“Marshall described the scale of devastation after WWII, and told the students,

‘the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation.’

Today, America’s challenges are quite different. And in our information age, so too are the ways the person in the street gets their information. But George Marshall’s central point still rings true. And, arguably, it’s more important than ever that our citizens have a clear understanding of today’s security challenges.

Tonight, I want to share that ‘clear appraisement of the situation’ because I believe the American people want, and deserve, candor about what we face. I will talk about the threats we’re seeing at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), what we’re doing to confront them, and what I think every American can do to help.”

She explained that DHS has organized itself to confront four categories of threats: foreign terrorism, “home-based” terrorism, cyber terrorism, and

“Finally, I would add a fourth kind of concern we’re trying to counteract—and that’s the threat of complacency and of unrealistic expectations. Since I became Secretary more than a year ago, I’ve emphasized that the American people need to be prepared, not scared.

But rejecting the politics of fear doesn’t mean the threats are any less real, or that we shouldn’t consider what they mean for our families and our communities. In a world of fast-changing threats, we simply must resist the urge to become complacent or cynical about what’s before us. We must not leave ourselves, our families, and our communities less than fully prepared.”

In order to better prepare the public, Napolitano said government has to better inform them about those threats. But acknowledged that there is still a ways to go.

“…to fight against complacency, and make our nation more ready and resilient, we’re working to engage and empower the public to take the most basic steps: to get an emergency kit, make an emergency plan, and be informed. Are we there yet? The short answer is no. We need all families, all communities, all of our businesses, to be talking about their plans, and thinking about how to get smarter and better equipped to deal with a range of potential emergencies. How do we get there? Well, the government certainly has a role, and part of that role is being straight about the nature of the threats we face…”

I would argue — and have on the blog, including this past week — that to “get there” when it comes to engaging and empowering the public the Administration needs to provide Americans with more specific information about those challenges. It is not enough to say Americans face nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical threats without specifically explaining what they would entail and how would the public be expected to deal with them. That is not an easy conversation, but it’s necessary.

Another important theme of the speech was tempering the expectations for the public about what can and cannot be done when it comes to a potential terrorist attack on U.S. soil, a break from the Bush Administration’s public approach:

In the past, we’ve heard some argue that to defeat terrorism, the government has to be right 100 percent of the time, while the terrorists only have to be right once. I reject that premise. We can’t put a dome over our country. We can’t guarantee there won’t be another attack. No one can.

But we are a strong, resilient country. And we must resolve that even a successful attack will not be a defeat for our way of life. We can target our resources against emerging threats and evolving risks. We can better empower the American public, and draw on what President Obama has called our greatest national security asset: our values.

We must then leverage the shared American values that have led us to victory before. Every single one of us can become smarter, can become better informed, and better prepared. But that becomes possible when the “man on the street” knows and understand the kinds of threats I’ve described tonight.

On a concrete level, Americans have to work to build preparedness—to ensure that our communities are prepared to address any danger that comes their way, from terrorist threats to natural disasters. On a more abstract level, Americans also must work to build resilience—the ability to get up and come back stronger if we get hit.”

This speech picked up from another major address on terrorism also aimed in large part at the public that Napolitano delivered last year at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Janet Napolitano At The Kennedy School Of Government (Photo: The Harvard Crimson)

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security

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