Vigilance Is Our Civic Duty


Sep 11, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 11, 2002.

A year after Sept. 11, we should recognize that the government, alone, cannot always protect us from terrorists. Catching small, covert terror cells is not unlike catching spies -- both seek to hide in and use our open society and the resources of our nation against us, and succeed by evading the government agencies established to protect society. History teaches that some will evade government detection.

So if the government, unaided, can't always protect us, what's to be done? Who is to do it? The answer is that we must change the way we think about security. With proper training and education, citizens must help identify terrorist activity.

The 20th century's security paradigm was "national defense" -- the government could and would protect us. Personal responsibility did not go much beyond paying taxes. But there was a time when each person bore some degree of personal responsibility for the protection of the whole -- from wild animals, warring tribes or the "army" of some neighboring province. All members of the wagon train helped when attacked, and hoped that the cavalry would arrive.

Part of the national defense paradigm still holds. The old organs of government -- police, fire, EMS and the military -- are still the cavalry. They are very good at their job. Given information on terrorist plots and organizations, they will protect us. Law enforcement, intelligence agencies and the military have, in fact, been quite successful at identifying, capturing or killing terrorists in the past, and will undoubtedly continue to have success. But as Sept. 11 demonstrated, there is information they cannot develop without the eyes and ears of our communities and without information they cannot act. We must accept it as our civic duty to be involved in our own protection and help them gather this information.

To do this, we must learn to recognize the signs of terror -- and not confuse them with religion, ancestry or culture.

Today, these signs are not well understood. Government and our academic institutions must sharpen their understanding of how to identify terrorists in general (such as behavior patterns, suspicious materials, practices defined in terrorist training manuals) as well as suspected individuals and operations, produce material suitable for public education, and teach us through the media and our school systems. We must embrace law enforcement as our first point of contact and our cavalry in the war on terror, and work with them as we define processes for helping in the fight. And government must find a way to absorb and make sense of the information we provide.

These are tough tasks, but Americans can accomplish them. We can adopt vigilance as our civic duty. We can adopt a 21st-century "wagon train" paradigm for security.

Terrence Kelly is a senior researcher at the RAND Corp. in Pittsburgh, where he concentrates on homeland security and military policy research. He previously served as the senior national security officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as an active duty Army officer.

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