About the Author
In government, academia, business, and media, Juliette Kayyem is one of the nation’s leading experts in homeland security. A former member of the National Commission on Terrorism, and the state of Massachusetts’ first homeland security advisor, Kayyem served as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security where she handled crises from the H1N1 pandemic to the BP Oil Spill. Presently a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she also is the founder of Kayyem Solutions, LLC, one of the nation’s only female-owned security advising companies. Kayyem is a security analyst for CNN, a weekly show contributor on WGBH, Boston’s NPR station, and the host of the podcast Security Mom, also produced by WGBH. In 2013, she was the Pulitzer Prize finalist for her columns in The Boston Globe. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Kayyem lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children. Security Mom is her first book.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Security Mom THE MAKING OF A TERRORISM EXPERT
I AM A “SECURITY MOM.”
The term first went mainstream in the 2004 presidential election, to describe a voting bloc of women who were white, suburban, and with children, and who were really, really worried about terrorism. They didn’t do much about it but worry a lot. Did I mention that they worried? Occasionally, when the world was less than stable, they might actually freak out: I have this image of the smart and funny main character in I Love Lucy turning into a hapless scaredy-cat when she sees a mouse, and then screaming to her manly husband—“Ricky!”—for protection. These college-educated women—whether single, married, divorced, or widowed—just threw up their hands and cowered like the very children they were so worried about protecting. And despite the fact that this population is usually defined by its natural inclination toward progressive social causes, when it came to the war in Iraq and concern over the war on terror, they largely voted Republican.
It isn’t clear whether security moms were actually a deciding factor in the 2004 George W. Bush versus John Kerry presidential election. No matter. The security mom became a cultural and marketing phenomenon. And she was utterly defenseless in an age of terror.
Screw that. We need a new definition.
“Security mom” can and should mean a woman who plans and prepares as she raises her children in a world where anything can happen. Exceptionally rational, a security mom views the yellow sticky note as god’s greatest invention since the slow cooker. Whether she works or not, she isn’t defenseless, waiting for someone else to protect her. There are security dads too, trust me, and security singles and security partners and security grandparents. The list goes on. They are all out there. They just don’t know it.
I am not the same person I was in 2001, when terror first struck our homeland so vividly, when those of us already a part of the “terrorism expert” class suddenly became relevant. My thinking about security has changed significantly since then; I have come to realize that a nation too focused on preventing bad things from happening is on a fool’s errand. Instead, we should simply, but resourcefully, reclaim our resiliency. I call this “grip”—it’s a more active, more in-your-face, more powerful form of resiliency. We prepare, respond, adapt, and then brace for the next thing. We practice these habits of grip. We know that nothing goes according to plan. Sh-t happens: that is the profound knowledge that defines a security mom.
A nation that empowers its citizens with this knowledge becomes a safer nation as a whole. Imagine a nation built around the notion that “sh-t happens,” a nation that did not view the often violent jolts to our systems—hurricanes, and oil spills, and terrorists, and viruses, and earthquakes—as abnormal, but as always the possible consequences of living in a globally interconnected society. Imagine if we understood that invulnerability is impossible and instead focused on how to reduce risk and respond to crises when they inevitably happen, with vigor. Imagine if every citizen then felt empowered to implement strategies of preparedness, knowing, as we surely do, that something, anything could happen.
I am so often asked: “Are we safe?” This question has plagued me for my entire career. It has been asked by family and friends, students and scholars, news anchors and government officials.
The most accurate answer is, “Of course not; what kind of question is that?” But I get why it’s asked. Us “real” experts—and you can put whatever descriptor you want in front, whether it be “homeland security,” “national security,” “terrorism,” “aviation,” “hurricane,” “public health,” “military,” “crisis”—have too often sold a vision of society that has never existed. Sure, we can be safer, but we can never be safe.
We are a homeland like no other—a federal structure with fifty governors, all kings and queens unto themselves; hundreds of cities with transit systems that only function when on time; frantic commercial activity crisscrossing borders on roadways, railways, and airways; the expectation of every working mother that when she orders yet another iPhone 6 charger on Amazon.com, it will arrive the next day; and, oh yes, the desire that our nation not just focus on security but also attend to schools, health care, transportation, civil rights and civil liberties, and every other large and small concern voiced by its citizens. America is built to be unsafe, and thank goodness for that.
