A homeland under threat: assessing what to do

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Contributor: Juliette Kayyem '95

Juliette Kayyem ’95, a lecturer in international security at Harvard Kennedy School, has served as a leader in homeland security efforts, including most recently as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. She previously served as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor.

This tribute is part of a series of reflections from HLS faculty, staff and alumni on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. View all tributes.

As someone who has spent my career in counterterrorism and homeland security, assessing the changes to America’s safety, foreign policy, legal framework, privacy rights and domestic preparedness would be an epic challenge. But one aspect has

Our security apparatus has managed to talk to the American public in a way that has made them either tune out or freak out, but has been less successful in providing the public with the tools to be better prepared and more resilient.

not changed. On the morning of 9/11, I was on a train to NYC with my 5-week-old daughter. I was on maternity leave, and taking the time to assess my career; I had just served on National Commission on Terrorism and was managing the homeland security program at Harvard, but felt that my work was irrelevant and maybe too much of a niche. As the second tower fell from an attack most Americans could barely comprehend, I began fielding phone calls from media looking for some guidance on what was unfolding. Meanwhile, the train kept heading into NYC; there were no protocals for a terrorist attack. A young, sobbing woman approached me and asked me what to do; she had heard me on the phone and was looking for guidance. Get off, I said to her, as much a command to her as to myself. Get off. Get off. And as more people sought some guidance, I stood on the train chair and told those around me what I knew professionally, and certain personally: that we should not be heading into a city under attack. Get off. And the train disembarked.

It isn’t a heroic story, but it is familiar for anyone in my field and one whose fundamental question I have encountered non-stop and continuously since 9/11: tell me what to do; tell me about my homeland. Certainly, over 15 years, the threats have changed — from Al Qaeda to ISIS — and have expanded — to Zika or hurricanes. And as we have gotten older, the concerns have changed from caring for young babies to being worried about kids who travel to Europe alone. Unfortunately, our security apparatus has managed to talk to the American public in a way that has made them either tune out or freak out, but has been less successful in providing the public with the tools to be better prepared and more resilient. Fifteen years from now, the threats will be different, but my hope is the next generation of security specialists will do better in equipping the public with the resources and education so they will be better at assessing what, in fact, they should do.