Getting Real About Threats
It's not that Randall Larsen thinks you shouldn't worry. He just wants you to worry about the right things. Larsen, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and the director of the Institute for Homeland Security in Alexandria, Va., makes an argument that most people don't want to hear: Another terrorist attack on American soil is inevitable. But instead of calling for higher walls around the borders and more screening at airports, Larsen's advice to lawmakers is just the opposite: Concentrate on preventing the worst-case scenarios—nuclear and biological attacks—and accept that no amount of security can make the country safe from every possible threat.
In his new book, Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America, Larsen says the war on terrorism cannot be won because the foe will perpetually regenerate. But it can be contained, he says, in the same way that the Soviet Union was contained. And in the meantime, he says individuals can do much more to protect themselves. He spoke with U.S. News about the challenges of getting that message across.
You say terrorism can't be defeated. Why?
Politicians don't like to have to say that in public, but it's a fact because of the modern technology and the communication, recruitment, and fundraising systems that terrorists have available. Fifty years ago, Osama bin Laden would just have been an angry guy in the desert with a rifle. That's what's changed: You don't have to be a nation-state to take on a nation-state.
So what can we do about it?
Saying we can prevent terrorism is like saying let's prevent fatalities in automobile accidents. We can't do that, but we can put air bags and seat belts in cars and create programs about preventing drunk driving. What we must contain is the sort of terrorism that can forever change the nation—the nuclear and biological threat. We should be locating, locking down, and eliminating nuclear material around the world that terrorists could steal or buy.
But if invoking terrorism remains an effective political tactic, can we expect politicians to say that the war can't be won?
I worry about people using it as a fear tactic. I think Americans worry too much about homeland security, or at least they worry about the wrong things. There are things they can do to make their family more secure or their local communities or businesses more secure. The most important one is keeping supplies of prescription drugs and copies of medical records—there were people who showed up at the Superdome after Katrina and said, "I take 12 drugs—a green pill, a little yellow pill...." But they didn't know what they were called. Taking Red Cross training for CPR is another important one.
How can the government craft a better long-term strategy?
At the turn of the century, there was no academic discipline called "international relations." If you look at the Cold War, most of the strategic thinking began in the best universities. Unfortunately, the academic community at our best universities has not stepped forward to engage in this new field of homeland security. We need serious academic pursuit of this new field.