DHS Secretary Johnson went to the Woodrow Wilson Center last week to talk about how DHS is doing, what’s working and what needs to work better.
Something bothered me about the speech.
It had nothing to do with the recited lists of successes and challenges, promises or goals. A leader is expected to say these kinds of things periodically.
What troubled me was a blind surrender to an assumed deep reality about “the way things have to be.”
Here’s what I mean.
The Secretary began his speech with a story:
Good afternoon. I want to start with a family photograph.
Though you won’t believe this, this is me and my kid sister in 1966. I was 8 years old, standing next to my Dad’s 1966 Buick convertible. The most striking thing about the photograph is that as recently as 1966, a private, everyday family of tourists like ours could drive our car onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and park it, with no inspection or prior notice, just a few feet from the building.
This is the same spot, today.
The public parking lot is gone, replaced by a few black Suburbans, police vehicles, and heavily-armed members of the Capitol Police. Sadly, there are threats to our homeland security today that did not exist in 1966….
Fifty eight slides later, the Secretary ended his talk with words that seemed contrary to his opening image:
I will end with the very last two words I ended last year’s speech with. Last year, I said that, in the name of homeland security, we should not sacrifice our values as a Nation of people who cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity, and are not afraid. Fear is corrosive.
In the final analysis, courage and resolve in the face of challenge are the greatest strengths of any nation. Terrorism cannot advance if we refuse to be terrorized. Whether in response to a terrorist threat, a natural disaster, a deadly virus, or in the pursuit of a more perfect union, courage and resolve will always prevail.
Thank you for listening.
I’m not sure anyone is listening. I think we have sacrificed those values. Closing down parking lots does not illustrate courage and resolve.
I don’t know anyone who believes we can ever go back to the days when, as Johnson said, “a private, everyday family of tourists like ours could drive our car onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and park it, with no inspection or prior notice, just a few feet from the building.”
But why not? What stops us – not from going back to the past, but from going into a future where fear does not dominate the national psyche?
It’s not just about parking near the Capitol. But that’s a good symbol for what corrosive fear has done to privacy and freedom.
The Secretary says the people of our Nation “are not afraid.” He says “courage and resolve” are our greatest strengths. He says “terrorism cannot advance if we refuse to be terrorized.” He says “courage and resolve will always prevail.”
Those are excellent sentiments. What national behaviors support those ideals?
There was nothing in the Secretary’s speech about how to create a 21st Century version of his 1966 security reality, how to recreate a nation “of people who cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity, and are not afraid.”
I don’t think that’s even part our national strategic vision (if there is one), let alone a homeland security objective.
For a start, how about letting “everyday families of tourists” park near the Capitol again? As Justin Schumacher suggested in December, maybe that’s not as unreasonable as it sounds.
And if not that, then how about something else? How do we demonstrate, before the 21st century gets much older, the nation’s homeland security leaders and institutions and policies are not stuck on fear?
Fear is also corrosive to a nation.