OPINION: Community Resilience: a Solution to the Homeland Security Paradox

By: Benjamin Joelson, Senior Associate

Terrorism in 2016 does not pose an existential threat to the United States.  This is not to say that terrorism is not a significant security challenge, or a priority for the government, but the fact remains that Americans are far more likely to die in a car accident or from heart disease than in a terrorist attack.

In fact, one has a greater chance of being crushed to death by falling furniture than dying in a terrorist-related attack.  In spite of this relatively low probability, everyday Americans experience fear and anxiety in disproportionately high ways. In fact, roughly 42% of Americans feel they are less safe than they were just prior to the 9/11 attacks.  Another, more recent poll, shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans experience terrorism-related anxiety when riding on public transportation or congregating in public areas.  How is there such a large gap between probability and anxiety? The answer may be attributed to a relatively low level of resilience in communities, which has broad implications when it comes to incident response, terrorism, and even the delicate balance between liberty and security in America. 

In 1759, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” In his first inaugural address, President Obama declared, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Both men were describing the paradoxical nature of liberty and security within the context of the American Republic. Simply put, one could have near perfect liberty if willing to forgo security, or near perfect security (i.e. a police state) if willing to forgo liberty.

Such tradeoffs between liberty and security garnered national attention following the 9/11 attacks. The issue was so prevalent that it would be appropriate to refer to the inverse relationship between liberty and security as the “Homeland Security Paradox.” Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum use this paradox to rationalize or deconstruct arguments, but few offer solutions that help ease the tension between these competing, but equally important ideals.

Relief from the tension between liberty and security may be found in the form of community resilience, the measure of how well a community prepares for, responds to, and recovers from a disaster. Resilient communities help resolve the paradox between liberty and security by:

1.     Empowering citizens, which improves incident response and mitigates the effects of local or regional disasters; and

2.     Defeating the psychological goals of America’s adversaries who seek to threaten ordinary, daily life.


These outcomes are well documented across the homeland security enterprise.  During a major disaster, natural or manmade, first responders simply do not have enough resources or time to care for every citizen. Resilient communities, comprised of well-trained, equipped, and prepared individuals, reduce the burden on first responders and allow aid to reach those most in need. A foundational aspect of improving community resilience remains education, specifically around the threats facing communities and steps that citizens can take to mitigate associated consequences. A greater understanding of the threat environment leads to better cooperation between citizens and first responders. Education also undercuts sensationalism around terrorism and helps foster a clear-eyed focus on the threats facing today’s communities.

Terrorist groups and sympathizers aim to intimidate communities, paralyze them with fear, and prevent citizens from living full and happy lives. This goal is predicated on the notion that Americans will respond disproportionately to shocking or terrifying events. In a 2007 speech at Westminster College, then- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff noted that terrorists “seek to destroy human liberty by intimidating free people everywhere into submission.” Americans living in fear of a low probability threat have granted terrorists a disproportionate return on their investments.  The fact remains that nothing defeats the psychological goals of terrorists better than a resilient, well prepared community standing together after an attack, refusing to be intimidated, and recovering quickly.  However, beyond improving response efforts and discouraging attacks, resilience also has a direct effect on liberty.

The notion that resilient communities accept certain infringements on liberty in order to preserve security is largely accepted, as evidenced by any TSA line in any airport across the country. However, the idea that resilient communities enjoy more liberty, is a bit more nuanced.  On the one hand, resilient communities that are well-educated about the threat of terrorism hold their elected and appointed officials more accountable when it comes to making resource decisions about which security measures to employ. A resilient citizen is far more likely to demand that measures be tailored and tied to a specific threat.  In this sense, liberty is preserved, if not augmented, because security measures are kept in check.  Americans also experience reduced anxiety thanks to a broader understanding of the threat, especially as it relates to probability. Although less quantifiable, resilient Americans are motivated to live out their daily lives and enjoy the freedoms and liberty that terrorists hope to restrict.

The state of Israel is an example of a resilient population. Israel has endured five conventional wars, Iraqi scud missile attacks, and hundreds of terrorist attacks. These persistent, existential threats have helped to forge one of the most resilient populations on earth. Collectively, Israeli citizens refuse to be intimidated by terrorist tactics—deliberately returning to the very scene of an attack the day after in order to disrupt terrorist goals. Israel cultivates this resilience by organizing their citizens into a Homefront Command, and providing training, gasmasks, and shelter-in-place locations for 100% of the population. Israel also requires two years of mandatory civil service from their citizens. Some aspects of Israel’s model would certainly not be appropriate in our constitutional republic, including profiling and a blurring of military and law enforcement operations. However, Israeli-brand resilience coupled with American liberty would be a potent combination worth pursuing, a point recognized by the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Task Force on Community Resilience.

Cultivating community resilience is a multi-stakeholder endeavor that involves preparing and empowering businesses, households, and individuals to work in concert with local, state, and federal first responders. In particular, American businesses have started taking steps to improve resilience in the workplace, increasingly offering training to employees, improving business continuity plans, and even partnering with the federal government to exercise and prepare for natural, man-made, and cyber threats. Improving resilience, both at home and at work, will help individuals better understand the nature of risks facing the country. Resilient individuals also more freely accept certain infringements on liberty in order to preserve their security. These targeted security measures should be focused and designed to counter specific, credible threats which have a higher estimated probability of occurrence. Most importantly, resilient individuals and communities are more willing to accept limited security measures in order to preserve uniquely American liberty. The end result is a natural easing of the inherent tension between liberty and security as American citizens continue to transform from reactive victims into proactive survivors.