Over the years, as terrorist attacks and related incidents grew in frequency—maybe because we called it a “war”—something happened to make the public feel powerless and disinvested in its own safety. The experts, like me, are partially to blame. People in my field uphold a culture of paternalism that has done much to protect the public, but much more to ignore it.
We—meaning the band of homeland security experts that I had been a part of—somehow convinced the public that the responsibility for their security, and the security of this inherently unsafe nation, could be fully delegated. Too many on both sides—the public and the experts—believed it. That belief came with a rising cost: We completely neglected to educate Americans about homeland security. We dismissed Americans’ capacity to learn, to engage, to act. As a consequence, the substantive benefits of resiliency were not explained; the habits of grip were not nurtured.
The safety of our nation is dependent on skills that we already practice to keep ourselves and our children safer at home, in our communities. And those of us who work in homeland security failed to disclose this one basic fact: You are a security expert, too. You are familiar with these skills. You know the refrains of every parent: Look both ways, wear your helmet, call when you get there. But rather than building on the practices of security cultivated in nearly every household, homeland security was treated as if it had less and less to do with what happened in our homes. The result was to make us more—not less—vulnerable.
So much ink has been spilled over how we can prevent harm from coming our way. So little has been disclosed about what happens when that harm comes to pass. I can debate until I’m bored with myself about the need for climate mitigation measures, stronger gun control, or a more vigorous public health system. Yes, we live in an age of exceptional danger, but it takes a certain amount of amnesia to believe we are unique in this regard. The truth is we have always been vulnerable. In this sense, homeland security is also much like home security—both are built on the mistakes of the past and forward lessons learned for the future. My own mother likes to remind me, after I leave her with “recommendations” for how to look after my kids when she offers to babysit, that she has some experience in this field. Our mothers learned from theirs, as we surely learn from ours, and as our children will surely learn from us. No generation is particularly exceptional in figuring this out; all we can do is try to avoid making the same mistakes twice.
The warning that keeps sounding, year after year, generation after generation, is this: No government ought to guarantee perfect security, because no government can provide it. There has never been a time of perfect peace. Indeed, there is only one promise that government should make: that it will invest in creating a more resilient nation. And that promise begins with acknowledging that citizens must be a part of this plan. For any society to be more resilient, the public must be briefed. They must assume a certain amount of responsibility for their safety and adopt the habits of grip. We can cross our fingers and hope for the best, but I don’t believe in luck—not, at least, as a tactic for safety in the homeland or in my home.
But I wasn’t so sure how to relate these messages. How could I explain that we all had the capacity to build more resilient communities, one home at a time, using the same skills we have mastered at home: grip, flexibility, planning, backup plans? Then, in 2011, my cousin Karen wrote me an e-mail. The subject line read: “Al Qaeda.”
Karen is a little older than me, with daughters who are already out of college. She is a dentist, and she has, over the years, scolded me for barely flossing. Thankfully, she also gives me great advice for how to address my deteriorating gum situation (see above re: flossing). I try to return the favor when I can.
“Hi Juliette,” she began. She continued:
Can you help? Debbie is in Pennsylvania and she wants to go to NYC for the weekend. But I just saw that they think there could be a ten-year anniversary attack there, so I don’t want her to go. She says I am crazy. I said I would contact you. Would you send your kids? By the way, how are your gums? Are you flossing? Don’t forget to sleep with your night guard. And let me know about the terrorists.
Dental care and bin Laden: never before have the two been so closely aligned. But there was something illuminating in Karen’s questions. She wanted to assume a certain amount of responsibility for her daughter’s safety, but she didn’t know where to begin. Her e-mail clarified what I had always suspected—there is something missing from our nation’s security efforts.
Karen just wanted the lowdown: Tell me about these scary things, whether they are terrorists, natural disasters, or viruses. Tell me how it works and what I should do to protect my loved ones. Tell me what you would do if it was your child who wanted to travel this weekend. Tell me just like I would tell you about your gums.
Simply: Bring it home.
