After bin Laden? Improved Vigilance

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

After bin Laden? Improved Vigilance

May 9th, 2011 2 min read

With the death of Osama bin Laden, America has much to celebrate. Just under 10 years ago, nearly 3,000 innocent people died because of this terrorist. One must go back 140 years to another September morning — the Battle of Antietam — to find a day when more people were killed on American soil.

Without question, bin Laden's death brings a sense of closure to many, especially those who lost family and friends on September 11, 2001. His death, however, does not mean America is free from the threat of terrorists. As Thomas Jefferson famously said: ''The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.''

In the 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida has moved from a command and control structure led by bin Laden to a more dispersed, franchise-like organization. Terrorist plots and activities are now done under the al-Qaida banner, with little apparent oversight by the ''old'' al-Qaida leadership.

Bin Laden's death certainly will diminish the global standing of al-Qaida and pose leadership challenges for the remaining core of al-Qaida followers. That said, his death also will inspire his followers and sympathizers to double their efforts against us.

Yemen continues to serve as a hotbed of al-Qaida activity. Similarly, as the Heritage Foundation research has shown, the pace of active terror plots located in the U.S. remains high. With the increase in homegrown radicalization activities in the United States, the thought that bin Laden's death signified the end of the terrorist campaign against us is misguided.

To prepare for the next terrorist attack, we must not just continue the work of the past 10 years, but do better. As Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic knows from his time serving on the State and Local Officials Senior Advisory Committee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, our cities still present many vulnerabilities and still remain largely unprepared to cope with an attack.

Too often, instead of a truly national effort where states and localities were treat ed as partners of the federal government, the effort has been a federal-centric one where Washington dictates to states and localities using mandates and grant requirements. The homeland security policies developed in Washington receive too little input from state and local experts. These policies fail to recognize the reality that a clear majority of resources (people, time, and money) used in our domestic defense are owned by states and localities.

America lacks a national police force, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation largely limits its work to investigating cases. This leaves primary responsibility for terrorist detection and interdiction in the hands of local law enforcement. The cop on the beat really is our front line defense against terrorists.

Should an attack occur, it will be local police, firefighters, EMS personnel, emergency managers, and volunteers who man the response in the first 48 hours or so. Minimizing the loss of life and property depends on them, not some federal agency.

Since the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, states and localities have received nearly $40 billion to build the capabilities needed to prevent, protect, respond to and recover from a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. Too much of this money has gone to places with little to no measurable risk. Even worse, there has been little meaningful accountability on how that money has been spent.

As a result, despite the leadership of people like Mayor Plusquellic, we as a nation approach the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with no idea of what capabilities have been built, where those capabilities exist and what capability gaps remain. Bin Laden's death must remind us to shake off the detritus built up over time and renew our efforts to prepare our states and cities.

We must not lull ourselves into believing that bin Laden was an anomaly. In terrorist hideouts across the globe, many men with similarly warped views are eager to become the next bin Laden. They know the path to that title lays in successfully attacking us domestically and causing substantial death and destruction.

Jefferson's warning about eternal vigilance applies as much today as it did before those brave Navy SEALs entered bin Laden's compound and obtained a slice of justice for us. As they say, our freedom has never been free.

Mayer is a visiting fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

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