This week marks the fifth anniversary of the historic creation of the Department of Homeland Security. This milestone is a fitting occasion to take inventory of its successes and challenges.
First, the bottom line: America is safer and more secure than it was five years ago as well as on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks. For a nation that in the 1990s took what Charles Krauthammer called a "holiday from history," those horrific attacks were a tragic wakeup call.
We responded by destroying al-Qaeda's Afghan headquarters, enhancing our intelligence assets across the globe, capturing and killing terrorists on nearly every continent, partnering with our allies on information sharing and other security-related efforts, and building a new federal department from the ground floor.
Since day-one of its existence, DHS has taken vital steps to secure our homeland. Together with our partners and allies, the department has dramatically increased technology, fencing and manpower at our borders; deployed fingerprint-based screening and radiation portal monitors at our ports of entry; pushed our security perimeter beyond our borders; developed comprehensive infrastructure security plans; built nearly two-dozen layers of security into our aviation system; improved the flow of intelligence across government agencies and the private sector; and upgraded our disaster preparedness and response capabilities.
Those actions - and others across our society - have made America a tougher target for terrorists and other dangerous people. They go a long way in explaining why there have been no more 9/11-style attacks on American soil. They tell a remarkable story of a nation that met unspeakable tragedy with a spirit of unity and purpose and a determination to defend itself against a ruthless, unrelenting foe.
Yet despite the images of 9/11 - when the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon burned, and a field in Shanksville, Pa., was found smoldering and silent - we see some quarters returning to a "September 10 mentality." There are some who oppose key 9/11 Commission recommendations and congressional mandates such as secure driver's licenses and travel documents, and some public intellectuals have joined like-minded press pundits in downplaying the threats we still confront.
But in the words of last July's National Intelligence Estimate, "We face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years." The principal threat comes from al-Qaeda, but globalization trends, technological advances, and Internet proliferation are empowering other dangerous groups. And in the last year, attempted attacks around the world remind us that militant extremists have not flagged in their intention to kill innocents.
How should we respond?
We must begin by charting a resolute course between hysteria and complacency. We are all in this together. We face serious challenges, yet we can each contribute to making America safer, more secure and better prepared. Through Citizen Corps and the READY program operated by DHS, communities and families can create preparedness plans for themselves and their loved ones. Businesses can take stronger steps to protect their infrastructure. And government can continue to enhance sensible security for our borders and national assets.
As current and former secretaries of Homeland Security, we are inspired by the men and women of the department - the unsung heroes who get up each morning thinking about how they can better protect us all. They have not lost their sense of mission. Neither should we.
Their department has been built on a solid foundation. It has the right mix of missions and capabilities that include not only our efforts against terrorism but other essential homeland security functions such as responding to and recovering from natural disasters of a national scope.
We must let these dedicated people continue to build on this foundation. There are technological breakthroughs over the horizon that will create unprecedented tools to help them perform their mission. And we must encourage our homeland guardians to keep strengthening relationships at every level of government, and especially with first responders, as well as with the private sector and with our security partners around the world.
Let us remind ourselves that we are ultimately locked in a battle of ideas, centered on one key question: Is freedom a dangerous luxury that can be denied at will - or is it the birthright of every person and the ultimate basis for security? Our enemies answer one way; our founding creed tells us otherwise.
Liberty remains the most effective weapon in our arsenal. By standing for liberty, by defending freedom, by sharing our prosperity throughout the world, we can inspire genuine hope in countless hearts and minds.
Seen in this light, our toughest challenges can be our greatest opportunities. On this anniversary, let's resolve not to shrink back from them, but to meet them head-on with courage, confidence and unity.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Michael Chertoff is secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Tom Ridge was the first secretary of the department.
This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors. (c) 2008, Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services