I have served at the highest levels of state and federal government in homeland and national security—for one governor, Deval Patrick, and two presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I have also raised three children. Their birth years coincide with traumatic events in American history: Cecilia was born in 2001, just a few weeks after we lost three thousand citizens when two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York, another plane destroyed parts of the Pentagon, and another was lost in the fields of Pennsylvania. Leo arrived in 2003, as US troops, deployed by an administration looking for revenge above anything else, invaded Iraq. Jeremiah came into this world in 2005, soon after Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest hurricane in America’s history, devastated the Gulf Coast. Celebration and destruction link my own home with my homeland.
As the governor’s homeland security advisor, I oversaw my state’s National Guard and, on his behalf, authorized the deployment of troops abroad; I am also a master at the game Battleship, mercilessly mobilizing fleets and defeating my kids. As President Obama’s assistant secretary for homeland security, I have done my time in the Situation Room; I have also spent endless hours in local emergency rooms, once after Leo used Jeremiah’s head as a football. I have been cleansed in a post–radiation exposure shower after an unfortunate (though thankfully a false-positive test result) experience in a nuclear facility—but I found getting lice out of all my children’s hair after an unfortunate sleepover much more debilitating.
I have spent my career protecting my home and homeland, and I want to share what I have learned. My hope is that through these stories, my experiences in the strange and secretive world of homeland security—more maligned than understood—will become accessible to the American public. It is time we made this whole scary, confusing, seemingly idiotic, totally unapproachable apparatus personal. I have simply come to believe that the challenges, conflicts, and choices inherent in protecting the homeland are really not that different from those we encounter every day. The touchstones of protecting both—grip, preparedness, spare capacity, flexibility, communication, learning from the past—are essentially the same.
And with that, I present myself as Exhibit A.
I must first concede that I am an unlikely terrorism expert. I am still consistently surprised that my professional career focuses on violent events, from the threat of terrorism to other, wide-ranging threats including climate change and mass shootings.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, where I spent afternoons and weekends at the beach, playing volleyball and working on my tan. I grew up at a time when skin cancer seemed a remote-enough possibility that my girlfriends and I would slather ourselves in baby oil instead of sunscreen. I dreamed of being a professional volleyball player, a zoologist, a Russian scholar (I dropped that after a short-lived and academically disastrous foray into the language), and then a lawyer. At my all-girls high school, I had teachers with first names like “King” and last names like “Wildflower.” It was California in the 1980s.
I am the daughter of an immigrant family—my mother was born in Lebanon, and my dad’s family also came from there, though they would actually meet in a carpool to UCLA, which they both attended as students. My parents prioritized academics, and were strict enough to make me spend one weekend night home with them throughout my high school career. I was a dedicated student, got good grades, played varsity sports, and even spent a summer at debate camp, for which my cooler older sister, Marisa, still teases me. I was eventually accepted at Harvard College, and I moved to Cambridge. Though I have drifted back and forth to DC during Democratic administrations, I have remained in Massachusetts ever since.
Massachusetts is where I met my husband, David, when I was nineteen. I am mortified to admit it was at the Harvard-Yale football game—at the tailgate, no less. It all sounds so predictable, but at that age, we had our ups and downs, breakups and makeups, and ultimately, after attending Harvard Law School together, we moved down to DC to work in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department. We rented an apartment, bought IKEA furniture, got married.
I was twenty-six when I made my initial foray into government. My first legal job had nothing to do with security in the traditional sense. In 1995, I began as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick was my boss; Janet Reno was attorney general. I flew around the country on behalf of the federal government litigating for the protection of citizens’ rights, mostly in schools. While I worked on long-standing desegregation cases—from St. Louis to Mississippi—I also contributed to more novel litigation, including opening up the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute to female cadets. I was allowed to initiate the federal government’s first peer-on-peer violence (what we now call “bullying”) case against a California school district that turned a blind eye toward its football team’s behavior. Previously, civil rights cases had only been brought against school districts that directly violated students’ rights. In this case, I determined that a federal civil rights action could be initiated against a school district that failed to protect students from other students. The district eventually settled, and instituted tougher rules to protect female students from the physical and verbal harassment of its football team.
I loved my job. I loved my husband. Essentially, I loved our life. I thought my future would unfold rather predictably: I would spend my career championing civil rights and working for the pro...
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