Now. the questions | Juliette Kayyem

Are we safer now?

By Juliette Kayyem
May 3, 2011

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THE SECURITY apparatus that has been built since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is so unextraordinary — take off the shoes at the airport, have the bag checked at Fenway — that the news of Osama bin Laden’s death was disruptive, in a remarkably fulfilling way, because we had forgotten that we wanted it so badly.

Terrorism experts around the world concur that bin Laden’s death may have little impact on the threat of Al Qaeda, particularly for his self-sufficient adherents in Yemen, who have been the greatest threat to US interests in recent years. It is also likely that adherents will plan smaller attacks on softer targets — such as Times Square — in order to prove Al Qaeda’s relevance at a time when its leader is dead and when events during the Arab Spring seem to have passed it by.

President Obama should be applauded for his decisions in the bin Laden killing. But his decision to focus secret efforts on killing the Al Qaeda leader is just one aspect of the administration’s counter-terrorism strategy. (For the record, I recently left the administration.) Another priority — the more public one — has been to treat terrorism and the numerous terrorist attempts in the United States in a much calmer, “bad stuff happens and we will deal’’ manner. Secretly, kill. Publicly, chill.

The administration’s less-panicky public posture toward terrorism is in stark contrast to years of excited activity, when terror alerts were issued, color codes were raised and the public dialogue about terrorism so often seemed a remake of “you are against us or with us.’’ Our victim status — and the wars that would be initiated in its name — created a culture of outrage, where moderation was viewed with disdain.

The administration inherited this legacy, and while never announcing the “chill’’ agenda, we have been living under it for some time. The administration has sought to engage, and not simply enrage, local and state officials in strategic information-sharing initiatives. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s “If You See Something, Say Something’’ national campaign — seen on the MBTA — reminds passengers to be aware without losing their heads; it’s effective because it’s sort of hokey. The color-code system was scrapped for a more nuanced alert system. Notably, Napolitano did not issue a new alert warning this week because, while everyone knows that Osama’s death may be dangerous in the short term, there is no “specific or credible’’ information to warrant freaking everyone out.

Many supporters of the administration have been disappointed by the fact that counterterrorism policies and procedures — including detention, airport security, and the use of unmanned drones — have continued, if not increased, since Obama took office. If security can be measured in tone, however, they missed the story. The news about bin Laden was jarring because our government had allowed us to move on (despite repeated terrorist attempts), even while it focused on capturing or killing the Al Qaeda mastermind.

Obama’s counterterrorism strategy will now be defined by the death of bin Laden. But there is an essential parallel narrative, one that is more in line with the terrorist threat in the years to come. Mission not accomplished. Bad people will use asymmetrical means to kill civilians, in places as far-ranging as Germany, Morocco, or the United States.

That’s the nature of the world we live in. Recalibrating our national mood about all things terror — from outrage and panic to resolute calmness — is a welcome victory as well.

Juliette Kayyem is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.